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Saturday, October 28, 2017

'Alex & Eliza' by Melissa de la Cruz

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

1777. Albany, New York.

As battle cries of the American Revolution echo in the distance, servants flutter about preparing for one of New York society's biggest events: the Schuylers' grand ball. Descended from two of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines in New York, the Schuylers are proud to be one of their fledgling country's founding families, and even prouder still of their three daughters - Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit; Peggy, with her dazzling looks, and Eliza, whose beauty and charm rival those of both her sisters, though she'd rather be aiding the colonists' cause than dressing up for some silly ball.

Still, Eliza can barely contain her excitement when she hears of the arrival of one Alexander Hamilton, a mysterious, rakish young colonel and General George Washington's right-hand man. Though Alex has arrived as the bearer of bad news for the Schuylers, he can't believe his luck - as an orphan, and a bastard one at that - to be in such esteemed company. And when Alex and Eliza meet that fateful night, so begins an epic love story that would forever change the course of American history.

‘Alex & Eliza’ is the 2017 fictional YA retelling of the romance between America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton and the daughter of a Revolutionary War general, Elizabeth Schuyler – by US author Melissa de la Cruz.

Full disclosure; this book was not exactly what I would call “good”, but I gobbled it up in a day anyway, such is my fascination and obsession with all things ‘Hamilton’ the musical – upon which coattails this book is riding.

There are quite a few signs that this book was somewhat rushed to print, so as to meet the Hamilton craze sweeping pop-culture. First and foremost is Melissa de la Cruz’s authors note, which says she first attended the musical in 2016, and immediately decided to write a fictional account of the (somewhat?) central romance between protagonist Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. HAMILTON the musical premiered on Broadway on January 20, 2015 and it was a pretty immediate ignition of popularity and not at all hard to read the writing on the wall, of the phenomenon this musical was sure to become (I remember a friend of mine attended Book Expo America in 2015, and was baffled that there was an impromptu choir of teens singing the songbook in the middle of the book hall?) But still – I am very dubious of de la Cruz saying she saw the play for the first time at some point in 2016, and the book is now out (released in America, April 2017). That’s a FAST turn-around for publishing, and it somewhat shows in the quality of the work …

Firstly I should say I’m not all that surprised that this book isn’t great (to mine eyes, at least). I’ve tried reading a few of de la Cruz’s books and they’ve just never, ever grabbed me. First with her early-2000’s paranormal YA romance series ‘Blue Bloods’ – when I was consuming a LOT of subpar paranormal romance at that time, it kinda speaks volumes that hers was where I drew the line and could not invest. I also LOVED the TV show ‘Witches of East End’ which was – again – paranormal romance kitsch, and based on de la Cruz’s ‘Beauchamp Family’ adult romance series which I tried to read because I so loved the TV show, but … nada. Again – it was just too clunky and slow for my liking, and although I love romantic kitsch that involves supernatural *anything* I could not get past her delivery. My last ditch effort with her was YA contemporary book ‘Something in Between’ – but again, I found her writing mediocre at best, and gave up after a few chapters. I generally just can’t with Melissa De La Cruz – but clearly it’s just me because she has a HUGE backlist and impressive following (and her track-record for adaptation is kinda outstanding). But still – I found everything I disliked about Melissa de la Cruz’s writing previously, to be present in ‘Alex & Eliza’ too. Mainly – I think she tends to butcher a great concept with laboured, mediocre delivery. Ouch … sorry. But it’s true. She’s kinda the literary equivalent of a bad film ruining a great trailer. The blurb hooks you, but the actual writing puts you off.

With ‘Alex & Eliza’ the fault I think lies in the fact that historical romance is not de la Cruz’s forte, at all. And it shows. The rhythm of the writing is … off. I don’t know how to describe it, other than laboured. It reminds me of high school students essay-writing, where they think they need to incorporate “wherefore art thou” and endless conjunctions of “therefore” and “consequently” to sound smart. Obviously I read historical romances all the time, and the language is genre-specific but I never notice it and it doesn’t break my reading rhythm – whereas in this book it stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were also countless instances where de la Cruz had clearly researched a point of the period and her research showed, with a clunk. This is just one seemingly small example of what I’m talking about … where de la Cruz clearly asked herself; “What did people in 1780’s America use as a hot water bottle when hot water bottles weren’t invented yet?” and when she found the answer was very chuffed with herself so made the point three goddamn times.

When Eliza’s feet were finally as pink as a newborn’s Aunt Gertrude rang the bell for a maid to take Eliza up to her room with a brazier to warm the sheets. The maid plucked several coals from the fire and laid them in the brazier, which sizzled all the way up the stairs. She ran the brazier under the bedclothes for a full five minutes until the sheets were fairly smoking, then helped Eliza off with her dress and into one of Aunt Gertrude’s nightgowns because Eliza’s trunks were still lashed to the top of the broken carriage seven miles away.

Historical research, I think, should sort of be like a lift in ballet. I don’t want to see someone straining and labouring over the effort – as I did here, and countless other times.

There are writers who know their way around a cotillion and revolutionary red-hot romance – but de la Cruz is not one of them. I can imagine someone like Sarah Maclean (whose YA historical romance ‘The Season’ is OUTSTANDING!) would have absolutely SLAYED with this concept. Likewise – I’m currently still feeding my ‘Hamilton’ obsession with a trio of inspired romance stories by historical romance writers in ‘Hamilton's Battalion’ and *that* is delivering outstanding goods and I think a Courtney Milan or Alyssa Cole could have likewise taken this Alex & Eliza YA romance concept and just … BLITZED it! I actually still hope that just because de la Cruz got in early, it doesn’t mean we won’t see more Hamilton-inspo YA offerings (I’m keeping abreast with this Goodreads list, though it does seem to be adult-dominated right now).

But okay – execution aside. Was the actual bones of this book good, the romance? Um. Well. No – not really.

If you know anything about Hamilton the musical you’ll know that Alex and Eliza don’t exactly have a fairytale romance in the context of that fictionalised biography … what with her sister Angelia also vying for Hamilton’s affections, and the second-half upset of The Reynolds Pamphlet. Even in the musical context that de la Cruz is more referencing, Alex & Eliza are a hard-sell as OTP and HEA – given everything.

But can we also talk for a moment about how the real Alexander Hamilton was kinda a total jerk? (I know, I know – it’s hard to separate the man from Lin Manuel Miranda, but gimme a second here). Hamilton was a good-looking guy with a low station in life and serious insecurities stemming from that. He was a kinda total dick – as a person. Great treasury secretary and writer, for sure! But he’d have been a nightmare husband.

The period that de la Cruz is writing about in ‘Alex & Eliza’ – their initial meetings and coupling – there’s plenty of historic evidence that highlights Hamilton’s douche-baggery. For one thing – it’s pretty obvious that he had designs on a Schuyler sister to elevate his station. There are letters between him and his good friend (/probably paramour) John Laurens where he basically plots his ladder-climbing via marriage. But put that aside – the way he even writes about Eliza is … atrocious. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Laurens, advising of his engagement;

I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes--is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. 
Ummmm. Exsqueeze me?

Let’s also talk about how when he was courting Eliza and writing to her, his flattery left a lot to be desired;

A new mistress is supposed to be the best cure for an excessive attachment to an old— if I was convinced of the success of the scheme, I would be tempted to try it— for though it is the pride of my heart to love you it is the torment of it to love you so much, separated as we now are. But I am afraid, I should only go in quest of disquiet, that would make me return to you with redoubled tenderness. You gain by every comparison I make and the more I contrast you with others the more amiable you appear.

Can we just – for a moment – spit all over Hamilton’s highest endearment to Eliza being that she’s “amiable”? He even signs off this same letter with;

Adieu My Dear lovely amiable girl. Heaven preserve you and shower its choicest blessings upon you. 
Puke. A guy calls me amiable and I’m gonna amia-ball him in the nuts.

But there’s certainly something here that a writer can play around with – turning Hamilton and Eliza into an almost Beatrice and Benedict type pairing – having fun by portraying all the ways that Eliza does not intend to be amiable.

De le Cruz does this to an extent, but it falls entirely flat. Sitting somewhere between too beholden to the musical and history, and not enough of her own writing flair making them well-rounded and romantic.

Maybe the heat and flair will more come with second book ‘Love & War’ that appears to hint at all the ways Alexander Hamilton would have been an aforementioned *terrible* husband to put up with?

Also – don’t come into this book expecting a Hamilton/Angelica/Eliza love-triangle. In de la Cruz’s account, Angelica of this book wanes in comparison to the spunk and spirit of ‘Satisifed’-singing Angelica Schuyler of the musical … in this book, she’s seemingly enamoured of her rich catch John Barker Church. And yes, this is somewhat disappointing because that one uttered line “At least I keep his eyes in my life…” from Renée Elise Goldsberry on the musical soundtrack can sustain me for DAYS! Also if you want to get technical about it, John Laurens is actually the more natural (and real) candidate for a love-triangle between Alex and Eliza … and I would have been 1000% here for that, let me tell you!

Look, I have been very harsh in this review – only because my love for Hamilton looms so large and I did have high expectations for this, regardless of my track record with de la Cruz reads. I think there’s just a big part of me that wishes they’d gone for quality over being first off the rank with YA to meet Hamilton-fever. Speaking of – there’s not even many fun Easter-egg references to Lin Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in this book. I think there was use of the word “ruffian” which … congrats? Another instance I think where, if this book had been more thoughtfully planned and edited and laboured over then all of that pop-culture background could have been a lot more charmingly and cleverly done. But as it is – it’s another missed opportunity and clunker.

BUT – I did gobble this up, regardless of my many issues with it. And I can appreciate that de la Cruz has actually tried to write this in such a way as it will be accessible for the young audience of all ages who love Hamilton – so I’d actually say that reading age for ‘Alex & Eliza’ starts at about 12. Which is impressive for historical-fiction romance.

Overall I know that people who love Hamilton will be like me and persevere just because we’re insatiable. But I am holding out hope that there will be far superior stories on offer, and soon!


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