When I saw this month’s TBR Challenge theme, I started digging in my TBR stacks and was surprised at all the random stuff I found that I could not remember getting. It took me a while to decide on a book to read for the challenge, so in the end, I decided to choose the oldest one I could find in the pile. It’s a gothic from 1992 called The Jade Pagoda and it’s by Marion Clarke, an author I can honestly say I’ve never heard of. It had a UBS receipt from 2006 tucked into it, so obviously it caught my interest somewhere along the way. Looking at it, I couldn’t imagine why.
The cover blurb sounds awful – overwrought mysticism and deep dark secrets meet the Home and Garden channel – and the picture on the cover is not all that enticing either. I can’t help snickering every time I look at the hero, who looks more vampiric than gothic. So what’s it all about? Well, our fearless narrator is a young woman named Lesley Blair who has returned home to 1870s San Francisco after completing her education at Vassar. She believes very strongly in women’s rights and following her father’s death, she is determined to take over his interior decorating business and to make a name for herself.
She ends up at the isolated (of course) and somewhat forbidding Cliffside Manor because the wealthy importer who owns it plans some renovations. Like all good gothic widowers, Drake Wynfield lost his wife under tragic and mysterious circumstances and now he plans to remarry. Drake had expected a male decorator but when faced with the somewhat forceful and forthright Lesley, he agrees to allow her to decorate the bridal suite. If he likes her work, he will hire her to take on the rest of the home. Lesley desperately needs clients and wants to prove herself, so she takes up the challenge.
In some ways, this book was different than many gothics I’d read. The multicultural world of San Francisco made for a colorful setting. Lesley is stronger than some of the frequently fainting gothic heroines I encountered in my mother’s books growing up, and this novel has a little more lightness to it than many gothics. Drake’s eccentric relatives aren’t entirely brimming over with moodiness and dark gloom and when Drake’s fiancee makes her appearance on the scene, her trevails add a touch of humor to the story. Without throwing in spoilers, we’ll just say that the Southern belle fiancee is very far out of her element at Cliffside.
I appreciated that the author experimented with making this book a little unusual, but there was still plenty here to make my eyes roll. Drake is pretty much a standard issue gothic hero. He’s rich, handsome, powerful,brooding and sometimes downright weird. He’s supposedly on the verge of marrying a relative of his late wife’s but the fiancee could not be more ill-suited to him. And for a man who supposedly wants to marry someone else, his pursuit of Lesley is sometimes ridiculously blatant.
So, we get a somewhat predictable stew of Drake pursuing Lesley and Lesley knowing it’s a bad idea to take up with an engaged man but still thinking he’s soooooo dreamy. Thrown into the mix are what seem to be threats aimed at Drake’s young son, mysterious nocturnal flute playing, and all kinds of hints about lost jewels, stolen jade and Drake’s first wife. None of it was unbearably awful, though some of the Asian characters in the book seemed a little too stereotypical, an issue that gets to be pretty grating by the end of the story. Most of the time, I simply got bored while reading. Stylistically, the writing didn’t grab me and despite some of the colorful flourishes, the plot felt pretty unremarkable.
I like a good brooding, mysterious gothic. However, The Jade Pagoda was a little short on mystery and way too long on what had to have been the most boring courtship ever had by supposedly forbidden lovers. I still have no idea what possessed me to pick this book up, but for me, it was the epitome of a C-grade read. And I still think that cover makes the hero look like a vampire – but not the sexy kind.
– Lynn Spencer