When spring turns to summer, and my daily uniform becomes shorts, tees and sandals, my reading tastes get really light and airy as well. This is my “Calgon” reading time: Books, take me away! Give me a regency romance, a comedy, even some contemporary chick lit, and I’m happy to sit by the pool or under a shady tree, and be transported to another time or place. No heavy commitments, no trauma, no pondering the mysteries of the universe – at least until September rolls around.
Still, I’m fussy enough to want well written, engaging lightness, if you know what I mean. So when Natalie at Coffee and a Book Chick reviewed Priya Parmar’s historical novel Exit the Actress earlier this year, I took her “must-read” recommendation and put it on my summer reading list. So I have to say thank you to her for a really fun summer read.
Exit the Actress is a novelization of the amazing life of Nell Gwynn, the orange-seller-turned-Restoration-actress who eventually became the favorite mistress of Charles II of England. She’s also the “mother” the Dukes of St. Albans, a line of the British peerage that exists to this day, through her son Charles Beauclerk, one of the Stuart kings’ many illegitimate children. It’s a great story, and it’s certainly been told before, in movies, books and on television. But Parmar’s version is different because she styled the largest part of it as a fictional journal. This may seem like a strange idea, since Gwynn’s biographers almost all agree she was illiterate. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and keep from quibbling, the device offers you a new way to look at an often-studied historical figure. (It’s summer, remember? Go with the flow.)
While I might argue with the liberties Parmar takes with history and the English language (the writing style was far too “modern” considering that the book is supposed to take place in the 17th century), I think overall the diary style of the book made Nell’s life more understandable and accessible. I loved Nell’s openness and bewilderment. But her self-effacing humor, legendary to this day, fails to shine. I’d have to call the book a bit uneven in terms of the writing – I didn’t think the intermittent gossip column entries added much, and I disliked the long periods of time that were uncovered by any information at all. And frankly, for a book about one of the world’s best known courtesans, I’d call it pretty tame – like Parmar felt a need to to sanitize Gwynn’s life to make her more likeable, but I don’t feel it was necessary in the 21st century.
Still, the book grabbed me from page one - Parmar is a writer to watch. Her debut novel is a solid, beachy read. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction and romance, and those who like novels written in the diary style. It won’t change your life, but it will give you an interesting take on a fascinating woman. It may even lead you to seek out some weightier books on the subject when September rolls around!
I think Natalie liked this one even better than I did. If you'd like to read her review, you'll find it here.