I feel like I say this about every Sunfire book, but: this book is a trainwreck. The only difference is that each book is a trainwreck in a new and different and exciting way. On the plus side: there is no plus side to this book. I didn’t even learn anything. (Although to be honest, the bar for “learning” from Sunfire novels is really, really low. It’s like saying you learned something from reading a billboard. We should all know this stuff already.)
Diana, Mary Francis Shura, 1988.
This book is the same age as I am and used to belong to the library of Gardiner Middle School in Oregon City, and I don’t know what’s more horrifying: the fact that this book only cost $2.75 American new (books used to be so cheap!) or the fact that this was considered good reading material for 13-year-olds. Also hilarious: the front cover. Diana is wearing a rhinestone tiara and carrying a fan that looks like it came out of a Vegas drag revue, and giving the viewer a look that’s equal parts confused and smug. You can tell of the two dudes on the cover who she’s going to end up with, though, because she’s embracing the Daniel Boone cosplayer and the hat-wearing dandy on the right looks mildly perturbed.
The premise of this book is that Diana is the daughter of a wealthy fur trading family in New Orleans just as the Louisiana Purchase has been transacted. The city is in turmoil, but because Diana is a teenager, she really has nothing useful to offer to anyone and so she goes to a party with her parents and meets up with her friend, Violette. At this party (literally we’re only on page 6 and introducing one of the love interests, so this book clearly does not mess around) she meets David LaPointe, a handsome blond French aristocrat. He’s very shy, so they dance together a few times and Diana gets all bent out of shape because he’s being weird, and then he confesses that he’s seen her driving around town in her father’s carriage and fell in love with her at first sight. (I am not feeling great about David.) She’s super taken with this, though, and the next day Violette comes over and they gossip about him, and then he invites Diana to go driving again and for tea.
Despite my immediate misgivings, David is basically perfect. Diana is obsessed with him, her parents love him, he comes over all the time and brings her stuff, listens to her, and says he’s willing to wait for her for however long she needs. After a couple of weeks of them spending all their time together, David’s aunt gives a ball in his honour, but Diana is invited because the said aunt hates Americans. It doesn’t matter, as Diana’s parents are shipping her off to St. Louis where things are safer. Diana’s grandmother lives there on a large estate, and Diana is immediately busy running around to parties and receptions in honour of Lewis and Clark’s party of explorers.
Diana, being a typical Girl Of The 80s Transplanted Into Olden Times, thinks sewing is a waste of time and longs to spend most of her time rambling around the estate, so one night she wanders out in the middle of the night and bumps into a strange man. He’s a young man, not too much older than her, trespassing on their land, but basically he spends their entire meeting belittling her for being stupid enough to run around at night. ACTUAL QUOTE: “Such a pretty face to have no brains behind it.” But apparently Diana is not that offended by this, and invites him to come back to the house after he more or less forces her to go back. What. It turns out that he’s there as part of the expedition, because of course he is. Then he figures out she’s wealthy, they bond on the fact that they’re both originally from Kentucky, and life is just peachy and he’s so dreamy. NOTE TO YOUNG READERS: Do not date guys who say cruel things to you on first meeting. I feel like this is a note that many, many Sunfire heroines need.
Anyway, the expedition isn’t due to leave for a bit, so John—the guy—keeps coming around to the house and going walking in the woods with Diana, who keeps trying to claim she’s just super interested in the expedition. (No one buys this.) John is basically a jerk: he goes on at length about how “the women in my family are generous” because they sent him off on the expedition without crying so his last memory of home wouldn’t be sobbing women. This entire passage is very “bitches, amiright?” and frankly I’m thinking John’s family wasn’t exactly sad to see him go, if you get my drift. But Diana is attracted to him because he’s a Man’s Man, which he demonstrates by beating a guy who comes near Diana while they’re walking one night, and then kissing her. What is this even.
John fucks off for a few days after that, because there’s nothing like the old hot-and-cold to make sure a teenage girl is well and truly obsessed with you, and then who turns up in St. Louis? That’s right—David, and Violette, and Violette’s latest beau, Philippe. There’s all this about “the flood of sunshine” that comes into a room with David, and he keeps telling Diana how he knows he loves and her and is willing to wait, and the four of them go to parties and generally play. Diana’s grandmother holds a ball for the explorers, and John and David meet, which seems soul-searingly awkward, but David thanks John for rescuing Diana from the assailant and then offers to allow them to dance. Where John confesses that he’s in love with Diana. Diana still goes on about how she’s amazed that people find her beautiful, and gets irritated when David isn’t upset when other men compliment her, and generally comes across as a spoiled child.
Philippe and Violette get engaged while they’re there in St. Louis, and they return to New Orleans with David while Diana remains in St. Louis in relative safety. And also to continue going out with John, who straight-up tells her that he loves her and it would be cruel, oh so very cruel and mean, to ask her to wait for him, and how difficult it will be to leave her, but he would never, ever, ever ever ever ask her to do that! Never ever! Even when Diana is basically going “Yes! Yes I will wait for you!” John just fucks off because he’s an asshole.
Eventually, finally, the expedition leaves, and Diana returns back to New Orleans for Violette’s wedding via riverboat with David. We get this gem: “David was no less dear to her now that she loved John so deeply. David was no less entertaining, nor appealing. Often she had to catch herself to keep from hugging David from the pure delight of his company. Could she be a fickle, worthless person and not even realize it?” Uh, yes. Yes is the answer you’re looking for, you jerk.
While she’s in New Orleans, one of David’s aunt’s friends asks if she’ll marry him in the future, and Diana whiffles about on how she’s “made a promise to her heart” or some nonsense, and everyone is like “so, you’re hedging your bets with a guy who may die, then?” and she’s like NO, I’M JUST SAYING. Yeah.
I’m going to pause her to point out that this is the most poorly-timed book in all of history. The expedition doesn’t leave until page 140, and then things speed up insanely. Violette gets married on page 161, then we speed through a YEAR in four pages, and then on page 164 Philippe is getting into a duel over a race and David is his second. ON page 167 Philippe dies. What??? Violette basically blue-screens out and is more or less comatose for TWO MONTHS, and then suddenly starts getting better. This is so bizarre.
Diana returns to St. Louis for her third Christmas there, and everyone thinks the expedition is doomed somewhere. David comes and asks if she’s been promised to someone else, and Diana is all hurt and offended that he would think such a thing, when….you know, she kind of has. David, go! Find a better woman! I am confident you can find one who won’t screw you around like this! He asks if she’s ever going to give up on this guy, since he’s been gone two years, and she says to give her until her birthday, which is a few months away.
Violette is in St. Louis with Diana, and just before Diana’s birthday they hear word from the expedition that they’re just a few days away. Diana is ecstatic, and Violette is upset that Diana is being awful–she tells her that she’s not dependable, not sensible, and is being deliberately cruel to David, which is correct. “You’ve gone around looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in that angel mouth of yours while you played games with two lives. How dare you keep a wonderful human being dangling on a string as if he were a child’s trinket? You don’t deserve David. You don’t deserve either of those men.” SHE IS EXACTLY CORRECT. I find no errors in this statement.
John comes back, of course, and they meet and kiss and he tells her that he can never live in a city again, he needs to live out in the wilderness to be his True Self. He “releases her” (which is pretty rich for someone who went on and on about not demanding that she stay for him), and Diana is incredibly depressed about all of this. Then she suddenly realizes that “wait! That’s what I want, too! I want to live in the wilderness, too! That is my destiny!” even though she has lived in the lap of luxury her entire life. What. What is going on.
Conveniently, Diana rushes off to Violette’s place, and finds David and Violette walking in the garden, and discovers just by looking at them that Violette is totally in love with David, and immediately assumes she has been for the past three years. She tells David she can’t possibly marry him, and she isn’t going to marry John either, and tells him that he loves Violette and has for a long time whether he knows it or not.
What? WHAT? The entire middle third of this book is about how crazy Violette and Philippe are for each other, and how she’s so devastated by his death that she is COMATOSE for MONTHS and then suddenly we’re supposed to believe that she’s been in love with DAVID without ANY EVIDENCE? And we’re supposed to believe that David has been in love with Violette when he has spent THREE YEARS chasing after Diana???? This is the point where I tried to set the book on fire with a nearby candle. Who wrote this dreck? This is the worst case of “and it all just magically worked out” that I have ever SEEN.
A couple of weeks later David and Violette announce their engagement, and that night she goes to the woods to cry. And who turns up but John? OF COURSE HE DOES, after saying that he wouldn’t bother her anymore. He says he earned plenty of money, and wants he as his wife, and is willing to live in a nice house in the city. And Diana says she wants to adventure with him on a wilderness homestead instead (although she bases all of this on the fact that she, too, was born in Kentucky, despite the fact that she has servants and has lived a very wealthy life for A LONG TIME). And they live happily ever after.
Rating: F. I hate everyone in this book. They all deserve to have their homes burned down. This is one of those books that gives teen fiction a bad rap–it is SO, SO, SO BAD. Diana is a terrible, terrible person whose friends are completely justified in telling her so. David is much better than she deserves. Violette apparently has her brain replaced at some point during the book, taking with it all the old memories and replacing them with new ones–that’s the only explanation for her completely weird sea-change. The plot of this book is abysmal and has no redeeming value other than to make me mash my keyboard in horror and hurl the poor falling-apart book across the room. I cannot believe a tree died to print this. Only read this book is you are a masochist or you, like me, enjoy laughing aloud at how each plot “twist” can be EVEN WORSE than the last.