Misfortune is to Middlesex as Carter Beats the Devil is to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That was the Readerville adage last year, when Wesley Stace's debut novel was making the rounds. Which is to say: both novels deal with very similar subject matter (magicians and escapist acts in the case of Chabon and Gold's novels, male children raised as women in the case of Eugenides' and Stace's), but whereas the former novel is frothy and adventurous, the latter is meaty, thoughtful, and psychologically astute. In other words, Chabon and Eugenides' novels are steak dinners, and Gold's is a nice sandwich. Which is perfectly alright--an eclectic palette should have room for both--but sadly enough Misfortune doesn't even live up to these reduced expectations. If we were to continue the food analogy, Misfortune would be a stale packet of crisps. With no dip.
Misfortune takes place in early 19th century England, and opens with the discovery, by Lord Geoffrey Loveall, of an abandoned infant, left to die on a London garbage heap. Geoffrey takes the baby home, to the palatial Love Hall, and presents it to his imperious, domineering mother as his daughter and heir. Haunted since childhood by the early death of his younger sister, Geoffrey is only too pleased to see in this foundling child the image of his beloved Dolores brought back to life. The only problem is, of course, that the baby is a boy, a fact to which Geoffrey reacts with tantrums and nervous excitement. Eager to preserve the young lord's health and sanity, the staff at Love Hall humor his delusion, and agree to raise the child as a girl. Instrumental in this charade is Anonyma Wood, Love Hall's librarian, who agrees to marry Geoffrey in order to create a facade of legitimacy for the baby, named Rose. Anonyma's motives for ignoring the child's true sex are largely experimental--her head full of neo-Platonic theories about the unity of the sexes, Anonyma believes that combining male sexuality with female socialization will lead to the creation of the perfect human being, combining within itself the best qualities of both genders.
One would expect even the least thoughtful author to realize the wealth of potential inherent in these two characters--loving parents, carefully and deliberately skewing and tormenting a child they both claim to wish the best for. One driven by madness, the other by an unwillingness to see how poorly her philosophical theses suit the realities of flesh and blood. Stace, however, is invested in a stark division of his principal characters into good and evil, with the Love Hall family falling squarely in the former category. Geoffrey is treated with pity; Anonyma, whose kindness and good intentions had the potential to make her into the most fascinating kind of monster, is for the most part lauded for her wit, beauty, courage, and superior research skills. This is only one of the many ways in which Misfortune falls flat. Stace seems almost eager to avoid any device--exciting plot twists, believable character arcs, compelling descriptions of setting or era--that might make the novel even a little bit interesting. Misfortune is apparently meant to stand or fall with its sensational premise--a boy raised as a girl.
Misfortune's plot, once the pieces are set in place (this takes an unconscionably long time, and involves several lengthy and soporific expositive chapters), can be roughly divided into two parts. In the first, Rose grows up in bucolic splendor, encountering nothing but love, affection and good will from her family and their faithful retainers. I've said this before and I'll say it again now: authors, if your novel's plot is primarily concerned with events that take place during the protagonist's adulthood, do not, for the love of all that is good and pure, delay that plot by prefacing it with hundreds of pages full of slow, tedious, unremarkable descriptions of the protagonist's childhood. In spite of the secret that underlies it, Rose's childhood is perfectly mundane. She spends most of her time playing with Stephen and Sarah Hamilton, the children of her father's steward. Stephen is Rose's protector; Sarah her wise older sister, for whom Rose harbors some decidedly un-sisterly feelings (for about five seconds, it seems possible that Stace has decided to subvert our assumptions of both siblings' sexual orientation--otherwise known as the fun Twelfth Night reading--but they soon assert their heterosexuality). This idyllic existence is brought to a close when Rose discovers the truth of her gender (300 interminable pages into the novel), a revelation that roughly coincides with her father's death. The family's evil, grasping relatives descend on Love Hall and use Rose's confused gender identity and the fact of her illegitimacy to force her and her mother into a genteel exile. Forced to dress as a man, miserable in her own skin, quietly resentful of the thoughtless experiment that made her what she is, Rose runs away from home.
Which would, presumably, kick-start an adventure, right? Wrong. The novel quickly glosses over anything exciting that might have happened to Rose during her travels, and rejoins her several months later, on her way to a melodramatic and particularly ill-planned rendezvous with death--she plans to kill herself at the spring of Salmacis, where the mythical story of Hermaphroditus was supposed to have taken place (there are a few clunky references to this myth, and several others, over the course of the novel. They unfortunately do nothing more than recall Jeffrey Eugenides' delicate layering of myths both ancient and modern in Middlesex, and are best ignored). Rescued by her loving family, Rose returns to London, chooses to live as a woman, and her fortune is soon made with the help of a plot contrivance. The end. The biggest problem here is, of course, that whatever her gender, Rose is a complete ninny. Like the novel itself, her only distinguishing characteristic is her confused gender identity--she has no skills, no abilities, no interesting personality traits. Her one decisive action over the course of the entire novel is to try to kill herself--which she botches ('I'm going to go to Salmacis to lay myself down and die'--who thinks like this? For God's sake, bring a rope with you, fill your pockets with rocks or something). Everything that happens to Rose over the course of the novel, whether for good or for evil, happens because someone else does it. Her enemies plot against her; her family and friends work tirelessly to help her; Rose sits back, enjoys the show, and fantasizes about Sarah. Why we should care about this self-involved, lazy drip is completely beyond me.
Stace made a deliberate choice in Misfortune to set the novel in the 19th century but not to write it as a 19th century pastiche. His reasons for the former are obvious--Stace needed an era in which the definition of gender was almost completely divorced from physical sex. As a child, Rose defines herself as a girl because she, like Sarah, wears dresses, whereas Stephen is trousered. None of the children seem to have any comprehension of what the difference between the sexes actually is--they mistake the accouterments of gender with the fact of gender, which, at least in theory, is Stace's topic. The latter choice, to write a period novel in a modern voice, might have been a very interesting one, along the lines of the BBC's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, which was shot using the kind of visual tricks--quick pans, partially-obscured or out-of-focus shots--that we'd expect from shows like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica. If, that is, Stace had actually followed through on it. Misfortune's narrative voice isn't the voice of an author who has deliberately eschewed period trappings. It is the voice of an author who can't be bothered to get any but the most obvious details of his setting right. Stace makes a few occasional and half-hearted attempts at replicating 19th century speech patterns or narratives, but they only serve to highlight the insufficiencies of his prose--it would have been better to leave them out entirely. They also work against his period-inspired plot. The novel's resolution is a plot twist so contrived (and so obvious) that even Dickens or Collins would have looked askance at it. Related in a period voice, however, Stace might have gotten away with it. In Misfortune's more modern ambience, the ending destroys what little indulgence the novel might still have retained.
And the sad truth is that Stace doesn't even make very good use of his period setting, and of the one advantage it offers him--the separation of gender and sexuality. None of the characters' reactions to Rose's confused sexuality have even the vaguest correlation to the very rigid codes that that era enforced on gendered behavior. When Rose's relatives mistreat her, they do it out of greed, not because she offends their deeply ingrained notions of propriety. Her family unquestioningly accepts her choice to dress as a woman (with a tasteful mustache), and doesn't even react when she has sex with two different women--good, middle-class girls--who are not her wife. After her return to England, Rose defines herself as a woman, but at no point does she give us any insight into what, beyond her choice of clothing, that definition means. At one point, Rose bristles at being mistaken for a cross-dresser, but Stace never enlightens us as to the difference. Worst of all, Stace steadfastly ignores the palpable difference in way that the 19th century treated, and thought about, men and women. There is no era in history in which being a man has not been preferable to being a woman. As a man, Rose could own property in her own right, she could vote, have a profession, travel unchaperoned, engage in any number of semi-legal activities which for a woman would be reputation-killers but for a man would be thought of as nothing but high spirits. As a man, 19th century society, which truly believed that women were weak and intellectually inferior, would accord Rose respect and grant her power. Rose never stops to consider any of these advantages when choosing her gender--Stace doesn't seem to think that they are worth considering, or even bringing up. He doesn't, in short, seem to have anything to say on the subject of what it is that makes us male or female, and how we define and distinguish the two.
There are novels that I finish in a white-hot rage, motivated solely by my desire to tear them apart in a review. Misfortune isn't one of them--I doubt it could ever elicit so violent an emotion from its readers. It isn't exactly a bad novel but more a bland one, and not so much underperforming as un-performing. It doesn't seem to do much of anything--tell an interesting story, describe complicated characters, comment intelligently on a topical issue. In the end, it is a completely empty novel--520 pages of nothing at all.