CW/TW: sexual assault, violence
A Witch In Time is billed as the story of magically star-crossed lovers, both artists, cursed to be reincarnated and live out their doomed affair again and again throughout history. Based on the description and premise, I thought this book was going to be an atmospheric, poetic, romantic, and maybe slightly sad book with some occult elements. Not only was it not really any of those things, it was also an incredible mess.
This book is, as the Young People would say, not it. My primary reactions were irritation, anger, boredom, and very occasional, grudging, momentary enjoyment before I got irritated, angry, or bored again. The structure and plotting, world-building, characters, and “romance” (if you can even call it that) were all weak. Sexual violence is handled quite poorly and insensitively. In fact, there were so many things I disliked about this book that I had to make a list and sort it by order of priority to decide what I was actually going to discuss in my review.
To be able to adequately describe what all is going on here, I have to set the scene a little bit. The basic premise is that in 1895, a teenage girl in France named Juliet (which, P.S., is not a French name–that’d be Juliette) has an affair with an artist named Auguste Marchant. Her mother finds out and tries to curse the artist using witchcraft, but messes up somehow (more on this later) which dooms the girl and the artist to be continually reincarnated to have their “tragic romance” again and again. The mother’s curse also involves a minor demon named Lucian in this reincarnation cycle as the protagonist’s sort-of occasional caretaker/minder.
The structure of the book as it stems from this premise seems poorly-considered and even sloppy. The life of the contemporary incarnation of the cursed woman, who is named Helen, serves as the frame narrative for the past lives. These past lives are presented sequentially in Helen’s dreams as she starts to remember them, and the curse she is under, after her marriage to Roger (who is the current incarnation of Marchant) ends.
Unfortunately, the way that the past lives and the current life are integrated into one whole is clunky. Important plot information, such as how the curse works, is frequently delivered via stilted dialogue. The result is that it feels like the book is trying to tell me how the different threads are related instead of just showing me that they are, in fact, related. For example, Lucian the demon shows up in Helen’s modern life before she remembers anything about her past lives and starts immediately talking about all of the times she has previously “called” him (France in 1895, Los Angeles 1935, Taos in 1970). Up until this point, the book reads so much like a fluffy contemporary novel that this entire conversation is jarring in a way that seems…silly.
The sequential way that Helen’s past lives are presented is also mind-numbingly repetitive. The basic structure of all of Helen’s lives are the same: Girl and/or young woman meets older man she cannot fully have a relationship with for some reason or another. He comes to some tragic end. She survives for a while under the care of the mysterious Lucian and then also comes to a tragic end. The details are a little bit different in every incarnation, but not enough to do more than provide a little window dressing for what is essentially the same plot three times in a row, embedded within the same plot happening for a fourth time. After I made it through 1.5 out of three past lives, I was so bored I was ready to scream. In the course of this book, I had to read about some version of Helen remembering her previous life or lives and then talking to Lucian about it in almost identical conversations three different times. It’s all a surprisingly linear approach to a nonlinear narrative and it does not work.
The structure is also an issue in that so much of this book’s real estate is taken up with the repetitive accounting of Helen’s previous lives that there is minimal space for any actual plot in the present day, so there’s little to no sense of rising tension or conflict within the overall work. This book reads like three similar historical novellas clumsily linked with a frame story instead of a cohesive single narrative.
The world-building, such as it is, is similarly sloppy. The parameters of the curse, the way witchcraft works in this world, and who or what the demons really are all seem at once unnecessarily specific and infuriatingly confusing.
For example, I was deeply annoyed that the entire genesis of the curse was just that Juliet’s original mother was bad at magic and so accidentally cursed her own daughter to suffer for eternity as well as Marchant. It doesn’t feel like there is any resolution around this and everyone seems strangely blasé about the fact that Juliet/Helen’s repetitive cycle of suffering was caused by her mom’s mystical clerical error.
Most of this information is delivered to the reader via expository conversations that Helen or one of Helen’s previous incarnations has with Lucian, which is the epitome of telling and not showing. SNOOOOOZE.
I might have been less annoyed by the awkward plotting and contrived magical system if I had cared about any of the characters. To say that Helen does not inspire much sympathy is an understatement. Before any of the occult elements come into play, Helen’s entire internal monologue revolves around describing her life as a social fixture in Washington, D.C. and name-dropping designer clothing brands like Reem Acra and Alexander McQueen (which is, I have to say, a bizarre stylistic choice for a book that’s ultimately about reincarnation and witchcraft!).
Helen’s reactions to things, especially major revelations about her past selves and current situation, often made no sense to me. Frankly, her actions frequently made no sense either. She would do things that were kind and gentle one moment, then lie about something for reasons that were unclear, and then do something horribly petty and cruel the next. Other than a clear interest in social status, she did not have any consistent character traits. (Sadly, “is a magazine editor,” “can do the Jedi mind trick,” and “maybe wants to stay alive?” are not personality traits). The book is not sure who Helen is supposed to be, which made it impossible to care about what happened to her or why she was on the reincarnation merry-go-round from hell. Helen’s past incarnations are similarly fuzzy in characterization, if perhaps slightly more consistent in their actions. For example, Juliet’s entire personality is Horny Sad Teenager, and she acts consistently with that M.O., but this does not a particularly vivid or real-seeming character make.
None of the other major characters fully coalesce, either. The Marchant/Roger character who is Helen’s “doomed love” is a generic artistic asshole type who is inspired by Helen but treats her horribly (and is somehow involved in marital infidelity!) in every life. The demon bureaucrat Lucian, who also loves Helen and is also involved with her in every life, is even hazier of a character than Helen. He had no consistent traits that I could identify, except for maybe that he enjoys withholding information. He seems more like a plot function than a character: in every life he dramatically rescues the current incarnation of Helen from some bad situation related to Marchant/Roger, communicates breadcrumbs of info via boring dialogue, and very occasionally takes some kind of seemingly random action to move one of the past-life plots forward. Also, many of the actions he does take are cruel and/or humiliating towards Helen/her past incarnations, which does not really turn him into a winning romantic hero in my eyes.
This brings me to the next thing I hated about this book, which is the “romance.” It is obvious almost from the jump that Juliet/Helen’s repeated situation with Roger/Marchant is not going to be the big romance of this book. They are doomed and he’s a jerk. Instead, the big love story is supposed to be between Juliet/Helen and Lucian, her faithful demon bureaucrat. There are two major problems with this, which is that first, it’s creepy, and second, there’s…not actually a love story here.
This “romance” is icky for a couple of reasons. First, Lucian, who seems to be eternally middle-aged, meets Juliet when she’s sixteen. He is in a caretaker role for her when the curse first kicks in. He tells her to think of him as an uncle and provides her with an education, food, clothes, etc. That he is “in love” with her by the time she is nineteen is, frankly, gross, especially because Juliet has already been taken advantage of by an older man one time. Also, he provides everything she has. There’s a huge power imbalance, and this dynamic continues throughout Juliet’s lives. Lucian always has more than she does, more stuff, more information, more power. Yuck.
Other than the creepy aspect, there’s also just not much of a love story here. There was no build-up of any romantic relationship or tension or a changing dynamic. Juliet just decides one day when she’s nineteen that she both loves Lucian and wants to have sex with him, and he (apparently) reciprocates those feelings. And then, in subsequent lives, Helen immediately shacks up with Lucian as soon as she remembers him because she remembers that she loves him, I guess? But telling me two people are in love does not make me believe they are in love. Throughout their interactions, in most of Helen’s lives, they don’t even seem to like each other very much, and yet, the book pushes the idea that they are GREAT LOVES.
At this point, I’ve described in great detail why this book was a huge letdown from a craft perspective. I also need to talk about the unfortunate way this book handles gender-based violence.
There is a lot of violence against Juliet/Helen/etc in this book. Most of it (but not all) comes in the first quarter, and it is handled very poorly. First, it’s clear based on Juliet and Marchand’s initial encounters in France that he is grooming her, and has been for some time. He has been painting Juliet since she was younger. He pays Juliet’s mother for Juliet and her little brother to pose together for him, and then continually passes off the baby to a servant at his house so he can be alone with Juliet (Y I K E S). He gives Juliet presents and treats her “like an adult,” appealing to her desire to be seen as grown-up.
Disappointingly, when Juliet’s sexual relationship with Marchand starts, it is presented in the text pretty straightforwardly as an erotic encounter. I found this deeply upsetting. While what happens to Juliet with Marchand is not violent, it is clearly not fully consensual and is in fact rather sinister and NOT sexy. He is a much older, married man who has put a lot of effort into dazzling a young, vulnerable, and naive girl. While the book does not necessarily valorize Marchand’s pursuit of Juliet, it never seems to quite acknowledge just how repugnant his behavior is, with the various incarnations of Helen sometimes thinking fondly of her girlhood sexual encounters with Marchand and feeling sympathy for him for being trapped in the curse with her. If anything, given that there is a significant age and power difference between Marchand and Juliet/Helen, and between Lucian and Juliet/Helen, in every life except the contemporary one, the book seems to present this kind of imbalanced situation as having a lot of romantic and erotic potential. NO THANKS!
In addition to the oddly romanticized portrayal of a grooming relationship, there is also a gratuitous, graphic, and violent rape scene during the Juliet past life narrative that serves no purpose other than to highlight how awful Juliet’s life is at that moment. I almost DNF’ed the book when this happened, and honestly, I wish I did. I could not help but notice that in most of her lives, all of Helen’s suffering revolves around sexual violence and/or sexual humiliation. It was so disappointing to read such a narrow view of what it means to suffer as a woman.
There are many other things I did not like about A Witch In Time, but if I kept going much longer, the review might get as long as the book. So, there is one final thing I think it is important to flag here and that is that some of the secondary characters in the contemporary frame plot are flatly stereotypical in a way that borders on offensive. For example, Helen’s friend Mickey is a caricature of a sassy/bitchy “gay best friend” who only wants to gossip about men and style and meanly shames Helen for her post-divorce weight gain. It’s exhausting that these same tired, dehumanizing tropes for marginalized people are being trotted out in 2020. (Although, clearly, as we have seen with this entire RWA fiasco, progress is far from linear!!)
In sum, my primary problems with A Witch In Time are that it is messily constructed, populated with flat and/or inconsistent characters, and the treatment of gender-based violence is appalling. Truly, the only thing that made me give this book a D- instead of an F is that every once in a while, in the past life sections, there would be a nicely vivid paragraph describing a setting or some sensory details. And then someone would start talking again and I would once more hate this book experience. I cannot even bring myself to provide my usual recommendation of who might like this book because I hate it so hard. If you want a sad, atmospheric, romantic historical occult story, read The Witch of Willow Hall instead.