Book Review: Once and Always by Judith McNaught

Rereading and reviewing these books critically now that I’m older and at this point in history has left me with some complicated emotions. The romantic in me continues to love them; the pragmatist recognizes and understands the infuriating misogynistic history both then and now; the feminist within me is provoked, irked, peeved, pissed, outraged, etc.—so, exactly how I felt when I first read them, only with more awareness and intensity of emotions and realities, and I daresay wiser to not ever be drawn into relationships like these.

Once again, Ms. McNaught illustrates the rage-inducing asshole protagonist male bully and inserts some quasi-awareness—not to be mistaken with sensitivity because we all know men have that in abundance, delicate creatures that they are. Why some women have an affliction that romanticizes abuse and bullies confounds me, and I think it is extremely important to point the abuse out when it is evident but often ignored because of larger more other worldly concerns. But perhaps the writer is not romanticizing that abuse and bullying but pointing it out in forging a path to his inevitable recovery and redemption arc? I’m hoping that is the case.

In this book, the men are once again manipulative entitled assholes that use violence and bullying as a weapon against women. The justification for the male protagonist’s bad behavior is a brutal childhood. Oh, and there’s some racism thrown in as well; you’ll know it when you read it; it is quite evident. It is also 19th century England, which is all relative currently.

My questions come down to at what point do women read these books and sever the romance from the abuse? Enabling from rejecting? Can we hope that women interpret the past from the modern history but also understand that this is still happening all over the world to women every single day? That women are still being abused and bullied and denied their freedoms? Can a broken person be redeemed? Can a broken system? Must women continue to suffer abuse and sacrifice their own lives and freedoms at the expense of a man’s recovery and redemption? And on and on. The questions are as infinite as the problems.

I have removed my rating from these books. I actually started removing all my ratings from all the books I’ve read on Goodreads. The one through five star rating system is reductive and doesn’t adequately convey my interpretations of each book, most especially these historical romance novels. I’m emotionally ambivalent about these stories and relying on a love or hate rating system just doesn’t cut it for me since I both love and hate them. It removes the complexities of the story and characters and simplifies them into whether or not the reader would subject herself to the situation without thinking of the broader context of the circumstances that both women and men are victims of the history of patriarchy. I fear that these kinds of simplifications bring with it diminished critical thinking eliminating the need to empathize and understand the difficulties of a more perplexing plight and people in general. Sometimes people simply don’t react or do what they want to do or you would think they would or should do. This point in time is evident of that.

Yes, adulting is hard and people are assholes. It is all so exhausting.

I was reading an Atlantic article last night titled Why Many White Men Love Trump’s Coronavirus Response. My reactions from rereading these romance novels at this point in time are the culmination of this and the past several years of bullshit from white men and the pinnacle of a life lived at their whims and entitlements as often depicted in these novels. We cannot dismiss how women have contributed to our own plight of allowing and enabling a certain noxious maleness to infect the populace, but we also cannot detach from it the punishing oppression behind the punitive acts of it in its entirety. To do so would do an injustice to the ones that lived and are living it still.

“Trump, meanwhile, has allowed his male supporters “to feel like a good moral American and to feel superior to those they considered ‘other’ or beneath them,” she writes. Trump might not always represent his supporters’ economic self-interest, but he feeds their emotional self-interest. Trump is, in essence, ‘the identity politics candidate for white men.’”

“In Strangers, some of the Louisianans Hochschild interviewed were upset that women were competing for men’s jobs and that the federal government “wasn’t on the side of men being manly.” Some of her male Kentucky interviewees, especially those who have a family history in coal, feel even more strongly that men’s rightful place in the world is slipping away.”

Are we enabling our own abuse and inequality for the sake of love and protection? Methinks it’s a lot more complicated than that but you gotta somehow wonder if there is a correlation? Please think about it. And vote with that in mind for yourself as a woman or man, for everyone’s daughters and sons, and most importantly, people and society in general.

As always, I urge you to read critically and philosophically—look for the questions.


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