Review: The Phoenix by Ruth Sims
Posted August 6, 2009on:
Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.
So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!
The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.
Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Stuart is born to a religious country doctor. Nick’s father grooms him to be a doctor from infancy, so he’s never given a choice about his occupation. Nick doesn’t really have much angst about that, nor does he chafe against his religious upbringing. No, what estranges him from his family is his desire to go to college, after which he gets a job in London as a doctor for the poor.
So he goes to the theater one night on a whim and catches Kit St. Denys’s performance as Hamlet, then he kind of becomes obsessed with the actor, then there’s a prop mishap wherein Kit gets hit on the head and bleeds all over the stage and the rest is history.
Nick resists because he’s deeply religious, but caves eventually and he and Kit fall into a passionate affair that goes on for a year. Nick justifies his actions by telling himself that the cat is already out of the bag, but then he catches Kit in flagrante with another man, and he’s so pissed he leaves. And that’s when the real action of the novel begins.
Nick goes to America, meets a spunky girl named Bronwyn, and marries her. He figures out on his wedding night that he’s capable of making love to his wife, so he figures he doesn’t need Kit anymore. Kit, meanwhile, spends more than a year trying to find Nick, and when he does, he takes his theater on a wild tour of America, settling eventually in New York.
Sims does an admirable job pulling in in references to real historical events and occasionally real people. When Kit arrives in New York he has to fight with the Theater Syndicate run by Frohmann and Erlanger, for example. I liked this portrayal of New York and of Nick’s almost rustic outpost in Brooklyn. These men are contemporaries of Oscar Wilde as well (he’s a friend of Kit’s) so this takes place 1890-ish, though it’s never specified.
But somewhere in here it started to go horribly wrong. Firstly, all of Kit’s friends have this irrational hatred for Nick that is never adequately explained. It made me wonder if there was something seriously wrong with Nick that I didn’t see. I guess it was supposed to make their love seem more ill-fated.
In New York, Kit, still desperately in love with Nick, seeks him out and goes so far as to drop by his home. By this time, Nick’s wife is pregnant, and having a difficult pregnancy at that, but Nick goes to Kit and they resume their affair as if no time has passed. And the thing is, Bronwyn is actually a really likable character at first, which I thought could set up an interesting conflict. She’s smart and gregarious, and she’s a great nurse and a good friend to Nick. Nick betrays her and feels awful about it, but not enough to stay faithful to her. I was curious to see how Sims would work this out, because it was clear that Nick and Kit would wind up together. I thought, would Sims kill her off? Would she have her own affair with the handsome doctor who works with Nick? [SPOILERS AHEAD] Nope. Instead she grows increasingly resentful of all the time Nick spends away from home, and then all of the time Nick spends nursing Kit back to health after a traumatic event. She becomes a humorless shrew, and she’s hysterical and completely unpleasant. She sees Kit and Nick kiss one night when they think they’re alone, then she snoops and finds out about the affair, and then she completely flies off the handle. So, okay, we resolve this interesting conflict by turning a likable character into a shrieking harridan.
Then, weirdly, after a plot contrivance, Nick thinks Kit is dead, at which time one would think he would get over himself and go back to his marriage, but instead that’s when he asks for a divorce. Actually, he asks Bronwyn to file for divorce, because he can’t do it himself. Bronwyn is so horrified, she leaves, takes their child, and marries the other handsome doctor.
So, huzzah! Nick is single. Kit’s not dead. Happily ever after, yeah?
I think my main beef is the desecration of Bronwyn’s character so that Nick can have a happy ending, although Nick cheating on her was a little squicky just to begin with. But then A LOT happens in the last half of the book. Among other things, Kit stars in a play to rave reviews, winds up in an asylum, and then winds up with amnesia and joins the circus. I know. It’s absurd and kind of awesome, ridiculous in a way a Victorian epic should be. Kit’s a great character, but I had no idea what to do with Nick at the end of the novel.
So that’s The Phoenix. And I need a nap.