Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still aflying,
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorow will be dying.
— Robert Herrick
Like the pop songs of his alter ego, the alluring debut novel Misfortune from Wesley Stace is as fancifully lithe as it is richly gratifying. A hearty 19th-century tale dressed as a summer read, the novel’s Victorian nature is loosely writ, and in the hands of Stace, the whimsical narrative offered is thoroughly delightful, flourishes and all. Stace funnels his considerable talent and experience as a singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding into crafting a playful and buoyant tale of transgendered child-rearing which rings with mystery and marvel.
Misfortune has its roots in the 1997 song “Miss Fortune,” a folksy sort of waltz that begins with the dreadfully intriguing line: “I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth.” Where such a somber opening may prelude a life replete with misery, things are never that simple. The novel takes the song’s premise and expands it out by about 500-plus pages, only occasionally dragging, but rarely uninteresting. Like the song, the novel begins with the discovery of an infant. Abandoned babies should be so lucky. For this particular one, fortune never seems to miss. After being discarded, the foundling is carried off in a bundle of rags by a mothering canine, until the dog and its find are discovered by Lord Geoffrey Loveall. The intervening Lord and his man trade the bundle for a bit of meat, and proceed home.
For the fanciful Young Lord Loveall the baby provides a settling of sorts, filling the ache of loss from his sister’s long-ago death, and pleasing his ailing mother’s quest for an heir to the Loveall fortune and name. As begets its literary heritage, Misfortune uncorks a series of events that are serviceably intertwined, creating a mischievously joyful fable, abounding with ballads, inner-family feuding, feminist poetic thought, a coded history of secrets, a scheming servant, mythological lore, and a host of other minor tracks which dress the novel’s background with a songwriter’s touch.
Raised as the offspring and successor of the Loveall line after a hastily arranged marriage of convenience between Lord Loveall and the estate’s librarian, Anonyma, the child Rose is burdened only by the fact she is a boy. This dilemma is ignored by the Young Lord whose obsession for his sibling, the deceased Dolores, is passed to Rose, and his delusion is masterfully accompanied by the collusion of those around him.
Early on, it becomes easy to pick up the threads and see where the ultimate fate of Rose and the Loveall family will conclude. As Rose’s teen years unfold, discovery and revelation loom closer for the outside world and for the inner realm that has safely harbored the child for years. The truth is enough to finish off the fragile Geoffrey and set in motion the events which lead to the adventuresome quest to regain what is seemingly lost and to find Rose’s true heritage.
Readers who devour historical texts and fiction for intricately authentic details and fact will find Misfotune a little too free with its ends, as Stace infuses his tale with the layered sensibilities of great pop music and leaves the sometimes overly burdensome period particulars for more staid writers. Narrated by Rose, with several clever exceptions, including the wondrous opening, the book reads as a memoir. The early chapters of Rose’s childhood pursuits are particular enjoyable, especially the androgynous confusion which increases with age. In the last third of the book, coincides and a dash of heavy-handed liberalism the likes of which most novels would falter under reveal themselves at breakneck speed, but with the deft hand of a balladeer, Stace charms his way out of the hackneyed contrivances without the slightest hint of apology. And where’s the need?
Misfortune is a musically rousing treat, hitting Dickensonian notes with Stace’s wistful prose. For a first novel, Stace has crafted a tale that is as breezy as a summer’s day, yet thick with the lushness of language and history. The gender-confused narrator is as captivating a fictional voice as any in recent literature, and had Stace waltzed out of a MFA program somewhere in the Midwest, he’d be all anyone was talking about. As it is, he’s crafted a delightful yarn of Shakespearean amusement that is, like a song, great for a brief read or more studious attentions.