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The Week in Books: The Amazing and the Downright Awful

It seems that my love affair with most chick lit is coming to a sad and ugly end.  Maybe it’s because I’m not 28 and single any longer, but it just doesn’t appeal to me.  Most of what I read that passes for contemporary romance is ridiculously unrealistic, trite, sappy, and has one dimensional characters.  Which was my impression of Wreathed by Curtis Edmonds.

I notice when I go back over my Amazon review history, somewhere around 2009 I started to get impatient with the main protagonists in chick lit/contemporary romance.  I like to think it’s because I matured past the desire to constantly complain about my mother or my job or my lack of a boyfriend.  Of course, it helps that I have a good job, a husband, and have reached a point of contentment in my relationship with my mother.  All of those things come with age, and with experience, and with continuing to get up when life throws you another curve ball.

I used to read bad chick lit from Red Dress Ink for an hour or two each night.  The story is always the same.  A girl works too many hours.  She usually hates her boss, or has a dead end position.  She generally doesn’t get along with her family.  Sometimes she has a gay best friend.  She meets a guy.  There’s some kind of tension.  It gets worked out.  Boom, done, nicely packaged ending.

wreathedNow those stories just kind of piss me off.  I don’t find them to be escapism.  I don’t find them to be a good substitute for TV.  I don’t want to sit in the bath reading them.  I want them to be more than they are.  I love authors like Jo Jo Moyes who manage to work in stories of real depth and overcoming obstacles and the shit that life throws at you with romances.  Maybe that’s the kind of stuff I should focus on now.  Maybe in the past 10 years, since I was 28 and single and had the World Ahead of Me I’ve become jaded.  Burying a baby, losing another, post-partum bipolar, etc., will do it to you.

So when I read a book where a main character consistently manages to complain about the lack of romance a guy is showing her, when she has a perfectly lovely man interested in her who simply doesn’t seem to dress up, and sends weird gifts to her office, but I repeat is still very clearly interested in her, financially solvent, and really nice, I have a hard time coming up with any sympathy for her.  When she then complains on every page about the lack of quality alcohol, or the lack of good coffee, or the lack of any romance in her life, I kind of want to punch her.

I also found that many of the characters in the book were stereotypes, but even then they veered weirdly off course.  There’s a mother who had a romance 50 years ago.  They are Old Money.  She wants to go to the funeral of her previous beloved.  She asks her daughter, Wendy, a lawyer, to take her to the funeral.  Wendy throws a little hissy fit because her mother wants a favor (God forbid) and gets mad at her sister for not being able to do it (the sister has twin toddlers and a husband who travels internationally most of the time, so obviously even if she hadn’t had a previous engagement on the day in question, she would have had so much extra time in which to play bus driver to her mother; whereas Wendy, single, childless, and obsessed with spending her nights coming up with cocktails, is so self absorbed, she seems to be insulted that she is somehow roped into this job).

On the drive to the funeral, the mother tells her the story about the romance, and while she shows rare signs of sympathy, she spends most of her time complaining and being grossed out at the fact that her mother had a life before she was born.  “Eeewwww, mother, that’s so gross…” and other sorts of similar sentences are spoken again and again.  Like a bratty 15 year old.  When I was 13 I used to say, “eew, grody to the max.”  My dad would roll his eyes.  Now I know how he felt.

But the thing is, this Old Money Mother who wants to channel the Kennedy’s and is a big time political activist, and believes hangovers are too middle class, stays in a hotel attached to a liquor store.  I’m not Old Money, I’m not Old, and I’m not Money, and even I wouldn’t stay in a hotel attached to a liquor store.  Also, there’s a scene later on in the book where Mother needs to yell at someone, and she decides the perfect place for a meeting would be public.  Does this elegant lady meet in a gallery, or a coffee shop, or anything that would remotely scream of being upper crust and classy?  No, she wants to meet in a food court and throw a milkshake on the man’s lap.  Because that is clearly an appropriate response for an elegant woman who is channeling the Kennedy’s and thinks hangovers are too middle class.

Anyway, if you can get past the weirdness of these one dimensional characters going rogue, the writing is your normal run of the mill romance writing.  Scenes like, “Adam slipped my cardigan off, and it fell to the floor.  He found the zipper of my dress, lowering it just enough to find the bra underneath.  He unfastened the bra with a practiced hand, and drew my body closer to his.  I lowered my lips against him and kissed him again.  His tongue felt smooth and warm in my mouth, like a bracing glass of wine.”  Note yet another alcohol reference.

The girl proceeds to obsess over the guy, after two dates, and then there’s the obligatory tension that needs to get worked out so that you can have a nicely packaged ending.  I guess I’m just losing patience with these 20something women spending all their time obsessing over guys at the potential expense of their careers, and their family relationships.  All the naval gazing seems like a giant waste of time.  Maybe because I now have so little time, I lose patience with people who do have time wasting it with naval gazing and obsessing over men.  Go out and live, goddammit.  Seriously.  Stop obsessing.  Go live.

I think my days of reading contemporary romance/chick lit are ending.  Kind of sad to say goodbye to that stage of my reading life.

perfumecollectorBut it’s not all doom and gloom in my world of books this week.  I also finished a book by an author I adore, Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector.  Kathleen Tessaro is one of those authors whose books I need to save because they are just so wonderful, and they go too quickly.  Haruki Murakami is another.  I once read three Murakami books in a week, and then I was depressed because I’d gone through them so quickly.

Tessaro’s women protagonists are always women either with whom I identify, or with whom I wish I could identify.  I either see myself in them, or the self I want to be; and really, that is the essence of a good love affair with a person, and so it should hold true for books, too.

This story spans time and countries, and has descriptions that are so juicy and delicious, I want to read them slowly, over and over again.  Every word is clearly carefully chosen.  There are passages like this:

In the silence of fragrance, Eva saw how ambiguous, complex stories could be told.  Shifting and mutating, they blossomed, bloomed and faded, their very impermanence was incredibly moving to her.  You could be laughing in public yet wear, right on the surface of your skin, a perfume ripe with longing, dripping with regret, shining with hope, all at the same time.  It would fade as the day faded, vanishing into gossamer on your skin.  And still it had the power to catch you unaware, piercing right through you, when you hung your dress up that night.

I could read descriptions and word combinations like that all day every day.  It’s like buttah.  Buttah, I tell you.

The story opens with Grace, a young woman from a well off family in Oxford who is navigating her way through the London social scene of the 1950’s, finding out that she has received an inheritance from a woman in Paris who is a stranger to her.  The inheritance includes the proceeds from sale of a property in Paris, as well as some investments.  Grace should just take the money and leave, let the attorneys work out all the details.  But she wants to know who this woman, Eva, is, and why she left her a substantial amount of money.  We are taken back to the late 1920’s in New York, to a young Eva, who is working as a maid in a ritzy hotel, and we discover, with Grace, her journey to Paris, to England, and how she knows Grace.  Along the way there is intrigue and revenge, death, and one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever read of a mother giving up a daughter she can’t keep to pay a debt to a person who has cared for her.

This is the kind of stuff that moves me, and maybe that’s what I want these days.  To read books that move me.  Maybe when I was in my 20’s, I wanted to read books that followed familiar plot lines, but these days I get bored with it.  I want books that inspire me, and touch me, and move me.  Maybe that’s why, despite 6 NaNoWriMo drafts, I’ve never published anything I wrote; maybe they don’t move me the way I think books should move people.  There are so many words being thrown at us these days; emails, texts, tweets, facebook messages, linkedin messages, blogs, and on it goes.  I’m looking for books that don’t read like an extension of the blogs and emails I spend my days reading for work.  I think that in my fiction choices from here on out, I’m looking for books that read as if they are really crafted, and lovingly put together.  Kathleen Tessaro does that for me, and for that, I’m so grateful.  Seriously, read her stuff.  Right now.  But not all at once or else you’ll be disappointed that you have to wait for so long for more.

Oh, and a note, I have to say that Curtis Edmonds has a fabulous sense of humor and clearly doesn’t take himself that seriously.  I wrote a crappy review of his book on Amazon today, and he tweeted the highlights.   I’m glad he didn’t get offended.  Everybody has an opinion.  Who cares.  He’s written several books.  I’ve written none.   Blah blah blah.   I’ve noticed that it’s like with parenting.  Everybody wants to tell me how to do it.  He wrote a book, I have an opinion about it, end of story.