Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Double Review: The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted and A Golden Web by Barbara Quick

A backlog of reviews means more double reviews, simply so it doesn't take me two months to catch up with myself. On the other hand, I would probably have reviewed these two together anyway, since they share a few elements: historical fiction, romance between students, and girls disguising themselves as boys in order to receive an education.

The Education of BetIn 19th century England, Bet is the orphaned daughter of a maid, and has been the ward of a relative of her mother's employer for most of her life. Bet occupies a precipitous place in a society rigidly defined by class: she comes from the humblest of beginnings and has been raised in the lap of luxury, yet now belongs to neither world. What Bet longs for most, however, is an education - something denied to her and yet forced upon the unwilling Will, great-nephew of her benefactor who lost his parents to the same illness that killed Bet's mother. Will wants a life of glory in the military. Bet wants to go to school. So Bet concocts a plan: since Will is due to be sent to a new school at the start of the term, she will dress as a boy and pretend to be him, leaving Will free to pursue military service.

Away at school, Bet thrives in her classes, but finds interpersonal relationships much more tricky, as she attracts the attention of bullies and generally has no idea about how boys act when girls aren't around. To make matters trickier, she shares a room with an attractive roommate, and discovers that even the best laid plans can have holes in them (for example - in a school full of men and boys, how is she supposed to handle her period?).

A Golden Web
A Golden Web is set much earlier, going back to 14th century Italy, and follows Alessandra Gillani, who is thought to be the first female anatomist. As Quick's author's note explains, no one is entirely sure if Alessandra existed or if she was as educated as legend says she is, but Quick paints a rich picture of her possible life. Daughter of a wealthy book maker, back when books were still written and illustrated by the hands of apprentices, Alessandra has access to a wealth of knowledge denied to other girls and women of her age. Threatened with an arranged marriage at 15 by a disapproving stepmother, Alessandra first hides in a convent, then disguises herself as Sandro and makes her way to Bologna to study with the masters of medicine and the fledgling science of anatomy, where her talents make her the enemy of a jealous fellow student, and also attract the eye and support of a handsome student who she may just be able to trust with her secret.

With so much in common, these books are actually vastly different. The Education of Bet focuses almost exclusively on the romance between Bet and her roommate, to the point where at times it hardly even seemed like an historical fiction novel, and the cross-dressing was merely an elaborate plot device to bring the two unlikely lovers together (unlikely thanks to that pesky class difference). A Golden Web spends much more time on historical details, making it totally believable why Alessandra would have to disguise herself as Sandro. And despite her younger age, Alessandra is much better equipped for an extended disguise - even though she set out before she started her period (or "flowering," which is probably the most ridiculous euphemism I've ever heard), she knows it's going to come thanks to her medical books and quickly adapts. Bet has been menstruating for awhile, and yet totally forgot to plan ahead, which struck me as ridiculous. I've been known to forget to have pads or tampons with me on a trip, but that's not because I forgot I was going to have my period, rather I was just too scatterbrained to throw extras in my bag. Bet just forgot it was ever going to happen.

Parts of A Golden Web feel slightly too coincidental to be realistic, and for awhile I wondered if this was actually going to go into a Cinderella-style story since her stepmother is just so wicked. However, I loved Alessandra's special interest in women's bodies and health, and descriptions of her visiting midwives and female healers in the unsavory part of town to learn from their traditional knowledge, handed down orally from generation to generation, and combining that with her schooling.

If you're looking for a fluffy romance, you could do worse than The Education of Bet. If you want a nuanced historical novel, A Golden Web is the book for you.
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