Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson
I will begin by stating that this is not my usual type of book; it was lent to me by a friend and then a member of my book club mentioned it, so I decided to read it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy it because I was so bothered by the unbelievable events and characters.
There are two stories. In the present, Julia Lovat is given an early 17th century book of needlework by her lover as a gift to end their seven-year affair. She soon discovers that a lady’s maid used the book as a diary. This young woman, Catherine Ann Tregenna (Cat), wants more than anything to become a master embroiderer and to escape the confines of Cornwall. Her latter wish is granted when she is one of the 60 people taken captive by Barbary pirates and brought to Morocco to be sold into slavery. Julia, fascinated by Cat’s diary, makes her way to North Africa to find out what happened to her.
One of the aspects of the book that really bothered me is that both Julia is so stupid. She becomes obsessed with Cat’s diary and while reading it comes across the name Annie Badcock (89), yet when she hears it again, she doesn’t remember it: “Annie Badcock. The name was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d come across it” (131). In the diary she also sees the surname Bolitho (24), yet she doesn’t remember that an aunt, the mother of her cousin and best friend, is a Bolitho. She has to be told: “’Well, Alison’s mother’s a Bolitho, isn’t she? You should know – she’s your cousin’” (322). And this is after Julia has several conversations with Alison about the diary and its contents! And she’s so inept in her conversations, at one time telling a Muslim man that his ancestors were “’such barbarous people’” (346). And the author never thought of a connection between the derivation of the adjective “barbarous” and the Barbary Coast of North Africa?
The other problem is that the number of parallels between Julia and Cat’s stories suggests excessive contrivance. They both look best in red dresses, and even their handwriting is similar. Both are experts in embroidery. Both have relationships which are unsatisfying. Each encounters a fortune teller who accurately predicts her future.
The number of coincidences is also excessive. Julia, who comes from Cornwall, has an affair with a man whose wife comes from Cornwall. Crucial letters which reveal the end of Cat’s story are found in Alison’s Cornwall home and a sample of Cat’s work is owned by the wife of Julia’s lover. And in Morocco Julia meets someone who also seems to have a piece of Cat’s embroidery from almost 400 years ago. The coincidences just go on and on.
This book would be classified as a historical romance so obviously there will be romantic relationships, but it would be better if these romances were credible. Is it likely that a woman would fall in love with someone who orchestrated the capture of 60 people including her family members, who tortured and killed captives, and who sold them into slavery? Julia also seems to move from a bad relationship to an unlikely one.
The one interesting aspect of the novel is its discussion of embroidery, a handicraft practiced by women around the world for centuries. The author seems to have done considerable research into embroidery in Medieval Islamic culture.
This is a work of fluff. It has the romantic element in an exotic location and a historical context which will appeal to readers of escapist fiction. It did not appeal to me.