PSA: If the first chapter of your book includes a moment where your heroine complains about the burden of being so damned attractive that it makes it hard for people to take her seriously, I am not going to like your main character. The same goes if you have your character spend a significant amount of time disparaging his or her “plain” looks, despite becoming the object of several people’s attention as the plot progresses, by the way. It’s just not a narrative perspective that I enjoy, one that will almost always cause me to roll my eyes and curl my lip in a distasteful sneer. And Elizabeth Peters’ Street of the Five Moons hit me with it on page two, letting me know I was not in for a pleasant ride. Of course, maybe that tinged the rest of my experience with my bias, but I feel justified, considering the bemoaning main character in question, art historian Vicky Bliss, spends a good portion of the book concerned with appearance and looks, often as critical of other women as she is of herself, despite the constant claims that she possesses a feminist mind.
(Yeah. Don’t have your character claim to be as feminist as the next progressive mind, then turn around and have her rail on another woman’s looks and morals for a full page).
“Let me make it perfectly clear that I am not kidding when I refer to my figure as unfortunate. I’m too tall, almost six feet; I inherited a healthy, rounded body, from my Scandinavian ancestors, along with dark-blue eyes and lots of blond hair; I don’t gain weight, so the said body is slender in what are supposed to be the right place. As far as I’m concerned, they are the wrong places.”
Oh, yes. Oh, dear me, that does sound terrible, doesn’t it? But, please, do go on, Miss Bliss…
“All you Ugly Ducklings out there, take heart; you are better off than you realize. When people love you, they love the important things about you, the things that endure after wrinkles and middle-ages spread have set in-your brains and your personality and your sense of humor. When people look at me, all they see is a blown up centerfold. Nobody takes me seriously. When I was younger, I wanted to be little and cuddly and cute. Now I’d settle for being flat-chested and myopic. It would save a lot of wear and tear on my nerves.”
How does she survive? How does she manage? Oh, what? There’s more?
“Sorry about the tirade. But it isn’t easy to convince people you’ve got a brain when all they can see are curves and flowing blond hair.”
Oh, excuse me. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. Vicky goes on to complain about how hard it is for a woman like her to get a job, at which point I have to at least acknowledge that this book was published in 1978 and we’ve come a long way since then, but come on. I know some people like to live vicariously through fiction, so the idea of a vivacious vixen with a brain is appealing, but does it have to go with a side helping of pandering, too? I’ve seen it in other books, too, and it drives me crazy. This is especially true if the story isn’t even that great, as is the case in Street of the Five Moons. The plot is one of little consequence; very rarely do you feel as though there’s much at stake, and it’s even admitted in the book several times that the big ploy only really hurts a select handful of people who are mostly aware that there might be nefarious means underneath their dealings. To me, the books just comes off as a privileged woman’s romp through Italy with little to no value gained or lost. If you’re going to make me deal with a woman whining about how difficult it is to be beautiful, at least make the rest of the book a little more interesting.
Better yet, have her own her good looks instead of disparaging them. Nothing beats a smart, sexy woman who acknowledges that she’s got those things and embraces it wholeheartedly. Go on with your bad self, mama. Show a little bit of self-doubt every once in a while; it’s okay. That’s natural. That makes you human, that makes you real. But I don’t want to hear about how your cuteness makes it so hard for you in the world. I don’t believe that one for a second.