Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Perfect Book

I'm reading Nora Roberts' Bed of Roses, and no, it's not the titular perfect book.  It is just the springboard to my thinking about the (possibly illusory) perfect book.

Nora Roberts has written a zillion books, and sold a bazillion.  She's as close as the romance genre gets to a celebrity out in the non-romance, non-Internet world.  (Hell, she's the only romance author my dinky county library carries; scads of Christian writers -- I know because there's a special sticker on the spine that says "Christian Book" so they're easy to spot -- but only one romance author.)

But Roberts has her detractors: readers, reviewers and other writers who fault her technique.  Yes, she "head-hops" (which, just in case someone doesn't know, is where the point-of-view jumps from the hero to the heroine with insufficient warning or clarity) and yes some of her turns of phrase are a bit clunky or dizzying in their imagery.  All the same, this a fun book.  I'm giving it a 9 out of 10 on the scale of fun; only Susan Elizabeth Phillips gets a 10, and even that's with only half her books.

Bed of Roses is the second in the Bride Quartet (number three is due out shortly); I was pleased to find Visions of White at the library shortly after it was published, but budget constraints delayed their purchase of Bed of Roses for, like, forever.  (I'm tickled to see I'm the first person to have checked out this copy.)  I'm enjoying it so much I had to write this post even before I finish it.  That's how excited I am.

Someone told me that Roberts recently said . . . Sidebar: yeah, I'm too lazy to try to find the interview myself and link to it; therefore, this is double hearsay and inadmissible in a court of law.  Moving on . . . Roberts recently said that writing romances isn't getting any easier for her.  Her writing is improving, she feels, so she's always trying to write better books and that isn't any easier than when she started.  Well, it may not be easier but I think it's working.

I remember reading a Nora Roberts back when I lived in Albany, NY (a fact I'm sure of only because I recall visualizing some aspect of the book in locations near my apartment and the image has stuck, even though I can remember nothing else about the plot, characters, or title).  That's more than 20 years ago.  I didn't like her writing back then, and so I didn't read anything else by her for a long, long time.  I've been catching up with the plethora of her back-list available at the library.  I've even blogged about her books before: here, for example.  But a little can go a long way: when someone recommended Midnight Bayou, I started it.  As soon as I realized it had ghosts in it, I stopped and eventually got the book back to the library, unread.  (I'd gotten my fill of the tragic ghost trope in the Garden Trilogy, where it seemed seemed less oppressive than in the Bayou.)

Why am I loving the Bride Quartet?  Okay, I like weddings.  I like to see other people's wedding albums and hear how they met, etc.  I was never obsessed about my own wedding, never dreamed of a big white dress or multi-tiered wedding cake.  And when I did finally have a wedding to plan with all the trimmings, I worked hard to avoid bridezilla behavior.  I didn't enjoy (at all) the bride-centric nature of the day, but I'll admit it was fun having pretty flowers and three wee bridesmaids (this was in England, where children traditionally make up the bridal party) in pretty dresses.

I understand that a little wedding frou-frou goes a long way; Roberts is right not to publish these books back-to-back lest we get insulin shock from the sweetness of so many rose swags.  But if you strip away the wedding planning details (hard to do, of course, because the four heroines run a wedding industry on a huge Connecticut estate; the titles are cunning references to each heroine's role in that venture:  Visions in White for photographer Mac, Bed of Roses for florist Emma, Savor the Moment for baker Laurel -- leaving nuptician-in-chief Parker for last.  Hmmm.  Planning for Love, perhaps?  Nope -- it's Happy Ever After.  Oh.  Okay, but I like my title better...) you get a really great series about everyone's favorite contemporary heroines:  sexually and professionally independent women.

And the dialogue!  Roberts is hardly in Aaron Sorkin territory, but some of the chatter among the women is lovely.  Take this exchange, for example, where the four women (and their housekeeper, Mrs. Grady) are talking about Emma, who's finally kissed longtime friend of the quartet Jack and discovered he exceeds the top of her "spark-o-meter" but is worried that Mac slept with Jack in the "way back" and so he's off-limits:
"I don't get why you ever thought Mac had been sleeping with Jack in the first place."  Laurel dumped syrup on her pancakes.  "If she had, she'd have bragged about it and talked about it until we all wanted her dead."

"No, I wouldn't"

"In the way back you would have."

Mac considered.  "Yes, that's true.  In the way back I would have.  I've evolved."

"How hot are the hots?" Parker wanted to know.

"Extremely.  He hit high prior to the [first kiss].  After, he set a record."

Nodding, Parker ate.  "He's an exceptional kisser."

"He really is.  He . . . How do you know?"  When Parker just smiled, Emma's jaw dropped.  "You?  You and Jack?  When?  How??"

"I think it's disgusting," Mac muttered.  "Yet another best pal moving in on my imaginary ex."

"Two kisses, my first year at Yale, after we ran into each other at a party and he walked me back to the dorm.  It was nice.  Very nice.  But as exceptional a kisser as he is, it was too much like kissing my brother.  And as exceptional a kisser as I am, I believe he felt it was too much like kissing his sister.  And that's how we left it.  I gather that wasn't an issue for you and Jack."

"We're nowhere in the vicinity of brother- or sisterhood.  Why didn't you ever tell us you kissed Jack?"

"I didn't realize we were supposed to report on every man we've ever kissed.  But I could make you a list."

Emma laughed.  "I bet you could.  Laurel?  Any Jack incidents to report?"

"I'm feeling very annoyed and deprived that I have none.  Even imaginary.  It seems like he could've hit on me at least once in all this time.  The bastard.  How about you, Mrs. G?"

"A very nice one under the mistletoe a few Christmases back.  But being the love them and leave them type, I let him off easy so as not to break his heart."

"I'd say Em plans to take him down, and take him down hard."  Mac arched her eyebrows.  "And that he doesn't have a prayer against the awesome power of Emmaline."

Isn't that fun?  Four -- make it five, as Mrs. G. seems up to snuff -- women who are close, comfortable with the role of sex in their lives, and supportive of each other.  It's not James Joyce, but it's way better than just "not bad."

Okay, so it's not perfect.  What book is?  What book has it all:  well-drawn characters, a satisfying plot, skillful writing, a progressive attitude toward women, men & romance, moving (or funny) dialogue, and a happy ending?

Because I want to know.  Not necessarily your favorite book (we have favorites for all sorts of reasons, and requiring the book to be perfect may not be on the list), but one you can find no flaws in.
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6 comments:

  1. It's been a while since I've read Roberts. I gave up on her several years ago when I realized I couldn't keep her serials and series characters apart. I've had good feelings about this particular series, though. Good to know it approximates a good-enough book.

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  2. Flawless book for me is a tie between Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen and Crazy For You by Jennifer Cruisie. Both books have their detractors but I could read them again and again and just fall back in love each time.

    Lori

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  3. Sasha: I would recommend the Bride Quartet to anyone not allergic to wedding hoohah. (If you're allergic to wedding hoohah, read something else. Anything else. Or else keep an epinephrine pen nearby to treat the anaphylactic shock. There's a lot of wedding hoohah in this series!)

    That said, I really like the way she has women interact here; the four women are in all four books and it's a great dynamic. These are books about friendship as much as they're about love and romance.

    Carolyn (or is this Lori?): I know Jennifer Crusie's books are wildly popular, but there's just something off about them for me. It's impossible to explain in words; the closest I can come is to compare it to eating something that's yummy at first bite but which leaves the slightest metallic aftertaste. Buy, hey, that's just me.

    I'll definitely go check out Garden Spells; I don't know that one! Thanks.

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  4. I really enjoyed the first two books from the Bride Quartet and am looking forward to the 3rd book out this month. I haven't read much Nora Roberts, but there was something that pulled me into this series. Part of it was that it featured strong, independent women. Once I started reading it, I fell in love with the dialogue. The conversations felt like conversations I could have with my best friends.

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  5. Oh I love the Bride Quartet too. I put up a review today about how some books are a bit like putting on sunglasses on a bright day - they make your eye sigh happily - and Vision in White and Bed of Roses were like that for me too. I liked Vision in White better but that's like saying I like chocolate cake better than a chocolate muffin, if you get my meaning. I'm very excited about the new one coming out. As much as I loved the romance between the two protagonists in each book, it was the friendship between the girls and the banter (such as you have quoted above) which made me smile - sort of Sex and the City with weddings.

    As for the perfect book, I think a whole pile of things affect the rating - not least of which is what mood the reader is in - both in terms of whether the reader is in a "paranormal mood" or a "historical mood" as well as their emotional mood. I think that a book may be perfect at one point in time (depending on what the reader brings to it) and just a great comfort read later (or vice versa I guess). That's part of the reason it's so subjective. What touches us at one point may not resonate so strongly another time.

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  6. A perfect book for me is one I read in a whole sitting and none of my foibles pop up. Since I have a lot of reading foibles this is actually an extremely rare occurrence.
    The last book I read like that was Shelly Laurenston The Main Squeeze. The only thing I was stopping reading for was to grab another bookmark to mark yet another passage I loved.

    Edie

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