The Irish novelist, the late Frank O'Connor, once observed that the secret of writing novels was revealed only to Jane Austen and Turgenev; that when they died, this secret died with them. Too bad O'Connor never got to read Patricia Cabot.
Not long ago I completed "Educating Caroline" and, as a result, some of my long-held stereotypes (almost exclusively negative) about "romance novels" now lie, so to speak, in a shambles at my feet. Or do they? I can't decide. We have to put a tag on every book, stick it in some pigeon-hole, assign it to a genre. And I suppose "romance" was the inevitable category for "Caroline." But this novel isn't only a "romance."
In fact, you don't have to like romance novels to thoroughly enjoy "Educating Caroline." It is outrageously witty and occasionally naughty, with a complex (not to say audacious) plot and interesting, believable, finely-drawn characters. And of course it has a heroine to die for: the eponymous Caroline (yeah, I'm male) -- sweet, lovely, regularly non-linear in her sentiments and activities, and just courageous and resourceful enough to keep a most dangerous situation for getting entirely out of hand. And the interesting hero, while no push-over, escapes the cliché of being primarily an aristocratic man-toy: tall, dark, brooding, and impossibly handsome (and titled) -- much to the author's credit. (Her villians, by the way, are deliciously corrupt and degenerate.)
Since completing "Caroline," I've acquired and read two earlier novels by Cabot. Both make for good, amusing, even compelling entertainment. But neither lit the fire of this reader the way "Caroline" did. It's my opinion that, in Ms. Cabot's most recent novel, she has cast off some of the mass-market constraints she might once have felt compelled to observe with care. In doing so, she has now given us an exquisitely crafted novel of broad, general interest. And I am not easy to please: my novelists of choice are Henry James and (of course) the inimitable Miss Austen.
It's true that "Educating Caroline" will not make us forget "The Wings of the Dove" or "Pride and Prejudice." And yet, on the basis of "Caroline," one might almost conclude that Patricia Cabot is a sort of latter-day Austen-meets-Nabokov. I'll be carefully watching Ms. Cabot's web site for future developments. Stranger things have happened ... .