Tuesday, May 25, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- What Was I Thinking?

This is a bit of a cheat, this post, because I'm not going to talk about the TBR book I'm currently reading.  That's Savor The Moment by Nora Roberts.  Basically, if you want to know what I think about it, go read my post here, only change the heroine's name to Laurel and the hero's name to Del.  Same diff.  This is not a criticism -- I am enjoying Savor just as much as its predecessors in the Bride Quartet and I'm still good for one more (the one in which queen bee Parker falls for ooh, Mal -- "poor" working stiff Mal, who's maybe not got a trust fund but did have a lucrative career in Hollywood and owns his own business).

But before I started Savor, I reread a book for the first time in close to 40 years.  Swift Water by Emilie Loring.  This is a truly bad book with only one redeeming virtue, namely that it is now a "historical" novel written as a contemporary.  It's set in New England (southwestern Connecticut, I think, based on how long it takes our heroine to drive her roadster from Fifth Avenue to her dad's place in the fictional town of Garston) in the late 20s, clearly before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Thus, all the cant, costumes, and characterizations are presumably historically accurate.  Doesn't make it a good book, mind you.

I wrote recently about keepers.  I have read most of Emilie Loring's books but this is the only one I kept.  I thought I knew why; I thought it was because there was one delicious scene chock full of angsty goodness.  I am here today to tell you that angsty goodness does not always stand the test of time.  These Old Shades was published three years earlier than Swift Water -- its angsty goodness is still divine.  Not so here.

Ah, but you want to know about the plot.  [It is at this point that I wish I was naturally funny because there's a lot of raw material here.  But I'll have to leave the o_O reactions to the many funnier people on Twitter and the Interwebz.]  Our heroine is Jean Randolph, the distinctly high-strung only child of Hugh "Hughie" Randolph and an absent mother who is a famous author making scads of money and living on Fifth Avenue.  Jean's maternal grandmother, La Contessa di Fanfani (aka The Glorious Fanfani, World Renowned Opera Singer) just happens to live in a separate wing of Hughie's house, Hill Top.  (Incidentally, if you looked at the name "Hill Top," added the titular swift water and concluded that there would be a flood before the book ended but Hill Top would be spared, give yourself top marks for predicting obvious plot devices!)

Hughie (Jean's absurd childhood name for her pater) and mom have lived apart for years but won't get divorced because mom's fans might take a divorce amiss.  Uh, okay.  But Hughie's got a secret pash for Constance, the older sister of our hero, Christopher Wynne.  (Did you predict the death of author-mom in the flood, clearing the way for Hughie and Con to marry?  Good job.)  Christopher is the town's only man-of-the-cloth, the minister of a cunning if absurd conceit: the nondenominational community church, literally the amalgam of all the town's churches.  In that way, I figure, all Protestant readers will feel a kinship with the characters of the book, none of whom is Catholic or *gasp* worse.

So far, no one is too too bizarre.  Yes, La Contessa is way over the top but who knows, maybe opera stars back then were OTT.  Ah, but I've saved the best for last.  We have some truly risible characters.  Let's start with Jean herself.  In the opening scene, she speeds through town in her roadster (yellow, the better to set off her sleek black hair); when a man in uniform tries to stop her, she speeds up and almost hits him.  Yeah, I wasn't happy with this meet cute either.  (Sorry, you didn't guess that the man in the uniform was Christopher and the uniform was his WWI uniform complete with caduceus?  Yeah, that confused me too, until it was explained that he had been a physician before his decision to become a nondenominational Episcopal priest minister.  Oh, but surely you would have predicted that he also sings divinely and that La Contessa is convinced he would be an internationally famous opera star like her if only he'd give up his ministry?  And so she schemes, although it serves absolutely no purpose for the plot, unlike Jean's decision as a child to learn to play the organ.  Wow.  Music programs must have been a bit more ambitious in those days.)

Where was I?  Oh, yes, so they meet cute, but the problems start immediately.  Jean doesn't go to church.  No, don't gasp yet.  That's okay, but when she finds out that every unmarried woman for miles around attends the Garston church just because they've all got crushes on the divine Divine, she vows never to set foot in the church because of a man.  She even bets her roadster on it.  Here's the part you should gasp at:  Jean wouldn't marry a minister if he were the last man on earth!  (Ooh, fate just started printing the wedding invites, don't you think?)

Cue the other man (Harvey Brooke, who does actually babble, now that I think of it), the other woman (Sue Calvin, whose father Luther Calvin -- his rigidity and overt religiosity were preordained at the baptismal font -- holds the purse strings), some meddlesome teenage girls, a bank robber, a hypochondriac parishioner, and a whole lot of rain.  Jean is really bad news; the line between high spirits and neurotic narcissism is just not that fine, and she's definitely on the wrong side.  And it takes her a really long time to figure out that the reason she takes up carillon playing (so easy when one already knows how to play the organ) is that when the flood (of Biblical proportions!) comes, she will play the carillon until she can play no more, and then Hughie, Harvey & the divine Divine will all show up and rescue her, but only after Christopher confesses that only her bells kept him from drowning off the roof of the hypochondriac's house with the bank robber clinging to the other side.  Of the roof.

Sorry.  Is this not making sense?  Um, yes, well, there may be a good reason for that.

Okay, so no one read this book.  This is a bad book.  Of course, you might laugh.  I don't know.  I didn't laugh.  I got really impatient and wanted The Good Bits, which as pages went by I downgraded to The Good Bit and finally just The Angst.  Only if it was ever there -- and it must have been because c'mon I've been packing & unpacking this book for decades, people! -- it's not now.

What was I thinking?

Oh, but here's the one beacon of light, the one Proustian taste of the past:  My copy is one of the Bantam reissues from the late 60s and early 70s of all Emilie Loring's romances.  Swift Water is number 39 (I couldn't find a picture of SW, with its very Episcopal priest-looking hero and bizarrely cougar-ish heroine in a massive fur coat, sorry; but here's the amusingly titled Gay Courage, number 38, featuring the middle-aged  host of a fishing show and a 1960s era go-go dancer) and mid-way through rereading it, I noticed the distinctive typography of the hollow numbers in the upper right hand corner.

All of a sudden, I flashed on trips to Kresge's, one of three dime stores on State Street in Schenectady, NY and my favorite because it sold series romances.  That number in the upper right hand corner told me if it was a book I hadn't bought already.  That number was important.  Back then, Harlequin had only four titles a month, which for an avid if undiscriminating reader like me was barely enough to keep me going.  Thus, I bought everything I could:  Barbara Cartland, Emilie Loring, even some Grace Livingstone Hill.  All chaste, all poorly written (compared to my belle ideal, Betty Neels) but they were romance novels.  And I was an addict.

So that explains what I was thinking:  I wasn't.  Now, as to why I kept this book for 40 years?  Who knows.  I don't.

6 comments:

  1. Gay Courage? The minister/opera singer/doctor/heartthrob ... there is no way you are ever allowed to unleash this book on an unspecting world.

    I'm never going to lend you my Frances Parkinson Keyes books because I have such fond memories of them (and they are truly full of angsty tremors and such) ... and I wouldn't want them to be analyzed.

    Very over-the-top review: now I must get me some GLH!! Sounds like a designer drug, doesn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi
    Oh, you brought back the memories. I read a lot of Grace Livingston Hill but never much Emilie Loring. I had already discovered Heyer before I read my first Cartland, so I was unimpressed by BC. Even so, when desperate for something to read, I would pick them up for giggles.
    I have one GLH on my hardback keeper shelf--it is one of her waaaay early ones, a western, called The Finding of Jasper Holt. (Hmmm, now to find time to re-read).
    For really great, OTT, late-Victorian angsty schmaltz, try Florence Barclay--you can probably get you hands on The Rosary or The Mistress of Shenstone. But she wrote dozens of novels.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think we keep them because in the back of our minds we fear nothing to read. My book review scale goes down from 10 being the top and 1 being "read it if it's all I got" and 0 being "brutal, like I have lost hours of my life brutal." If you will notice, I am willing to reread anything not Brutal.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oops--
    Re: Florence Barclay--it only seems like she wrote dozens of books. Her actual output was around 1 dozen.
    @T Harrington--you are right! The fear of not having something to read! My husband is always asking why I keep so many books that I've already read. Well, I like to re-visit with friends, I say. I don't let on about sometimes just wanting to relive the emotions. He would NOT understand.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I know I have Keepers downstairs that I will undoubtedly die without rereading -- too many books, too little time. But at the same time, I've put up for swapping over 100 books and I donated 100 books last summer to the local historical society for their books sales. (Paperbacks are 25 cents apiece; with an iPhone, which I don't have, I could figure out which ones are worth buying just as quick swaps on PaperBackSwap, but that's too much like hard work.) So I do know how to cull the herd, as it were.

    I think my husband would understand reliving the emotions, although he's much sterner about not bring more books into the house. I think he's nuts but in a nice way.

    ReplyDelete