Review: A Precious Jewel, by Mary Balogh

 

A Precious Jewel is a Signet Regency romance published in 1993. It was republished as a MMPB in 2009, and is also available in digital editions for Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In a note for the 2009 reissue, Balogh writes that:

A Precious Jewel is that book of mine that insisted upon being written even though I knew it was quite impossible to write. Sir Gerald Stapleton was a minor character in The Ideal Wife, the hero’s best friend, who several times bemoaned the loss of Priss, his longtime mistress, after she had left him to marry another man. I had no intention of writing his story, much less of writing Priscilla’s. I was writing traditional Regencies at the time and could hardly have a working prostitute as a heroine and a beta male as a hero! When I tested the idea on a few fellow authors at a writers’ convention, they agreed with me wholeheartedly. But I was haunted by those two characters to such a degree that finally I had to write their story anyway. And I couldn’t put it down once I had started. I completed it in two weeks! Then I put it up on a shelf to gather dust for a while, quite certain that my editor would have a fit of the vapors if she read it. At last I sent it in anyway and waited for it to be rejected. And waited…. When I finally called about it, I was told it was in copyediting. No rejection, no revisions!

I haven’t read The Ideal Wife (1991), so perhaps I was more primed to see Gerald as hero material than readers who were used to him as a sidekick in that novel.  I have read other Baloghs, though, including More than a Mistress (2000), which did the mistress thing in an entirely unexpected way, so I knew this author could and would break genre boundaries. And boy did she in A Precious Jewel.

Gerald meets Priss when his usual prostitute is unavailable. He is known for always asking for complete submission, not in a sexy BDSM way, but in a “I want you to lie there are let me do my business thank you very much” way. What he actually says — and absolutely means — is “All I want you to do is lie still.” There is a lot of sex between Priss and Gerald in this novel, and while some of it is quite emotional, none of it is sexy. I was hoping for a big breakthrough when he realizes that the very best sex is the kind where the partner actually has an orgasm too (he usually just mounts her), and although there was one scene along those lines, it didn’t change their sexual dynamic all that much. Of all the unwritten rules in romance, I think this was the biggest one Balogh flouted.

Other unusual features: It wasn’t just that the heroine was a down on her luck heiress working in London’s most fashionable brothel. It was that she was really a prostitute, actually living that life when we meet her. She was no virgin prostitute (see Balogh’s The Secret Pearl) but has had sex with lots of men prior to meeting the hero. And it wasn’t just that the hero was not-a-duke — he’s a mere baronet — but that he was as unheroic as I think I have ever come across in this genre.  In fact, in a twist on the prostitute-virgin theme,  it is he who has never been kissed (although he is not a virgin). Here is how a secondary character describes him:

He was of average height, slim and well-formed, fashionably dressed. His face was pleasant even if not startlingly handsome. His fair hair curled into no particular style, but it was soft and clean.

Gerald is of average intelligence (“I was never very bright, you know,” he said, explaining how he almost flunked out of school). He is prone to sulking and self-pity, nearly humorless, and, as Priss realizes, “not a man of discriminating tastes.”

He doesn’t even have a young man about town’s fashion sense:

I never know quite what should go with what. I can never quite see why it matters that something should match something else or that something should be all the crack. I didn’t know that that blue dress of yours was unfashionable until you told me so. It’s pretty. That is all I see.”

When Priss is insulted by a couple of young gentlemen of the ton, it is Severn, the hero of The Ideal Wife, not Gerald, who takes them on. Gerald is prone to indecisiveness, sulking, an inability to hold his liquor, and a dread fear of women, especially their sexual power.

Gerald is not a dashing, witty, handsome or powerful hero, but, somehow, despite the fact that he persists in denying his feelings for Priss — while allowing her to slavishly minister to his sexual and emotional needs — until nearly the very end of the novel, Balogh makes him sympathetic. He at least has a level of self-awareness:

SIR GERALD STAPLETON THOUGHT HIMSELF A creature of habit, much as he hated being so. Sometimes he wished he could be quite free, even of his own nature.

In contrast the the self-confidence of so many romance heroes, Gerald is quite insecure:

But who was hiding behind it? He was too uncertain of himself, too unwise in the ways of human nature, too innocent, perhaps, to dare to try to find out.

In a way, its Ger’s averageness that makes him appealing. Instead of the usual feeling I get when I read a romance, a kind of “how could anybody not fall in love with this guy?!” (even, and perhaps more so, when he’s a rake, although I know I wouldn’t recommend a rake to any friend in real life), Gerald made me think things like, “Well, there’s someone for everyone” and “Everyone deserves to be loved.” It’s not the sexiest or most exciting sentiment, but it worked.

Priss is very stereotypically feminine. Very maternal, caring, selfless, a strength that shows not in action but in her ability to withstand disappointment and misfortune, physically tiny, very pretty (but not voluptuous), etc.

Gerald could be unbelievably selfish and was often unable to experience Priss as a fellow human being.  What makes her good, to Ger, is exactly her tendency not to assert herself. As Gerald thinks:

Priss was too good to be described in coarse terms. Not good in the way one would expect a whore to be good, perhaps, but good in the way one would expect a wi—. Well, she was good. She satisfied him utterly and always had. Even that very first time she had given him precisely what he had asked for. He could not remember a time when she had failed to please him in bed.

There’s a bit of a back story that tries to explain why Gerald is terrified of attachment to women (and hence, why he fears a real sexual coupling), but Balogh thankfully doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. I almost felt that bit was unnecessary, actually. People can just be like Gerald, can’t they?

Why did Priss fall in love with Gerald almost immediately? A cynical reader might answer, “because the author put him in her bed,” but I thought Balogh did a good job of communicating the ineffable attractions that draw two people — even average people —  together. I think Priss sees his innate decency, and I think she’s the kind of woman who really wants the role of helpmeet to her man, whomever that ends up being. In an odd way,  in reading A Precious Jewel, I was reminded a bit of Megan Hart’s fantasy erotic novellas, Pleasure and Purpose, which featured women of the Order of Solace, whose purpose in life is to provide for men. And I felt the same tension as a reader between being annoyed at these female characters for not behaving in a way I can 100% admire, and being even more annoyed with myself for imposing my ideas of what a woman should be like on fictional characters.

There’s a very slow dawning realization on Gerald’s part — maybe too slow for some readers —  that Priss actually exists independently of him. In fact, as the reader but not Gerald (who is very easily fooled) knows, Priss has been hiding a good part of “Priscilla,” her complete, whole self, from him. “Priscilla” refers not so much her noble background, but her core sense of self. She has been protecting herself from hurt just as much as Gerald has been doing. As she says, “I know what I am. I also know who I am, and the two are not the same at all.” Through everything, Priss sees herself as protecting a core of dignity no one can take away. When Priss responds thusly to Gerald’s question about her family:

She shook her head slightly. “I am your mistress, Gerald,” she said. “In that capacity I will do all in my power to please you. I have no past and no future. Just this present reality. I am your mistress. Will you come into the bedchamber and let me give you pleasure?”

 

… I think it has to be read in two ways, one in terms of her nature as a person who derives pleasure from making others happy, and two, as, an assertion of her independence. She won’t tell him. To do that would be to expose Priscilla to hurt. In short, I found it hard to pigeonhole Priss.

There’s another way Balogh is a bit like Megan Hart (or vice versa): I find both of their writing styles very clean and spare. I feel that with Balogh there is not a word out of place. Yet both manage to have a lot going on, I think. There’s a lot a careful reader could say about the relationship of the body to the the mind in A Precious Jewel, about the relationship of words to thoughts, and about the close relationship of desire to anxiety.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Precious Jewel as I read it.  To be fair, I should note that many of these critical questions were raised for me later, as I wrote this review. It is definitely worth reading just for how odd it is, and for implicitly asking the question of how much fantasy a reader needs to call a book a romance.

Finally, Priscilla is an avid novel reader. I wonder if Balogh was taking a jab at romance critics who think such  readers are flighty fantasists in this passage:

Priscilla had always lived a great deal in her imagination. Perhaps that very fact helped her to distinguish between illusion and reality. She knew that what she was experiencing, what Gerald was experiencing, was not anything of any permanence.

21 responses

  1. Great review. I think I have a particular fondness for “there’s someone for everyone” romances (though the only other one that comes to mind is The Portrait.)

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  2. Well, but what Priss “knows”, that what she and Gerald are experiencing “was not anything of any permanence” is shown by the book to be wrong. The permance of the protagonists’ relationship is a defining characteristic of a romance novel.

    I liked this book a lot (it may even be my favorite Balogh), but it was partly spoiled for me in retrospect by A Christmas Bride, the story of Gerald’s stepmother, in which Priss and Gerald take such a “She did what she had to do to survive” attitude about Priss’s turning to prostitution that it made me want to argue against it, partly because the language in which they express it felt anachronistic to me, and partly because — well, because I’m contrary that way, I guess. She couldn’t survive as a housemaid, or a shop girl? Really? Even when I first read A Precious Jewel, I was greatly aggravated by Kit’s assumption that if one of her prostitutes got pregnant, it was because she was insufficiently attentive to the douching process. But I guess I shouldn’t be more upset by Kit’s attitude than I am by Stephen Maturin’s belief that bleeding his patients is good for their health.

    I virtually never find Balogh’s sex scenes “sexy” (and I often skim or skip the sex scenes in romance novels anyway, unless they’re written by Liz Carlyle or Loretta Chase) and in this book that worked for me very well. The sex is integral to the character development.

    Gerald does have one non-average-guy quality: he’s a very fine pianist, a talent his father discouraged. I thought the revelations about his family — not his stepmother so much as his father and mother themselves — were very well done. He seemed to me at the start to have a very wounded quality, and over the course of the book, we see him heal, not just through his relationship with Priss, but through what he learns about his parents.

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  3. This is one of my favorite Balogh books, which I re-read at least a couple of times a year. I read it before The Ideal Wife, so I’m not able to address whether I’d have found Gerald hero material or not. I’m not surprised Balogh thought it would never get pubbed but then I’m continually surprised what authors were ‘allowed’ to do in the good old days! 🙂 I’m very, very glad that Signet had the excellent taste to publish it.

    I totally agree with etv13 about The Christmas Bride. I love Helena and Edwin as characters and their relationship story, but I absolutely HATE what she did with the Gerald/Priss arc. It’s utterly spoiled. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Balogh for doing that to Gerald and Priss and to her readers.

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  4. Growly Cub and I have had this discussion many a time — the Christmas Bride inclusion of Gerald and Priscilla didn’t ruin A Precious Jewel for me — but then even a gifted author like Mary Balogh can’t please all of the folks all of the time. I rather liked getting an update on Helena’s step-son and his little family and the conclusion was one I could live with. I actually don’t see how Helena (the woman presented to us, the readers) could feel redemption without Balogh touching on Gerald and Priscilla somewhat.

    So not to open that can of worms, since we have agreed to disagree, but I think that the conclusion reached at the end of A Gentleman Undone may be more to people’s liking. Admittedly, it’s a less aristocratic crowd, which may be a factor, but it is the love story of a courtesan/former prostitute and a gentleman. I reviewed it for Romance at Random and Dabney wrote a lengthy and moving review at Dear Author.

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  5. This is one of my old favourites, which I read not too long after it came out, then traded in to the UBS. Then I found myself spending a ridiculous amount on eBay to get another copy of it several years ago, because I needed to reread it. I haven’t reread it recently, but I would say I the ending of this one actually more to my taste than A Gentleman Undone , partly because Priss just keeps on going on, whatever happens in her life, while Lydia seems so self-destructive, even to the point of relish. Her entire life, including her pleasures, seem geared towards beating herself up, and I didn’t feel convinced that this was totally behind her at the end of the book. It’s much easier for me to believe that Priss can achieve contentment with Gerald (and vice versa) than that Lydia can ever be happy. (But then, I don’t think I’ve read The Christmas Bride, so maybe that would change my opinion.)

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  6. Mary Balogh always writes quiet, vanilla sex. Even the most passionate protags tend to do it face to face without a lot of hoo-ha. I quite like that, actually. At least in the sense that it’s one rather different approach amongst the many happily cunnilingus-performing dukes in historical romance.

    I’ve read a few reviews of this book that talk about Gerald as being mentally challenged. You didn’t mention that – which pleased me because I read it as him being simplistic, rather than simple – but it is another way to read the text.

    I also like your comment:

    People can just be like Gerald, can’t they?

    He just is what he is. I’m actually not sure about innate decency but I think he is basicallyt kind and while he’s aware of how she’s viewed by others, he almost can’t help seeing past that himself. Which to me felt oddly connected to his simplistic-ness.

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  7. @willaful: oh yeah, The Portrait, in a very different way. Not exactly an average guy.

    @etv13:

    Well, but what Priss “knows”, that what she and Gerald are experiencing “was not anything of any permanence” is shown by the book to be wrong. The permance of the protagonists’ relationship is a defining characteristic of a romance novel.

    I feel dense b/c I am not sure what you mean here. Yes, I agree that Priss was wrong in thinking their relationship is not permanent. That feature is quite common in romance.

    it was partly spoiled for me in retrospect by A Christmas Bride, the story of Gerald’s stepmother, in which Priss and Gerald take such a “She did what she had to do to survive” attitude about Priss’s turning to prostitution that it made me want to argue against it, partly because the language in which they express it felt anachronistic to me, and partly because — well, because I’m contrary that way, I guess. She couldn’t survive as a housemaid, or a shop girl? Really?

    I hadn’t thought about that but you’re right. I guess I just accepted it, but now I wonder why she could not have been a governess. Was she ruined the very second she stepped into Kit’s parlor (not knowing it was a bordello)?

    @etv13:

    He seemed to me at the start to have a very wounded quality, and over the course of the book, we see him heal, not just through his relationship with Priss, but through what he learns about his parents.

    I agree completely. I should have mentioned something about this in the review.

    @GrowlyCub:

    I’m continually surprised what authors were ‘allowed’ to do in the good old days!

    Me too. In fact, these days, when I was real variety, I look to older books.

    I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Balogh for doing that to Gerald and Priss and to her readers.

    I am shocked that the step-mother got her own book. I may have to read it.

    @Janet W: Thanks for offering a second opinion on A Christmas Bride. I’ll have to read A Gentleman Undone too.

    @cecilia: @cecilia: One thing about Priss si that she’s very self-sufficient, and as a reader I did feel she would be ok no matter what.

    Thanks for offering a different opinion on A Gentleman Undone. I don’t think I realized until now how controversial Balogh’s books often are.

    @Tumperkin:

    Mary Balogh always writes quiet, vanilla sex. Even the most passionate protags tend to do it face to face without a lot of hoo-ha. I quite like that, actually.

    I hadn’t thought of that, because it;s been a couple of years I think since my last Balogh, but yes, and great point.

    @Tumperkin:

    I’ve read a few reviews of this book that talk about Gerald as being mentally challenged.

    I actually re-read the part I quoted, when he says he had trouble in school, because I was sure there must have been a mention of something today’s reader would identify as ADHD or dylexia. But there wasn’t.

    I’m actually not sure about innate decency but I think he is basically kind

    I struggled over “innate decency”, and now that you offer up an alternative, I like it better.

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  8. I agree with Janet that a confrontation with Gerald and Priscilla was necessary for Helena, that her book would have been incomplete without some kind of resolution and I would have been very happy if the families had ended up friendly.

    I just object extremely strenuously to the way it was done, because it was completely unbelievable, ahistorical, etc. etc. etc. but most damning of all, like all of Balogh’s Christmas books the ending was so saccharine, my teeth hurt reading it. 🙂

    Jessica, definitely read Helena and Edgar’s story (I gave him the wrong name earlier, sorry bout that). Up until the very end, I loved it and it’s a extremely compelling read about a woman with serious regrets.

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  9. I actually read A Christmas Bride first – those old Signet Regencies used to be so hard to find (some still are) that reading in order was out of the question for me. I read ’em as I found ’em 🙂 I suspect, because of that, I had a different view of Gerald and A Precious Jewel, having already seen their HEA. I can’t necessarily put my finger on why that was. I hadn’t read The Ideal Wife at that point either. I think I read them all ass-backwards.

    In hindsight, the ending of A Christmas Bride was too saccharine and unbelievable, but at the the time, I lapped it up. I think, in part because Edgar wasn’t from the nobility, it made it a little easier to accept.

    I often find Balogh’s sex scenes very moving and my very favourite one of all isn’t sexy at all. It was all about offering comfort and signifying a change in the relationship and I re-read that scene and the ones immediately before an after fairly often (as well as Luke’s reaction to the birth of their daughter) – they are my favourite parts of Heartless.

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  10. Seconding what Growly Cub said: the Edgar/Helena story is well worth reading for the sake of Edgar and Helena, and there needed to be a confrontation to deal with Helena’s feelings about Gerald and vice versa, but the way it was done was disappointing, to say the least. The good thing about A Christmas Bride is that it presents Helena not as a heartless victimizer, but as a troubled and confused person who was married too young to a jerk. She didn’t mean to harm Gerald. and she has real trouble (more trouble than she actually deserves) getting over the fact that she did. The real villain of both books is Gerald’s father.

    So can we talk about Gerald as a classic beta hero, and in relation to (in my view) the archetypal beta hero, Freddy Standen? They are both pleasant rather than handsome (and can I say, the guy on the cover accompanying your review is way handsomer and more confident-looking than my image of Gerald), they are both none too bright, they are both kind and gentle — but Freddy is firmly ensconced with parents and siblings who love him, and ultimately, he is shown to be a master of his social world that Gerald just isn’t. Maybe that’s exhausted the topic, but maybe? Anyone?

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  11. I actually thought that Gerald’s learning disability (dyslexia/dyscalculia) is pretty obvious from the text (his trouble with doing the estate books, description of his father’s reaction to his learning issues, etc).

    Freddy is so not hero material for me and it’s all Heyer’s fault. I never much liked Cotillion even though I’d re-read it occasionally, but once you listen to the words Heyer used to describe him via audio he’s permanently off the table as a hero regardless of what comes later (the same way A Civil Contract fell out of my top 5 – you just cannot escape the words the author actually used when listening to audio).

    I didn’t get that feeling from Balogh’s description of Gerald. Yes, he’s not smart, not handsome, but he was still heroic to me, which Freddy just couldn’t be after Heyer’s description early on, probably precisely because he’s well integrated in his family and had really nothing holding him back, whereas Gerald really had to fight to get to where he was when he met Priss and beyond.

    As far as archetypes go, I’m not sure Gerald makes it to beta status, gamma maybe?

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  12. What words put you off, Growly Cub? Is it the “rather vacuous countenance”? She also said, right up front, that he drives well, dances well, and rides well to hounds, which seems to me to be the subtle tipoff that he’s the hero when plainly she’s engaging in a lot of misdirection via Jack Westruther. (Also, given that he does those things well, and is a thoughtful and considerate person, he’s probably good in bed. Not that that really occurs to you much when reading a Heyer novel.)

    We call them all “romances,” but Freddy is the hero of a comedy, while Gerald is the hero of a melodrama, albeit a melodrama with a happy ending. Neither of them strikes me as being “heroic” in any other sense than “male protagonist who is a fundamentally decent person”, and that’s fine with me. In fact, that’s surely what Heyer is playing with putting Freddy and Jack in the same book. What qualities do you require in a hero? Do you prefer melodramas to comedies?

    I’m curious about what put you off about A Civil Contract. I think it’s pretty amazing that she makes a guy who in a lot of ways is an entitled (no pun intended) aristocratic jerk who marries a girl for money and keeps thinking about how vulgar she is as sympathetic as Heyer makes Adam.

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  13. You’ll make me drag out the books now. 🙂

    For Adam, I used to feel as you describe in the last paragraph until I listened to the audio book where I couldn’t escape the description of Adam being repulsed by Jennie and once that registered (how it couldn’t have before in umpteeth re-reads, I don’t know), I listened more closely and have come to the conclusion that while Jennie loves him, he basically barely tolerates her because she makes him comfortable and is completely undemanding and he is still pining for whatshername at the end even though she’s shown herself to be an ass. While reading the book, I was able to escape these rather blatant truths, but in listening they were brought home to the point where I don’t even re-read that book any longer. And it used to be in my top 5.

    With Freddie it’s the whole page worth of clothes description and the bit about him being anxious about his cravat. That’s just too effete for me. 🙂 But I just don’t like the whole underlying plot idea of that book at all and it’s not because I thought Kitty should have taken Jack.

    Generally speaking, I guess I tend towards melodrama rather than comedy (I detest slapstick), although I’d call it angst rather than melodrama. 🙂

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  14. “I was reminded a bit of Megan Hart’s fantasy erotic novellas, Pleasure and Purpose, which featured women of the Order of Solace, whose purpose in life is to provide for men”

    Well this is very weird, because I didn’t think PaP was much like APJ — maybe the 1st story in the book, but the 2nd and 3rd were very different — but I just read the fourth book in the series, Virtue and Vice and it’s basically A Precious Jewel with clit rings. And I think the comparison hurt it, because I was just seeing the hero loving the heroine for all the comfort she provided, rather than for herself. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d read it before reading this.

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  15. @ Growly Cub: I never thought A Civil Contract was much of a romance, but I really enjoy the housekeeping stuff (and I like that we see Jenny as a really competent chatelaine and hostess), and the sense of tension and excitement when Adam invests all his money (and then some) in government securities, and then is waiting in London for word of the outcome of the battle of Waterloo. It’s amazing how much suspense a good writer can sustain even when you know the actual historical outcome. I feel the same way about Apollo 13.

    When I first read Cotillion, I didn’t think much of it. It seemed like it was centered on characters who are usually secondary characters in Heyer — and it is. But as I got older, it became one of my favorites, in part for that very reason. Now it’s probably in my top five (if I could ever narrow my favorites down that far).

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  16. etv13, I think we share similar tastes in our Heyers. Heyer is very clever to distract us with Freddy’s very real concerns about his sleeve being wrinkled (and it’s a mark of how well suited he and Kitty are, that one senses they will always be fashion forward and entirely appropriate in their future lives), perhaps lulling us into thinking he’s a foppish light-weight … like Friday’s Child’s Ferdy, not exactly hero material.

    But Freddy’s outer appearance belies his competence as a fiance, a brother and a friend. He keeps an eye on his pregnant sister and his merry university-student brother. He’s the one who sorts out the pre-marital difficulties of his horse-mad, somewhat slow cousin at the same time he packs the French emigre and his dizzy fiancee off to France. If we judge Freddy by his actions and not his affectations, he’s a marvelously competent young man. Really of all of Heyer’s couples, the reader is totally assured of Kitty and Freddy’s HEA.

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  17. @ Janet W: I agree with you about Freddy, and I am pretty confident of his and Kitty’s happily ever after, but I feel that way about a lot of Heyer heroes and heroines, usually and especially the slightly more mature ones, like Sarah Thane and Tristram Shield, and Elinor Rochdale and Ned Carlyon, and Abby and Miles. And of course we actually get to see Mary Challoner and Vidal (by then Avon) as grandparents who seem to have a pretty solid marriage, however messed up and unhappy some of their grandchildren may be.

    I keep coming back to Jessica’s cover. I have a more recent version, with (I think, I’m too lazy to get the stepladder and climb up and look) a locket on the cover. Jessica’s cover is really a nice cover, and Gerald and Priss have the right coloring, and the right clothes — and yet it just seems wrong to me. Those are not Gerald and Priss — in particular, as I said earlier, the guy on the cover seems way too mature and confident to be Gerald. I think it’s partly the very elegant nose he has. I wonder, did other people share my kind of discomfort with cover portrayals like these, and is that why we’ve moved to covers that either don’t show people at all, or show only half or a third of a face? But also, why shouldn’t Gerald have a face like that? Or rather, why couldn’t a guy with a face like that be as wounded and uncertain and insecure as Gerald is? Which makes me kind of want a story about a guy who (explicitly in the story) looks like the guy on the cover, yet feels inwardly the way Gerald feels.

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  18. @etv13: I might have such a book for you, All I Ever Needed by Jo Goodman. IIRC, the hero had been a fat child and was still insecure even as an attractive adult.

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