I enjoy Phillipa Gregory as much as the next reader. I’m the first to admit that her novels are among my guilty pleasures. I loiter in the dusty interior of second hand bookstores like a junkie looking for a fix. When I find a dog-eared novel bearing her name, I sandwich it between more manly reading fare and bear it off to the counter.
Even her more serious fiction is hardly what anyone would classify as high literature. To be honest, that’s part of what makes her work so enjoyable. I can never shake off the sneaking suspicion that her historical novels are simply variations of her Wideacre bodice-rippers dressed up in the glad-rags of a more respected genre.
Like her Wideacre series, most of them contain illicit sex, roughly the same amount of incest as Game Of Thrones and detailed descriptions of period clothing. Should you ever play the Phillipa Gregory drinking game, make sure to take a shot every time you read the word “corset” or “lacings.” I guarantee that you won’t be walking straight by the time you reach the middle of the book.
There’s an undeniable allure to reading about the dastardly goings-on, exaggerated or otherwise, of the upper-class in begone days. The historical settings are removed enough to allow the author free reign in creating some decidedly politically incorrect scenarios. I was interested to see how Gregory handled a novel with a more modern backdrop.
Zelda’s Cut starts off with a promising premise. Isobel Latimer is a highly respected writer of moral fables. But while she’s won critical acclaim, financial success remains elusive.
Like many Gregory heroines, Isobel is saddled with a useless, infantile mate. Her husband Philip is defined by only two qualities – his mysterious, possibly psychosomatic illness and his obsession with getting a pool.
We are given very little insight into his inner workings or motivation but by God, we know that he wants a pool and come hell or high water, he intends to have one. Unfortunately, it’s up to Isobel to provide the funds for it.
Since readers aren’t lining up to buy her literary novels, she decides to write a deliberately trashy book instead. At this point, you have to wonder if Isobel is a thinly veiled stand-in for Gregory herself. When Isobel describes the structure of a best-seller bonk-buster, she could be describing your average Gregory novel.
Isobel and her literary agent, an ambiguously bisexual young man with the improbable name of Troy Cartwright, create the outline for a seedy bestseller and the persona of Zelda Vere.
Zelda is less a woman than a caricature. Blonde, sporting make-up worthy of a lounge singer and draped in designer clothing, she is marketed as the author of “The Devil’s Disciple.”
It becomes harder and harder to suspend one’s disbelief as both Isobel and Troy take turns being Zelda. Despite differences in age, gender and height, no one can tell them apart. Apparently supporting characters in the story suffer from the same myopia as citizens of Metropolis.
I found myself longing to see Zelda’s Cut reworked as a superhero comic in which a series of people (all from different races and age groups) don a blonde wig and fight crime as Zelda. The daring disguise would no doubt render them indistinguishable to both friend and foe.
This scenario is only slightly less believable than the events in the novel. Isobel is drawn into exactly what is considered debauchy by the average Phillipa Gregory reader. There’s kinky (or at least, frequent) sex, cross-dressing and even the odd sniff of cocaine.
At this point, the novel is a perfect example of escapist fiction. It’s the printed equivalent of a trashy daytime talk show. But half-way through, Gregory returns Isobel to her dull marriage and unsuccessfully tries to create a moral quandary.
Isobel decides to sacrifice the Zelda persona in order to focus on her marriage. Her choice brings her into conflict with Troy, who isn’t ready to give up being Zelda. He proceeds to steal both the outline of the second Zelda book and the Zelda persona. He physically becomes Zelda in what is described as a “mutilation.”
The sensationalistic elements that Gregory relies upon are normally softened by historical settings. Set in a time far from our own, it’s hard to connect them with our reality or be offended by them. But in a modern setting, all that changes.
Gregory’s approach to gender-identity is no different than that of crime novelists from the eighties and nineties. Like such novels, Zelda’s Cut doesn’t distinguish between a gay man, a fetishistic cross-dresser and a transwoman. Gregory also seems to believe that a full transition from male to female can be accomplished in less than a month. Isobel, the POV character, repeatedly slanders Troy’s transition as unnatural and a mutilation.
One can’t help but wonder if the insensitive handling of gender identity is meant to give us insight into Isobel’s hypocrisy or if it simply reflects the writer’s own ignorance.
In many ways, Zelda’s Cut is a successful example of its genre. While it might be light on insight, it does serve up a satisfying meal of almost camp identity games, taboo sex scenes and betrayal. But the casual transphobia leaves a bad aftertaste.