The Heart Is a Small, Angry Child

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AllOrNothing_Large
Cover of “All or Nothing” by Rose Lerner.

Rose Lerner’s “All of Nothing” is a novella which first appeared in the anthology Gambled Away, romance stories about bets and gambling.

Magdalena de Silva is a hostess in a gambling den, which she runs alongside her friend-with-benefits. She’s glamorous and disreputable, in the way of the demi-monde that runs parallel with high society, interdependent but aloof. Beautiful, self-assured, and un-self-consciously frank about her desires. Simon Radcliffe-Gould, a thoroughly English gentleman, is at once enchanted and intimidated by her. Too intimidated to approach, he admires her from afar. Even as it requires losing endless card games and gambling money he can’t spare, he stays close enough to her to feed the fantasies painted by his imagination, which he can’t muster the confidence to act on.

Simon needs to be pushed to act, and Maggie prefers to act by proxy. After lusting after him from a distance and waiting for him to take the initiative, she contrives to invite him into the elaborate role-play between herself and her partner, Meyer. Meyer challenges Simon to a game of chance, with Maggie’s company as the stakes. The slight deception, ostensibly obvious to everyone in the establishment except Simon, provides the impetus that puts the two of them in close proximity for two weeks. Simon’s discomfort with the game, once it’s laid bare to him, provides the first hurdle their relationship must pass.

Although he’s attracted to her from the start, and Maggie has no qualms about making her desires known, Simon’s character and personal history fix him as his own obstacle. He’s not precisely weak-willed, but he is easy to manipulate, and suffers from his inability to maintain healthy boundaries. Maggie’s strongest tie is to her friend, lover, and partner, Meyer. Simon has a parallel tie to his school friend Clement, a former lover with lingering feelings, whom he never knew how to refuse. As befits a story that begins in a gambling house, the first step in Simon and Maggie’s relationship is a negotiation: Simon is invited to the house of his former lover, and he wants Maggie’s presence to use as a buffer, to give him an excuse to turn down Clement’s advances.

In this book, the plot, theme, and characters click together in a way that’s not fully apparent until you’ve processed the story, start to finish. Maggie, who spends her nights taking bets from tipsy gamblers, has a skill at negotiation that Simon lacks. Her ability to differentiate between a feigned and an honest reaction is honed by her years of playing consent games in the submissive role, affecting to be bartered to strangers by her indifferent lover, when really the marks were chosen by her, to please her. She tries to impart some of her skill to Simon, whose friendship with Clement is on the verge of collapse after years of awkward dishonesty and encroaching resentment. Meanwhile Maggie herself has to confront the unpleasant truths she’s shunted to the back of her mind, when her separation from Meyer threatens her conception of self.

The intertwining of the three relationship arcs — Maggie and Simon, Simon and Clement, and Maggie and Meyer — is the book’s strongest feature. Both protagonists are flawed characters, Simon in a way that’s obvious and upfront, and Maggie in a subtler way, which she conceals from both the reader and herself, and struggles to come to terms with. They complement each other, again in differing ways. While Maggie imparts her lessons on boundaries and negotiation to Simon in the most open and honest manner, she derives from him in return a kind of quiet certainty in the sense of self, more through osmosis than overt instruction.

All of this doesn’t begin to touch of the many other facets of interest in the book. Part of Magdalena’s struggle hinges on her flawed and vulnerable concept of self, which traces partially back to her being a Portuguese Jew, and the granddaughter of forced converts. She’s proud and determined to be open about her Judaism, even in the face of unkind treatment from Clement’s house guests. At the same time, her Jewish identity is raw and vulnerable, inexpertly reclaimed in solitude and filled with self-doubt. She pays a heavy price for the violence visited on her ancestors, the scars of which are evidenced in her yearning for both family and community, and the casual acceptance they imply.

Maggie and Simon quarrel often about both her Judaism and her sexual licentiousness. Simon is well-meaning but ignorant about the first, and deeply conflicted about the second. In a moment of self-awareness he admits he “can be very all or nothing”, shuttled between excess and self-denial and pleased with neither. Like Maggie, his vulnerability is tied to his identity, but in his case it’s implied that the tension is between the straitlaced Anglican rectory he was raised in, and the queer, non-monogamous libertine social circle Clement introduced him to. He dreads being dragged into sex games (slash mind games) that he doesn’t want, but knows he doesn’t really fit with his mother and sisters’ ideas of propriety.

All or Nothing is billed as a romance novella, but the character of the ending has more in common with the HFN or “happily for now” ending I associate with erotica. The ending is distinctly optimistic and relationship-focused, but also pointedly engaged in possibilities rather than certainties. Given the two protagonists’ internal conflicts both have to do with feeling hemmed in by their past decisions and future options, that sense of possibility feels appropriate and even freeing, especially given the relatively short time frame of the plot.

Last but not least, I owe thanks to Corey Alexander for including the book in their blog post, “Fave Jewish Rep in Romances I Read 2018-2019“, which is how I discovered it in the first place.

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