Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All the Tea in China by Jane Orcutt

 Witty, intelligent, romantic and surprising with one of the most refreshing heroines I have met in Christian fiction for eons:

Isabella Goodrich is the most educated woman in Oxford. Under the tutelage of her famed uncle, the Dean of Christ Church, Isabella has more than five languages under her belt. She is more than accomplished in histories, literature, modern languages and culture. Moreover, thanks to her doting uncle, Isabella has the freedom to pursue and perfect her favourite hobby, fencing. Smart, sword-wielding and sharp witted, Isabella knows far too well at the age of six and twenty, that the gentlemen of society are not interested in a female with a rapier tongue and a mind of her own. So, when Isabella hears that an intelligent, well-travelled and, most importantly, eligible bachelor is to attend an upcoming dinner party in hopes of being a match for her, Isabella is intrigued. What she doesn’t count on is the bachelor being opinionated missionary Phineas Snowe. Their first encounter is dastardly. He takes her for the young, conventional, flighty young society women she so loathes. Even her interest for his missionary work in the Orient is challenged by her hatred of his dis-temperament and heavy use of irony.

Isabella knows that there must be a calling outside of marriage and a family for those young ladies with no marriageable prospects. But, she also knows that God did not give her a passion for books whose ideas she has no one to share with or a gift to write papers that no one will see. So, self-proclaimed spinster Isabella decides that if God has not intended for her to be wife... than he intends her to be His servant. Luckily (even if he is an enigmatic and sardonic man)Phineas Snowe is in town for the next few days. As a missionary and ordained man of God, Isabella is sure he will help her chisel her path. After a day of hard work in Oxford amidst the lowly and an eye opened to the world of those with lesser fortune, Isabella is certain she has found her calling. To serve the poor. In China. With Phineas Snowe. When Phineas refuses her offer to help his mission, she runs away from home and steals passage aboard the ship he is on determined to follow him to China nonetheless.

From Oxford to Cape Town and finally to China, Orcutt takes readers on a rollicking journey with Phineas and Isabella who both prove that the voyage is far more fun than the destination.

Now, this book has spunk and class and imagination. Three things that I find solely lacking in its contemporaries and the persistent absence of which makes this particular novel seem all the more fresh.

Orcutt has some class writing here. She did not pick up How to Write Christian Regency Novels for Dummies. Instead, she has a firm grasp of the ironical and didactic art of conversation during the early 19th Century.

Take Isabella and Phineas' first encounter at Charlotte Ransome's party:
Afeared she has a smudge on her beautiful new dress and ever conscious that she is already the center of speculation due to her single status, Isabella leans closer into the glass to examine her collar.

Says Phineas, observing: "Unless your vision is poor, you will not find your image improved by pressing against the mirror. Though I'll gainsay many ladies of believe it otherwise...Perhaps what you desire, if you so truly wish not to offend, is the raiment of a monastic, complete with cowl. Then every displeasing aspect of yourself would be truly hidden."

And sometimes the humour is just downright cute and, for Isabella, infuriating--
Later, when Phineas discovers she is aboard his ship, he informs: "I am sorry if you misunderstood my intentions toward you. My purpose was to discuss my work with the mission, not to court you. You have no need to follow after me like a poodle."

Cloistered upon a ship headed to China, Isabella learns quite quickly that missionary Phineas may be guilty of telling more than a few falsehoods. In fact, Orcutt gives us not one but two surprises in regard to his true identity and his interest in China.  But, what Isabella learns in regard to Phineas does not make her step back ( as other heroines in this genre would ) but draw closer. Disguised as brother and sister, they are permitted to share accomodation aboard ship. Tight quarters they have and the better for Orcutt to allow us a micrscopic view of not only sexual tension (Phineas tells Isabella that the reason he spins Chinese legends of hup warriors is to keep his mind off of her close proximity and the fact that she is clad in her inexpressibles) but two forceful minds battling each other with no intention of submission.

Ah, submission ..... which leads to yet another reason this book stands apart from its contemporaries. If you are expecting Paul's Corinthian love letter with sighings of: "wives submit to your husband" where a supposedly strong female relents in order to bow to scriptural sovereignty, you have come to the wrong party. Phineas and Isabella battle but, in the end, it is Phineas who gives way to Isabella. She will not back down. Battle is a major motif in this particular story. From the beginning, we learn of Isabella’s penchant for handling a sword. Later in the novel we see her take a hand in defending the ship from Privateers. Likewise, Isabella and Phineas also battle: verbally sparring and physically fighting. Keeping with the thread of Chinese myths, legends, warriors and warfare well-researched and spun throughout the novel, Orcutt gives us an extra treat when Phineas tosses Isabella masculine Chinese combat gear and teaches her how to fight hand-to-hand. This equality between male and female is well-expressed time and again: in the way that Phineas and Isabella maintain their informed and intelligent repartee, in the tales of both male and female warriors that exist in Isabella’s imagination fresh from Phineas’ tongue and in their ability to defend themselves physically and with erudition. No submission here. Instead, Lui Chun-bo introduces Isabella to the images of the dragon and phoenix, co-existing side-by-side as battling equals, neither bowing to the other, both sharing fortitude and talents that complement the other's weaknesses.

There are plenty of wonderful and delicious strengths to this lighthearted and sincerely comical adventure. What shines is Orcutt’s gift as an author. This novel was crafted well. There are no lo0se threads untied. Also, should she mention something in the first portion of the book it is given resolution in the third.

What strikes me most about this novel is its intellect. It does not talk down to the reader ( I read a book recently where the author actually included “a.k.a” to inform the reader midway through her ridiculous romp through the Yukon Gold Rush that a “sourdough” was actually also known as a ragged old gold miner) nor does it play for the reader’s benefit. Orcutt is having a blast embroidering the tale of Phineas and Isabella and if neither of them fit the mould of this genre, then she doesn’t care.

The saavy Christian reader will appreciate Isabella’s disdain for babies and her intolerance for society’s claim that a woman of five and twenty can have no calling from a God who expects the strength of a woman to lie in domestic bliss. The saavy Christian reader will also revel in the rebel hero that is Phineas. His motives for going to China are far from ordinary and far from anticipated.

This novel is well-played, wholly original and more than fun. Rooted deep in Christianity, but written with a secular flair for insight, turn-of-phrase and sheer bliss, Orcutt has done a brilliant job.

Unfortunately, Orcutt’s ending does not mirror the happy one of her creation, Isabella. Orcutt passed away from leukemia before she could follow up with another fun and fantastic read.

All royalties from All the Tea in China are now going to Orcutt’s family. So buy it. You will help a splendid cause and have a lot of fun in the process.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Yay, review!

This one's on my shelf, per your recommendation. I'll have to bump it up in my reading stack.