Disclaimer: for those who aren't aware, Reddit is a network of communities (aka. forums) about every subject ever. No joke. I spend some time on the subreddit
where people can ask for recommendations, request help remembering a book, post funny anecdotes, and other general romance postings. It is mentioned a fair amount in this interview and I wanted to make sure everyone understood the reference.
I was browsing r/RomanceBooks the other day and came across a post from a gentleman thanking the subreddit for recommending romance novels for his first ever romance read. He then went on to admit that he disregarded all their recommendations and went for Olivia Waite's The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics instead.
I was intrigued not only by his choice for a first read but also with the fact that he had actually sought out a romance novel of his own accord as opposed to reading one because his wife/partner/bossy friend (someone like me) had requested he read one (which is how the participants of this blog series have agreed thus far). I knew I had to interview him. And he amazingly agreed!
I obviously didn't personally recommend this book to Jonathan, nor have I read it, but Jonathan's commentary on the romance genre and this book in particular was a hoot to copy down and I hope that you'll find just as much enjoyment out of his interview as I did.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jonathan: I'm a 40 year old English teacher currently living in China. I'm also a Fantasy and Horror writer, though at present I've only been able to publish non-fiction.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: What led you to reach out to Reddit for recommendations on your first romance novel? And then what led you to disregard those recommendations and pick up Olivia Waite's The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics?
Jonathan: I think I reached out to Reddit for romance recommendations mostly out of curiosity. I've experienced genre prejudice myself. In my twenties when I wrote and self-published comic books I was constantly surprised at how many people still believed they were only for kids (including a reported for my hometown paper, who was shocked by the language and violence in a comic book clearly marketed to adults), and when I got my MFA I was met with a fair amount of general skepticism as a genre-writer in a program geared towards "literary fiction".
So I definitely wasn't going to take the public perception of the romance genre at face value. But, on the other hand, I'd heard of some of the ways the romance novel market was supposed to be different. That they were written and published at a much faster rate, that there was a plug-and-play formula that publishing houses and many readers insisted on, etc...
And I do like a good love story (I enjoy the romance comedy movie genre and I tend to enjoy the romantic sub-plots in the non-romance books I read--when they're done well, anyway). So I felt like I had to check it out for myself.
Several of the recommendations I got on Reddit looks great, and I planned to go through and pick one later, after getting through a few more books on my TBR list. It was an overwhelming number of responses, though, and there wasn't a clear-cut frontrunner. So when a friend of mine, another romance-virgin from my writing group, recommended The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics, it was a far easier choice. A recommendation from a respected friend is always going to beat one from a stranger, or even a dozen strangers. Sorry r/RomanceBooks.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: You said you 'absolutely fucking loved' The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics. What was it that made the book an outstanding experience for you? What were your overall thoughts on the plot, characters, and writing style?
Jonathan: There was a lot I liked about the book. It was simply very entertaining. I had a good time while reading it and I wanted to be reading it when I wasn't. That is, of course, the most important thing. I don't think I can narrow it down to any one thing that made it good. It balanced its various elements superbly in the service of entertainment.
I will say that I particularly liked the exploration of the state of science in the 18th (or early 19th) century, the role of women within that community, and the comparisons between science and the arts. The feminist messaging was on-point without being too didactic or forced.
Both of the lead characters were well-written, complex, and likable. The writing was elegant and effective without calling attention to itself--just how genre writing should be. There were two plots, and my feelings about them differ somewhat. The plot that revolved around Lucy's struggles to make a place for herself in the scientific community was pretty much perfect--well-paced with some good complications and a very satisfying conclusion. I'll save my opinion of the romance plot for the next question.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: What did you think of the romance between the two heroines? Did you think there was a good balance between the sex/personal relationship and the other plot(s) of the book?
Jonathan: For the first two-thirds of this book, the romance plot was also great. As a straight man, I've been curious about how LGBTQ+ people safely identified and propositioned each other in more closeted times, and I felt that aspect was handled very well, as was one of the main character's "awakening" to her own bisexuality. And for the most part, this plot was balanced well with the other plot--neither alone would have been enough to sustain the book. The sex scenes were more graphic than I expected. I mostly read this book at a coffee shop during my lunch breaks and I often found myself very self-conscious about reading it in public, even though I was on my Kindle and no one knew what I was reading. It made me wonder if most people only read their romance novels at home.
Toward the end of the book, though, the romance plot let me down. There was a conflict and temporary break-up introduced near the climax that felt forced to me, and only possible because the leads were acting out of character and suddenly failing to communicate with each other. It was the only part of the whole book that I felt like it was just there to meet an expectation of the genre, or maybe to fit the dreaded "formula'--I would have been happier if she had just shifted focus to the science plot at that point instead.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: How did the book challenge your preconceptions about romance novels, particularly those you mentioned previously?
Jonathan: Well, I only have a sample size of one! How exceptional is this book compared to the general body of romance novels? I'll have to read more to find out, I suppose. It certainly was a higher quality of writing, plotting, and characterization than I expected, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how compelling the non-romance plot was--an element I didn't expect to be present at all!
Romantically Inclined Reviews: Would you read another book by Olivia Waite?
Jonathan: Absolutely. I'm a fan. I'll probably read the sequels to The Lady's Guide as they come out. Furthermore, her bio indicates she writes science fiction and fantasy as well: I'd be thrilled to get my hands on a book she's written in another genre (although, if she's published any under that name, I can't find them).
Romantically Inclined Reviews: Would you read another novel similar to The Lady's Guide, i.e. another historical, another lesbian romance, etc?
Jonathan: Yes, definitely. But, apart from the upcoming sequel to The Lady's Guide, I'd rather satisfy my curiosity about some other romance genres. I'd be especially interested in a good paranormal or fantasy romance next. I don't think romance will supplant any of my other favorite genres. But, as a palate cleanser every few books, it' s a lot of fun.
Romantically Inclined Reviews: Do you have any advice for someone who thinks they would never read a romance novel or advice for someone on the fence about reading one?
Jonathan: Keep an open mind. Don't let society tell you what to like. If you don't have a friend who can recommend a good book, ask on r/RomanceBooks. If you can't choose from all the many options, read The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics.