Title: Strands of Bronze and Gold
Author: Jane Nickerson
Length: 339 pages
My star rating: ★
Warning: This review contains minor spoilers; if you would like a spoiler-free review, they are hidden on Goodreads.
Strands of Bronze and Gold is a retelling of the fairytale “Bluebeard” set in the antebellum South. That’s really all you need to know—and honestly, it’s too much. Knowing that spoils any and all mystery. Unfortunately, it’s not a spoiler: no, it’s printed right on the cover of the book.
The heroine (though I hesitate to refer to her that way) is Sophia Petheram, a seventeen-year-old idiot girl from Boston who is invited to come live on her mysterious godfather’s Mississippi plantation after her father’s death. Her godfather, Bernard de Cressac, is an eccentric and aristocratic French widower who looks like a pirate and lives in a medieval abbey, because…apparently a plantation house isn’t good enough for a fairy tale retelling, even if that fairy tale is retold as a Southern Gothic. (At least, it tries to be Southern Gothic.) No one sees a problem with this—but of course, it turns out to be a horrible, horrible idea.
The list of things wrong with this book is long.
Given its plot, the book itself is also very long. Far, far too long. It’s not fluff, either—it’s pure bloat. On page 120 or so, I was wondering how there could possibly be more than two hundred pages left.
But let’s start with the characters.
Sophia/Sophie (because she’s referred to as either or both constantly—obviously Jane Nickerson could not settle on a name for her) is the narrator. She’s also insufferably stupid and naïve. The novel is set in 1855, but Sophia/Sophie usually comes off as a somewhat prudish modern teenager. What a shocker.
“Best for me?” I said in a shaking voice. “Why does everyone in this world think they know what’s best for me? What’s best for me is to continue to get to know a man who is good through and through and who makes me want to be a better person. That’s what’s best for me.”
I highly doubt that young women spoke this way in 1855 (other than, perhaps, to their close female relatives or friends) except when imagined by modern authors trying to make them seem Brave and Strong and relatable to modern readers.
She is insatiably curious, and given that she’s in a Bluebeard retelling, that’s obviously supposed to be her Fatal Flaw. But more fatal to readers are her unbelievable idiocy and painful naivety.
This girl is as dumb as a rock. She’s also spoiled, selfish, whiny, and entitled, despite supposedly growing up in relative poverty. Basically, she’s insufferable. Worse, you’re in her head—she’s supposed to be the heroine. She’s supposed to be Strong and Brave and Good and Kind. (Trying to make friends with the slaves even though it might put them in danger? See! She’s Good and Kind!) At one point, her sister Anne tells her that “You have a strength he knows nothing of,” but I still have no idea what that strength was supposed to be. She’s our heroine, but she’s the worst kind of YA heroine: devoid of most personality other than being a bit ditsy and quirky and sweet.
Other small gems from the charming Sophia/Sophie:
Mr. Ling was a Chinese man, the first I had ever met.
That does beg the question, doesn’t it, of how she knew he was Chinese at all, then?
…it seemed as if I were as much in Bernard’s power as any slave on the plantation.
The Lord was testing me when I read this book, my friends.
Edit: This seems like a good place for this aside: I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews complaining about the lack of “sensitivity” with which Nickerson handled race in this book. Honestly, yes, Sophia/Sophie’s character—for all her supposedly abolitionist tendencies—can be described as racist. Um…duh? She’s a sheltered white girl living in 1855. I’m sorry that people are shocked/horrified/offended that Nickerson wrote Sophia/Sophie, in first-person, using words like “Oriental,” but again: this is 1855. Her modern teenage attitude and world view was already annoying enough without pretending that she wouldn’t have ignorant of other races/cultures and, yes, prejudiced. I really don’t think authors should feel bound to use “PC” language in a historical setting. It would be disingenuous, because it merely would be sugar-coating the racism that existed at that time. Sophia/Sophie; to make her display any sort of modern cultural and racial sensitivity would be even less believable and less realistic (and dumber) than the attitudes with which she is actually written.
(For example, it would have been more believable for her to think Mr. Ling was the first “Oriental” man she’d ever met, however offensive we find that word today, than somehow immediately knowing/assuming he was Chinese.)
So, all that said, is Jane Nickerson racist? Tough call, and one one I can’t make. But she does make a lot of the enslaved characters—and Mr. Ling, too—walking stereotypes. That, I’m not excusing. (I’m also not going to write off her comparing her situation to that of the slaves as a believable “girl living in 1855” thing. That was just plain stupid.)
Sophie/Sophia is also ostensibly religious, but she only ever expresses real interest or faith in God a few times. She only prays once, towards the end, that I recall—and despite being raised in a supposedly devout New England home, she somehow mixes up Bible passages and Shakespeare. Makes sense, right?
She’s naturally also beautiful without really knowing it and even has red hair, completing the “stereotypical YA heroine” checklist. Hooray.
No spoilers, here, because if you’re familiar with the fairy tale at all—or read past the first twenty pages—it’s obvious: Sophia/Sophie’s godfather makes it very clear that he’s interested in her from the very first time they meet, but somehow, she doesn’t catch on until he practically molests her, and even then, she goes constantly back and forth on how she feels about it. (But he’s the handsomest man she’s ever met! He buys her presents! But he’s temperamental and scary! But so hot!!!) It’s tiring and worse, boring.
It’s even hard to feel bad for her towards the end of the book when she spends the first half of it ignoring obvious warning signs and red flags. She may think she’s as helpless as M. de Cressac’s slaves, but guess what, girlie? You aren’t. I never bought her helplessness and dependency, especially since M. de Cressac was often gone for long stretches of time. Dear Sophia/Sophie: I know you’re slow on the uptake, but please open your eyes and get the hell out of Dodge—or at least have the decency not to act so surprised after you wait too long and realize you can’t get the hell out of Dodge anymore!
Her godfather, M. de Cressac, is the best—at least the most interesting—character in the novel. He has some depth, some real personality, some development, which is far better than the other empty shells that fill the pages of this book. He devolves pretty predictably, but at least it’s interesting to read about. Honestly, he was the only character who felt remotely alive, even if he could feel somewhat cartoonish at times. If you’ve ever been around an abusive person long-term, especially one who wields some sort of power over you (be it physical, emotional, or monetary), you’ll recognize them in M. de Cressac. I was honestly impressed how well Nickerson captured that roller-coaster abusive personality, given how lacking and unrealistic the rest of the cast was. He can be genuinely charming and genuinely terrible.
All that being said, he really did get cartoonish towards the end—I mean, honestly, having a demented rape room with disfigured statues and moldy love sofas? Please, lady, I’m more worried about you than M. de Cressac.
The rest of the characters were uninteresting and by and large unimportant. Even characters we’re supposed to care about, like Talitha, Mrs. Duckworth, and the reverend, Ichabod Crane Gideon (who isn’t introduced until halfway through the novel), are little more than dull, predictable stock characters. It’s a shame, too, because if he’d been given more time, Ichabod Gideon could have been interesting.
There’s not much to say about the plot, other than that it was far, far too drawn-out. Honestly? This story really could have made a good Southern Gothic. If Nickerson hadn’t labeled it as a retelling of Bluebeard and drawn out the suspense (instead of revealing the names and backstories of M. de Cressac’s former wives, therefore revealing the “twist” to any reader who’s even heard of the fairy tale), she might have had something. The last few scenes (not the bit with the rape room) are reminiscent of Faulkner—especially of “A Rose For Emily”—and I enjoyed the impact that scene could have had if I hadn’t already known, from the very beginning, that such a reveal was coming in some form or another.
Waiting for that reveal was the true agony. Worse, it happens so quickly readers are expected to believe the hitherto painfully unobservant Sophia/Sophie when she figures everything out immediately and without much—or any, really—hard evidence.
Honestly, I didn’t blame M. de Cressac for trying to kill her.
Did I mention that the anachronisms in this book, aside from Sophia/Sophie being a modern girl in an antebellum world, almost drove me over the edge?
Our stupid, sheltered seventeen-year-old heroine somehow knows all about the Underground Railroad, including its name. She and her family are clearly abolitionists, but she willingly agrees to move to a lavish plantation in Mississippi (and she acts almost shocked to find out that her godfather has slaves and that he considers them property).
Equally bad? Sophie/Sophia has older brothers, but she’s allowed to go live with her “legal guardian” because he’s rich…? Somehow, I do not buy that a Boston family of Puritan ancestry would allow their baby sister to live with a man none of them have ever met—and even if they would, they certainly wouldn’t allow her to stay once they found out he was a widower and that there was no suitable female chaperone or family member living on the estate with him. As M. de Cressac himself points out, there would always be doubts about her virtue after she had lived there, regardless of the truth.
Nickerson also implies that all white people in the South were supportive of slavery. Clearly nothing’s wrong with that extremely broad generalization.
At the very end, Sophia/Sophie expresses her plans for the future and it sums up everything that’s ridiculous about this book and about her character nicely: “Then I’ll find a way to free all the Wyndriven slaves so they’ll only stay there working for a salary if they want to.” Honey, I hate to break it to you, but you’re still living in 1855 Mississippi here. Good luck with that.
Also: apparently she’s going to help her brother pursue a military career. I don’t need to point out why that might be disastrous for everyone in about six years.
The questions I still have are amazing. Oh, the plot holes in this book!
Why was Mr. Petheram, a devout Protestant from Boston who opposed slavery, M. de Cressac’s lawyer in the first place (M. de Cressac being a rich, presumably Catholic, slave-owner who lives in Mississippi)?
Why did he make M. de Cressac Sophia/Sophie’s godfather?
Was M. de Cressac really grooming her/fantasizing about her as a child? As a baby? Just because she had red hair? Just because she might grow up to be as pretty as her mother?
(I guess this a spoiler.) Why are there ghosts? To make it more Southern Gothic-y? Southern Gothic doesn’t necessitate the paranormal. The ghosts didn’t serve any purpose. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t try to lead Sophia/Sophie to the truth or to protect her. They were just floating around like window dressing.
And on and on and on! (Did I mention the insta-love? Yes, this book even has that! Surprise!)
This book was dreadful. I could rant in my review for even longer, but I’ll cut it off here. I may come back and edit/add things on as I think more about it. Then again, hopefully I read something that’s actually good and I can forget this train wreck. I only gave it two stars because it was still not as dreadful as some of the books I’ve given a single star. But that isn’t saying much.
This book had potential. If it hadn’t been so bloated—if the characters had had real personalities, or hadn’t become Saturday Morning Cartoon villains—if the whole premise hadn’t been given away by the cover and Nickerson had prolonged the mystery in the beginning—it could have lived up to that potential.
Instead, it squandered it. It was a long, boring, painful waste. I would recommend it to no one.
[Also on Goodreads]