"I watch Maurepas enter the room, framed by my knees. He is plump and old, like the others that come to us ... Smelling of cognac and roasted birdflesh, their doughy skin scored by silks and velvets cut for younger bodies. He strips now, this minister, and when the last piece of cloth is discarded he is just another old man." (from Marigolds, p. 91)
The opening of Marigolds is captivating. The physical details that lead from a woman looking at the ceiling, to her placement in a brothel servicing her client, who is in turn stripped of his finery and revealed as a wrinkly old man, anxious to reclaim some semblance of vitality through the act of sex while the woman is having her period are very effective. The scene unfolds slowly, revealed through the implication of these details. Later in the story, characters dig through chamber pots, and the entire magical element of the story is built on the powers of a woman's body when she is having her period. Magical sigils are being used to encourage the terrible excesses of the revolution L. S. Johnson excels at presenting these physical details, and while the scenes are disgusting, they also held my attention & were some of the strongest writing in the story.
It's also soon revealed that Claire, our protagonist, is in love with Isabella, one of the other women in the brothel. In the month between the first and second moments of magical sex, there are a handful of scenes where Claire is teased, survives a riot, and uncovers the secret to the magic that is being worked. Here is where I found myself disengaging from the story. The errands seemed mere placeholders, the danger of the riot is clearly not a threat to either Claire or Isabella, so it is mostly just a chance for Claire to be out with her beloved before the climax the following month.
Eventually, though, the women are ready to perform their magic again, and the great ministers come to the brothel again. Only this time Claire has learned the secrets of the magic, and is putting up a different spell for Isabella. (I will confess that on first reading I feared Claire was going to essentially give her beloved a love potion. I was happy to be proved wrong). The next day, the course of events has not been changed as desired. Claire and Isabella have both done magic to try to help the other escape! They fight their employer and leave to live happily ever after.
"We do not plot; we suggest. No hunger, no suffering, no murderous rage. Just the slightest touch on the tiller, turning the world towards something a little kinder, a little sweeter, a little more like love." (Marigolds, p. 104)
I am dissatisfied with this ending. It feels too pat, and simple. My reactions after a second reading are less strong than on first reading, however. When I first read Marigolds, I essentially stopped reading about the relationships after the opening scene. Claire was secretly in love with one of the other women in the brothel. From this, I made a whole series of assumptions that laid down blinders as I read the story: Claire would need to keep this attraction secret because it was shameful. Her love could not be reciprocated because when you're attracted to someone of the same gender, what are the odds that they'll feel the same way? When the story ended with the two living happily ever after, all my assumptions rose up angrily. Too pat. Too much author manipulation. Implausible.
On a second reading it's clear that in fact Claire's feelings are an open secret in the brothel. While Claire and Isabella never discuss them, Claire is often teased about her devotion in front of Isabella. Isabella, for her part, initially rescued Claire and seems to have feelings for her. Everything I objected to was foreshadowed throughout the story, I simply ignored it because of my own assumptions (and to some extent because I didn't find the prose compelling). I'm still not particularly satisfied with the conclusion to Marigolds, but after two readings, it's pretty clear that most of my issues on first reading had much more to do with me than the story.
Have I mentioned that I've learned a lot from Long Hidden, including a lot about my own blind spots as I read?