The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. A novel about women boxers in late 1700s Bristol. Or so the blurb promises – in the end there was disappointingly little about boxing women, though I still really enjoyed the read.
The book alternates between three narrators. First we have Ruth, the younger, uglier daughter of a brothel madam. She's still a child when Mr Dryer, one of the gentlemen patrons of the brothel, witnesses her fighting with her sister and decides to train her up as a boxer; apparently women boxers were a relatively common thing at the time, though more often as a gimmick than as genuine fighters. One of her fans, a boy her age named Tom, eventually falls in love with her and marries her. All goes well until Mr Dryer decides that Tom has even more boxing potential than Ruth, and switches his attention to him instead, abandoning Ruth in the process.
The next narrator is George, a friend of Mr Dryer. George is extremely handsome, but shallow and fairly dumb, and is in a complicated sexual/romantic/possessive/fucked up relationship with a rich lord named Perry which began when they were childhood roommates at boarding school. Perry seems to regard the two of them as being in love; George treats it more as a handy way to relieve physical urges. However, life goes well enough for the two of them – at least until George decides that the way to solve the problem of their social status is for him to marry Perry's sister Charlotte, and Perry is consumed by jealous rage.
The last narrator is Charlotte herself, an extremely repressed, timid, and probably clinically depressed young woman who is handed off to marry Mr Dryer as a way for her brother to get rid of her. She eventually witnesses Ruth boxing and becomes friends with her, and models herself on Ruth's confidence as a way of reclaiming her life.
And then a bunch more stuff happens, but I don't want to spoil the plot too much. It's a very entertaining book, with lots of rich sensory detail to the writing and a fascinating investigation into the role of gender and class in the setting. The narrators are all complex and likeable, and I very much enjoyed spending time with each of them.
My main complaints are structural. While George was a fun character and I can't say that I wish he wasn't a narrator, I'm not really sure what his sections added to the overall book. Ruth and Charlotte's stories dovetail nicely together, and then George is just sort of over in the corner, doing his own thing. Plus, as I said above, there's not actually all that much about women boxing; most of what there is happens in backstory, while the main plot of the book is actually about Tom's boxing career.
But nonetheless it was a book that was very much right up my alley, and I totally hope Freeman goes on to write more.
City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translation by Nora Seligman Favorov. Written in Russian in the 1860s and just now translated into English for the first time, this novel is a light satire to accompany the serious philosophy of contemporaries like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.
The plot: Nastasya Ivanovna is a member of the rural lower gentry, a widow living contentedly with her teenage daughter Olenka. Their summer is interrupted when a distant relative, Anna Ilinishna, comes to live with them, and a rich neighbor, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, decides to move into their bathhouse. Anna Ilinishna has spent most of her life living with various princesses in Moscow, and is widely renowned for her religious faith and ability to call down miracles with her prayers. She spends her time in their house sulking and trying to convince witnesses that she's being horrendously mistreated. Ovcharov is an intellectual writer who usually spends his summers travelling to various fashionable European resorts and is only in the countryside because he's decided he needs to drink fresh whey daily for his health. He's convinced that his presence is the philosophical, urbane, and enlightened light come to change everyone's lives: from his serfs to Nastasya Ivanovna to Olenka, who he is of course sure is in love with him and his cutting-edge clothes. In reality Olenka thinks he's a boring old man with weird habits, but Ovcharov is spectacularly bad at realizing this. He also tends to conveniently change his political theories to go along with whoever is flattering him at that moment.
It's a very fun book, and is a completely charming antidote to classic Russian literature (at least of the sort that gets read in the US). My one complaint is that the ending felt very abrupt, but when your only problem is that you wanted to spend more time with the characters, you know it's a good book.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Mount TBR update: 18
What are you currently reading?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Yes, I know: why am I reading the sequel to Borgia book when I didn't like the first one? Because sometimes I request things off of Netgalley before I really think it through. :(
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