“Unlocked” by Courtney Milan

28 Aug

UnlockedBona, a fellow TBR Challenge participant, posted a review of this story over a year ago, on her blog. As I mentioned here, her review led me to–finally–reading this story.

Which in turn, leads me to a confession: I do have a few Courtney Milan stories in the digital TBR.

But, I hear you say, aren’t you the one singing Ms Milan’s praises and telling us how wonderful her writing is?

Yes, yes, I am one of the many who do these things–because pretty much everything I’ve read of hers, I’ve liked very well indeed.

However, well before I fell into the dreaded reading slump from hell, almost two years ago (dear dog, shoot me now!), I already had accumulated scarily ginormous TBR mountain ranges (both print and digital), so really, it’s not surprising some of Ms Milan’s stories had gotten lost in the shuffle there.

Be warned: there are people in love and sexytimes in here, so if you don’t care to read about either, you may want to stop reading here. You may also keep in mind that this story deals with the aftermath of bullying.

“Unlocked” by Courtney Milan

This story is set in the same ‘universe’ as the Turner brothers stories, and it’s about a fairly minor secondary character introduced in Unveiled, the first novel.

While this story is definitely shorter than, say, Proof of Seduction or Trade Me, it didn’t read like a novella. By which I mean, despite the lower word count, the pacing and structure of the story allowed me to believe in the characters’ feelings about themselves and each other, and how these changed over time.

Here, have a blurb:

A perpetual wallflower destined for spinsterhood, Lady Elaine Warren is resigned to her position in society. So when Evan Carlton, the powerful, popular Earl of Westfeld, singles her out upon his return to England, she knows what it means. Her former tormenter is up to his old tricks, and she’s his intended victim. This time, though, the earl is going to discover that wallflowers can fight back.

Evan has come to regret his cruel, callow past. At first, he only wants to make up for past wrongs. But when Elaine throws his initial apology in his face, he finds himself wanting more. And this time, what torments him might be love…

When I started reading the story, I posted this over at MyMedia:

I absolutely love the premise. Imagine a young man who is the most horrid, relentless bully in your social group. Imagine him going away, but you are still the butt of all the jokes, the victim of all the pranks. Imagine him coming back an adult, fully cognizant of the torture he inflicted on you, and regretting it to the depths of his soul.

While I truly liked the story, I have been struggling to write the review for over a year; partly because it hits close to home, partly because–at least at the beginning–it’s the bully’s feelings that are centered, instead of those of his victim.

Early in the story we learn that, on that fateful season a decade ago, Evan was deeply infatuated by Elaine, in the way that many teenagers can be. He was also quite insecure and, afraid of making a cake out of himself, his way of dealing with both insecurity and infatuation, was to be himself when reasonably private with her (i.e., while dancing or taking a turn in a ballroom), and to be cutting, under the guise of wit, wherever he could be overheard.

Little by little through the course of that season, Evan comes to realize with some horror that, by protecting himself, he has hurt Elaine. Her joy is gone, her self-assurance is gone and he knows he is to blame. What’s a teenager to do?

He runs away, of course. First to the Continent, then up a mountain. Or rather, a number of them; he becomes a mountaineer

What Evan doesn’t realize is that, once the hounds are on the scent, they don’t stop hunting on their own.

The way Ms Milan paints this particular slice of British society in the mid-1800s, is very reminiscent of the all-girls school I attended during middle and high school, a few lifetimes ago: there were a very few individuals who are liked because they are nice, smart, kind, and friendly. There was a majority who went about their business unobtrusively, hoping not to be noticed, and there was a smallish group who ruled the rest by being horrid to those very unlucky few, they deemed unworthy, or easy targets. In this environment, prey rarely stops being prey, and never without something fairly drastic happening.¹

Even before Evan targeted her, Lady Elaine had a number of things against her: her figure (too full to be truly fashionable); her laughter (too loud, and neither delicate nor pretty); and…her mother.

Above pretty much everything else, Elaine’s mother is focused on math and astronomy, and her social graces are pretty much non-existent.  Today, Lady Stockhurst would be considered neuroatypical; probably, a highly functioning autistic person.²

In other words, a ready made target for mockery and ridicule for this particular group of hounds.

Evan’s horror over what he has done to Elaine, is a lovely fantasy: that those who are cruel often don’t realize the true consequences of their actions. That, if they ever realize them, they’ll regret their cruelty, and strive to make amends. That self-centered, entitled people may grow up into decent people who take responsibility for their misdeeds.

And the thing is, Ms Milan is skilled enough to make me believe in the fantasy, if only while reading it–for reality is much more prosaic: assholes will sooner believe themselves victims than recognize their own cruelty towards those they have destroyed.

The story alternates points of view, for which I’m very grateful; I don’t think I could have stood to see this play out only from Evan’s point of view. However remorseful he may be, and willing to make amends, I needed Elaine to triumph over her foes–for lack of better–in her own heart, by herself, for herself.

Which she does.

At about the halfway mark, Elaine basically snaps; after a good ten years of sly abuse, she breaks down, lashing out at her mother (more on this in a bit), and then at Evan. And it’s this, finally confronting the original root of her prolonged misery, that frees Elaine in her own eyes. If she’s shunned by society, so be it. She’ll be happier away from it, anyway.

And if she’s not…if she’s not, she is now free to truly not care about what society thinks of her.

Yes, it helps that Evan is now on her side, offering friendship, but the main change is within Elaine herself.

Mind you, despite the burden of being the butt of every joke and insult whenever a particular group of people attend the same social functions as Elaine and her mother, Elaine has nurtured true friendships, among them, that of the Duchess of Parford. She is not, by nature, meek, and so has also developed her own way to jab at her tormentors, if only by ruining whatever prank they would try to play on her.

On Lady Stockhurst’s and Elaine’s relationship: long before her coming out in society, Elaine has known that her mother is different. She is loving, but distracted, unable to read social cues, yet capable of understanding the most arcane scientific concepts. Once society could have simply shrugged at Lady Stockhurst’s eccentricity, but now that Elaine is the main target of this group of social hounds, so is her mother. As a result, Elaine has developed a fiercely protective streak over her. All the innuendo and sly digs her mother doesn’t react to, because she doesn’t understand them for what they are, hurt Elaine, because she does. Who holds her chin up and pretends not to understand, nor care, while her heart bleeds.

Until the pressure is too much to bear, and the natural resentment of pretending not to care, not to ever have cared that your peers rejoice in your misery and impotence to retaliate, finally come out.

As I said, the structure of the story helps a lot to make me believe in the evolution of the characters and their relationship. It allows me to buy into the second part of the story, and to believe in that Elaine and Evan will have a happy life together.

“Unlocked” is another excellent work by Ms Milan. 9.00 out of 10.

 

¹ Full disclosure: I was one of their chosen victims for the first two years I attended that school. It stopped when I snapped, and that wasn’t pretty. The upside was, they left me alone the next four years until graduation. Those first two years, though? Hell to live through; those girls were more vicious than a pack of rabid dogs, and utterly relentless.

² I am choosing to use identity-first language here; you can read more about that here.

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2 Responses to ““Unlocked” by Courtney Milan”

  1. Jules Jones 28/08/2017 at 5:56 PM #

    I loved this (and I think it was the first work by Courtney Milan I read), and I loved it for much the same reasons you did. Milan does an incredible job of portraying a very young person who is believably redeemable because they bully as a form of self-defence rather than for malicious pleasure. It doesn’t make the behaviour any less reprehensible, but it does make it plausible that the bully could come to be horrified by the consequences of their behaviour. And Evan doesn’t get to redeem himself by coming to rescue Elaine in a blaze of glory. No, Elaine rescues *herself*. It’s a beautifully constructed story and one I’ll happily add my recommendation for.

    • azteclady 28/08/2017 at 6:08 PM #

      The “bullying as self-defense” is not a new trope, but it’s written so well here. And, as you say, the fact that Evan is forced to accept that what he did is pretty much unforgivable, that there’s no handwaving all that harm away…

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