Tuesday, May 11, 2010

TBR Tuesday: How to Argue in Books

I have a question:  How long does a book have to sit waiting to be read before it's officially in the TBR pile?  If I buy a book and read it right out of the Barnes & Noble bag, I gotta think that doesn't count for the TBR Tuesday post.  But a book that's been on the bench for ages counts.  Where's the cut-off?  A week?  Longer?

Anyway, I read The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt.  Gosh, I love her books.  They have a subtly distinctive voice, especially the Prince series, which takes place in 1760.  I've learned more euphemisms for the erect external male member...  I had actually started The Serpent Prince before I realized it wasn't the next one in the series.  This "mistake" gave me permission to read #2 and then go back to #3 even though, as a general rule, I try to space out series to avoid the "they are all the same" syndrome.  I just like Hoyt's books that much.

But in between the two princes, I read Fallen From Grace by Laura Leone.  I'm going to count this as a TBR Tuesday book even though I ordered it recently and so it's not been in the house long.  Perhaps because I'm so late to the party (this book was published in 2003), it feels like a TBR book.

Quick précis:  Sara Diamond, a 35-year-old writer who has just been cut loose by her publisher, moves into an apartment building so reminiscent of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City that its address might as well have been on Barbary Lane.  Her apartment's front door is across the hall from Ryan Kinsmore's front door, but they share a balcony.  (It took me a while to figure out a floor plan configuration that would allow that, but I managed it.)  Ryan is a 26-year-old male prostitute.

Sara & Ryan fall in love.  Which isn't the thing that interests me about this book.  What interests me is how characters in this book argue.  Take Sara and her sister, Miriam.  Sara throws a housewarming party that lasts into the wee hours, and Miriam stays to help clean up.  Miriam announces that she's a lesbian and that her friend, Jan, is really her lover.  Sara takes this news badly.  Here's a snippet of that fight:
  [Sara] took a breath.  "Okay, I'm sorry.  I guess I'm not taking this very well."
  "Gee, y'think?"
  "But you've really kicked my legs out from under me," Sara said.
  "Right.  Because God forbid you should have a sister who's a lesbian."
  "I didn't mean it that way."
  "Didn't you?" Miriam challenged.
  "What did you expect me to say?"
  "Pretty much this, in fact!  You are so uptight, Sara!"
  "Miriam, that's not f--"
  "But I guess I hoped that because you've found someone," Miriam said, "you'd be happy that I've found someone."
  "Look, I just really never expected --"
  "Of course, that was before I knew --
  "--that your 'someone' --"
  "--that you don't even have the guts to tell Ryan how you feel about him!"
  "--was another woman!"

and so on.  I have a couple problems with this exchange but even less credible to me was the scene 20 pages later where the sisters make up, using phrases like "I was confrontational and defensive," with (one can only assume) a straight face.  Apologies, in my experience, never sound like they were prompted by Dr. Phil (more's the pity).

Of course people fight in different ways.  I recall visiting a friend's family when I was in college and discovering myself in one corner of their living room, my friend in another corner, her mom in a third and dad in the fourth -- and they were all yelling at, and over, each other.  Not the way it happened in my house, that was for sure.  (Way less alcohol was involved, for one thing, and fewer tears.)  But still -- this is fiction, and I had a hard time believing that a woman who could fall in love with a male prostitute (and stay in love with him after finding out he's not actually a "model") would be so freaked out because her sister is a lesbian.

I also found Sara's fights with Ryan to be a bit incredible.  Those arguments were also very angry and involved a lot of crosstalk.  Doesn't anyone breathe in these scenes?  Doesn't anyone stop and think about what they're saying or what's being said to them?  I'm not sure I believed these fights . . . but more importantly, they confused me.  It's not nice to make the reader go back and read dialogue twice just to figure out who's saying what and why.  Plus, that second read completely defeats the purpose of all that crosstalk, namely to show how angry the characters were.

Here's a situation where I suspect a little artfulness could have helped.  Maybe some internal dialogue would have made the fight clearer and thus more powerful.  Give these people a chance to react.  Give them some air.  Give the reader a break!

I mentioned at the top of this post that I love Elizabeth Hoyt's books so much I'm reading consecutive novels in her Prince series with barely a break in between.  The risk is that I'll get tired of her voice, that I'll start to notice phrases unique to her writing recurring with unseemly frequency.  Fallen From Grace reminded me that this problem can happen within a single volume.  Leone's writing is generally very good, a quality we notice more by the absence of annoyance than by the appearance of anything specific.  But when an author has coined an expression that no one else uses, it's good to know that and avoid using it more than once.

In Leone's case, the expression is "puff of laughter."  I know what she's trying to trying to express -- it's that "Huh," half-laugh that people use when they're not really amused (or not enough for "real" laughter).  But four times in one book?  Way too much.  It became noticeable, then annoying, then bad enough for me to blog about it.  As a general rule, nothing should stick out that much.

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