Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- The Keeper Contemporary Contest Results, Part 1

A couple weeks ago I asked you to help me find a keeper among recent contemporary romances published as part of a series, e.g., Harlequin or Silhouette.  (I even offered a prize!)  The entries for that contest closed today, and as I've received some of the books you suggested, I got started reading them.  I need to say up front that I am truly grateful to you for all of the suggestions.  I will learn from every single one of them, so even if I didn't like the book, I loved the recommendation and thank the person who made it.

First up:  Hidden Treasures by Judith Arnold, a Harlequin Superromance published in 2003.

*sigh*

This book is not a keeper for me, I'm afraid.  In fact, I've had to come up with a new abbreviation for this sort of book: HTSA, short for Had To Skip Ahead.  This designation is for books that I did finish but not without skipping entire passages.  I'll explain why.

Erica Leitner is, as we're frequently told, a Harvard grad.  She also has a master's degree in teaching from Brown University.  After graduating, she chose to live in a small town in New Hampshire:  Rockwell, selected because it reminded her of that patron saint of Americana, Norman Rockwell.  She wants the small town experience, so she rents a cottage from John Willetz, a grandfatherly farmer.  After a few years, she buys the cottage and, as our story starts, she decides to plant a veggie garden.

Alfred Hitchcock used to explain his movies by pointing out the MacGuffin -- the thing that everyone is chasing, or looking for, or determined to destroy.  A MacGuffin isn't important to the plot, but you may need one to jump start the story.  The MacGuffin in Hidden Treasures is a small maple box buried (not very deeply) in the backyard of Erica's cottage.  Unlike Hitchcock's MacGuffins, this one just sits there while people around it go crazy for no good reason.  Erica contacts a professor of hers at Harvard who agrees to come inspect the box and help her unlock it and see what's inside.  Unfortunately, he can't get there for a few days, which is supposedly all the time it takes for this to become a national sensation sufficient to bring a Geraldo Rivera-wannabee to town with a camera crew.

[Here's the very best part of the book:  The TV guy, Derrick Messinger, hosts a talk show called, "Don't Blame The Messinger."  That made me smile.]

Erica's landlord died six months after selling her the cottage, so his farmhouse is unoccupied until his grandson, Jed Willetz, shows up to claim his inheritance.  Jed thinks maybe the box was actually on his property, despite a decrepit fence to suggest a boundary line.  The unscrupulous father of the kid who was helping Erica dig up the veggie garden is also threatening to sue.  The locals are all agog: What's in the box?

I won't spoil the surprise, but you could write down three guesses and the answer would be one of them.  The box and its contents are the MacGuffin, so really it's not the point of the novel.  The relationship between Erica and Jed is the point.  So why do we get so little of their relationship, particularly as this is a Superromance?  Maybe because Arnold fell into the usual trap of assuming that because two adults are compatible and have great sex, they will couple up right away and there goes all your tension.  Which is crazy -- there's a boatload of issues for these two to negotiate. 

For example, Jed turns out to have a cool job in Manhattan turning "junk" into trendy shabby chic pieces for resale while Erica is a third-grade teacher in a rural community.  Those aren't exactly compatible lifestyles.  In real life, two people like that would need to negotiate their future.  She's educated, he isn't -- not a problem, but not an automatic match either.  Erica is Jewish, and Jed Willetz presumably isn't; that's not a source of tension, of course, but why not have discussions about cultural versus religious identities, how to raise the kids, etc.?  (It's nice that Erica is Jewish in the sense that diversity in romances is nice, but why bother giving her a cultural/religious identity if there's going to be no discernible impact on her life as a result?)

I don't want to mock this book, but it's important for me (as a reader and also as a writer) to understand why it didn't work.  First of all, when Arnold chose to use a MacGuffin, she should have watched a lot of Hitchcock movies to see how it's done.  She didn't need a MacGuffin -- Jed could just have come back to sort out his inheritance, met Erica and found himself reluctant to return to Manhattan -- but I can see that it might have been tougher to get the 80,000 words needed for the Superromance line without the MacGuffin and all its resultant subplots. 

But once Arnold had decided to use her boxy MacGuffin, she should have used it hard.  Arnold may have been aiming for screwball comedy a la the Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan's Travels, with her plot: the tiniest thing grows wildly out of control until it has its own momentum and the protagonists can't stop it.  But to pull off madcap hijinks, the story's pacing needed to be a LOT faster.  For one thing, Erica can't find the box and then just sit on it calmly for a week.  I'm not saying the Harvard professor has to drop everything and rush up to the wilds of New Hampshire, but there could have been a lot more fuss and commotion with the box.  Have someone almost steal it, have the bank manager be a potential villain, and so forth.

In fact, the pacing was so slow that I sped it up.  I skipped.  Paragraphs, then pages, then chunks of pages.  Does this disqualify this post on the grounds that I can't discuss a book I didn't read all the way through?  Maybe, but I would argue not.  There's an implicit compact between the author and the reader: the author will hold the reader's interest and the reader will work to stay interested.  I feel I kept my side of that bargain, but a third of the way in, I had my doubts that Arnold was fulfilling her side.  As I wanted to know what was in the box, I skipped ahead to the Great Opening, two-thirds of the way through the book.  That's not how it's supposed to be; I'm supposed to want to know what happens on the very next page (or, at most, the very next chapter), not 100 pages later.

Another problem was the characterization.  There are aspects in Erica of Diane Keaton's harried executive in Baby Boom, but I found Erica not smart enough for the part of Big City Girl who doesn't fit in.  Take her decision to plant a vegetable garden.  Tell me this woman is smart enough to have learned online or in a library book how to do this.  It's not rocket science, but nonetheless she appears to have no clue about mulch, for example, and is shocked that there are weeds growing in with her tomatoes and zucchini.  I get it that small town life isn't necessarily what she'd imagined it would be, but let her at least be smart enough to grow some zucchini.

Derrick Messinger (aka Geraldo Rivera-lite) wasn't squicky enough, or wasn't sympathetic enough.  Contrast his lukewarm version of a ratings-at-any-price TV personality with Kirk Douglas's trying-to-make-a-comeback reporter in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.  If you're going to vilify him, really make him "a 20-minute hardboiled egg."  Even Jed Willetz could have been a bit flintier.  Hey, when you've got 80,000 words, there's time for people to soften and learn to love.

No keeper here -- sorry, but all three of the movies I mentioned are well worth watching, if you get the chance.

For contrast, and a cute story about true love in a small New Hampshire town, check out the story that goes with this photo (just click on the photo or go to its Flickr page):


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