Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean. Avon. 2019.
Note: I do not recommend this book to trans and non-binary readers. I would suggest that fat readers approach this book with caution.
Content Warnings for the review: References MC’s trauma history. References misogyny in the story. Describes a crossdressing scene and gender reveal moment that includes nakedness and sex. References internalized fat hatred. References the threat of sexual assault. Discusses gender binarism, gender essentialism, and cissexism at length.
In all honesty, I was worried about this book. I go into most romances with fat representation with a sizeable amount of wariness, and this book got mixed reviews regarding the fat representation. Plus, given the author’s platforming and endorsement of one of the most fat hating novels to come out in 2018, I didn’t trust that the fat representation in this book would work for me as a fat reader.
I was correct: this book didn’t work for me. Not only because of the fat representation, but also because of the use of the crossdressing trope in combination with the fat rep. I DNF’d the book (did not finish) near the end of the cross dressing moment (at 71% in), and will not be returning to it. It caused me considerable harm to read it, and I am not willing to risk further harm from finishing it.
On the surface this appears to be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and I’d say that while it has a few moments that remind me of similar scenes in the Disney 1992 film, it’s unlikely to be even as much as a loose retelling, given the direction of the book when I put it down. That said, if you love that film, you might enjoy the references to it, particularly the dance scene.
The heroine is determined to begin what she calls “The Year of Hattie”, a year in which she takes control of her life and her future. She’s fairly firmly on the shelf at the age of 29, and has been wanting to take over the family business, and her plans are all about achieving that goal, despite the misogyny she faces from her father who does not believe she can succeed at running a business because she’s a woman. Right as she is about to take the first step, she has a meet cute with the hero, and you can see that the entire book will be a battle of wills between them as they fall for each other. The romantic arc is a fairly classic one, where they both have substantial armor and are at cross purposes, but grow to understand and respect each other even as they try to avoid being vulnerable to one another. Of course the villain of the piece (well, one of them) intrudes just at the moment when you think things are going so well, and turns the hero’s vulnerability into a weapon, and there we have a tightly plotted arc, complete with betrayal and complexity.
The hero is framed as a broody scary brute with a heart of gold who has experienced way too much trauma, and in that way I think is intended to evoke Beast from the fairy tale (the Disney version). I was a bit more compelled by his emotional arc in the story, than by Hattie’s, though I could have done without so much recounting of trauma from his childhood.
This book has been lauded as feminist, and I guess it depends on your definition of that. We have a hero who tries to establish social norms against harming and sexually assaulting women amongst his people, and yet in the end he is reduced to being a singular protector, and there is no sense that he has at all shifted the culture around sexual assault or harm to women. He may personally believe Hattie capable of running a business but there is no way for her to actually get to run her father’s business without societal change around misogyny and her father changing, neither of which seem likely at the point in the book when I stopped reading. If feminism is interpersonal, then perhaps it is at work here.
I can understand why both of the MCs are compelling to readers, and the book is plotted fairly tightly. There is great chemistry between them, and some lovely humor. That said, it didn’t work for me, for two main reasons.
The first is the fat representation. We have a fat character who is depicted as maybe slightly chubby on the cover. She is depicted with lush curves, large breasts, and a general sense that by social standards she is fat inside the book. It is her fatness that is used to explain why she has never landed a husband. I know some readers felt that she is merely being realistic in assessing the ways that she doesn’t fit the social standards of beauty, which she frequently references and fairly constantly frames as core to her sense of self. Her sense of her own fat identity is that it’s very important and that being fat means social rejection.
While I get why some readers would say she is merely describing her reality, it feels deeper than this to me as a reader. I felt that she had internalized fat hatred. She is convinced that no man will ever find her attractive, that nobody would ever want to have sex with her for the sake of enjoyment or attraction, unless they had an ulterior motive. She wants to hide her body from her love interest. These things go beyond an accurate sense of social reality, particularly because the hero is so unabashed in his attraction, so clearly into her, so intense in his expression of desire. She has internalized this sense of self so deeply that she ignores what is right in front of her, even though she is intensely observant and intelligent and generally very good at reading situations, she is deeply invested in the idea of her utter unattractiveness, so much that she cannot believe he is attracted even when its incredibly obvious.
This book is set in 1837, right at the beginning of an era when women Hattie’s size became the standard of beauty in Victorian England, so it’s especially frustrating to have a plump curvy hourglass large breasted woman like her be utterly convinced that nobody would ever be attracted to her, despite all evidence to the contrary. If this wasn’t such a ubiquitous way to write fat heroines I would perhaps have more patience for it, but the representation of how fat women see themselves and their attractiveness is incredibly skewed, so much so that it’s just kind of accepted that of course fat women would assume nobody would be into them, after all that’s the reality, isn’t it? I’ve written at length before about how this framing of fatness has been toxic in my own life, and I don’t want to go over that again. What I would like is more stories that have characters that depart from this. How awesome would it be if Hattie concluded that just like everyone is wrong about her business accumen they are also wrong about her size, beauty and attractiveness? She believed that while many men are jerks and can’t see her worth as a business person, Whit actually did see that worth; why can’t she also think that about her attractiveness? What a story this might be if she did.
I often struggle with historical romance, and the ways that it folds in real life events and history. I’m often wondering, with families like Hattie’s, when they talk about being in trade, what kind of trade is it exactly, and how deeply are they implicated in enslavement and colonialism? There weren’t enough details to know, which in some cases is a blessing as often the details elide the terrible things going on that feed the power and wealth of the characters. In this case, the book mostly frames aristocratic white men as powerful abusers or negligent fools, which is a departure from much of the historical romance I’ve read in the past.
Where it does not depart, however, is in the use of the crossdressing trope as a way for Hattie to track down Whit in places where a lady cannot go (taverns, a boxing match). This trope is incredibly common and is one of the main reasons I generally avoid historical romance that includes heroines, because these scenes almost never are included in content warnings. I’ve discussed some of my core issues with the crossdressing trope at great length in my response to the book Noteworthy, a contemporary YA built on the trope. It’s often used to reinforce and cement heterosexism, queer hatred, gender binarism, gender essentialism, and of course, cissexism.
This book doesn’t really go there with the heterosexism and queer hatred, but instead uses Hattie’s fatness to double down on the gender binarism, gender essentialism and cissexism. We hear again and again about how Hatties breasts are simply too large to be contained or go unnoticed, how her ample curves make her immediately recognizable as a woman, how sexy the hero finds her in men’s clothes because they enhance her soft femininity. We have an incredibly detailed drawn out sex scene where he strips her from her binder, which of course is combined with her reluctance to be openly naked and in the light as a fat woman. (I’ve written an entire essay venting my frustration at the trope of the fat heroine covering up immediately after sex and being reluctant to be seen naked.)
In the scene, it’s as if stripping her from her binder descreases her powerfulness, her control, makes her vulnerable and more submissive, as if it literally feminizes her in the misogynist sense of the word, strips her down so that he can claim dominion over her body and gender and self. They don’t negotiate it, but it feels like the scene has elements of dominance and submission, where their constant power struggle is gone, his sense of her as a maginificent warrior is not at play, and instead she is vulnerable and belongs to him. Which was when I stopped reading.
This kind of scene deeply evokes cissexist gender essentialist ideas about bodies telling the “truth” of us, about her femininity being of course connected to her submissiveness and vulnerability, about the ways that he takes control over her gender expression and thus takes control of her. I found it immensely painful to read as a fat transmasculine survivor reader, and it led to an incredibly intense bout of gender dysphoria for me, and was deeply triggering for me.
Reading crossdressing scenes is almost always dysphoria-inducing for me, which is why I attempt to avoid running into them in romance. This is because they take trans hating tropes and play them out in ways that elide and excuse them, they reinforce the things that are the building blocks of trans oppression, and they reinforce trans hating cissexist myths about gender and bodies. This was compounded for me personally by the fact that all these things were intertwined with the fat representation; it wasn’t just that her body told the “truth,” that she was essentially feminine, but that her fat body made that truth obvious and sexualized, that in the universe of this book, fat transmasculine people cannot exist, fat trans men will never pass, that fatness makes it impossible to be trans in a way that might be seen or respected. And let’s face it, these stories never actually include real trans people, and this was no different. She plays with crossdressing to achieve a goal, she isn’t expressing her gender, because transness is forever a tool and a costume in these stories, not a reality. The only other crossdressing character is her queer woman friend, but it’s not done in a queer tradition of drag but instead for a purpose, so it’s not in fact any more respectful.
Overall, I do not recommend this book to trans and non-binary readers, particularly fat trans and non-binary readers. I personally did not care for the fat representation and think that we deserve better than this, but I understand that some fat readers felt differently about it. In the end, the story and characters did not make it at all worth the risk of continuing to read a book that was so harmful for me, so my review only covers the first 71% of the book. It is very rare for me to DNF so late and not even skim to the end, but in this case, it’s truly not worth it to me. Make of that what you will about the book as a whole.
- Trauma survivor white man MC.
- Fat white woman love MC.
- Queer white woman secondary character.
- White woman author.
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Abduction. Blackmail. Physical violence. Several knife wounds. Description of sewing up knife wounds. Threat of violence and sexual coercion. Misogyny. Characters in peril, threatened with death. Recounting of abuse and torture in childhood, of childhood homelessness and children in peril. Crossdressing trope including a length sex scene where the heroine gets stripped of her binder by the hero and has her femininity “revealed”. Fat MC who is certain nobody could ever find her attractive or be interested in having sex with her except as means to an end. Sex on the page.
- Source of the book: I bought this book with the stipend I received as part of being a judge for The Ripped Bodice Awards for Excellence in Romantic Fiction.
- I have had some minimal contact with the author on Twitter.
- All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.
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