REVIEW and CONNECTIONS: Ruthie Knox’s MAKING IT LAST, Or An HEA For Don and Betty

cover32533-smallIn Making It Last, Ruthie Knox re-invents one of Miss Bates’s favourite historical romance tropes: the re-united husband and wife. She cleverly separates her lovers/husband-wife not with physical distance, as so often happens in historical romance, but by the emotional distance that comes of a long-standing but floundering marriage. This novella was painful to read in places, but, in the end, it was hopeful and positive. It is all about “making things last” in a marriage: love, attraction, friendship, and desire. It’s about endurance and resilience, even though the hero and heroine are two of the most vulnerable, fragile figures Miss Bates has read in a long time. This is not a romantic narrative to cozy up to; there are uncomfortable feelings here that flow from the characters’ weaknesses to the reader’s, but it is worthy of the reader’s admiration and consideration.

We met Tony and Amber in the novella that introduced Knox’s Camelot series, How To Misbehave, which Miss Bates liked a lot. (Miss Bates is rarely enamored of the novella form, or their recent trend in publishing, as evident here.) In this case, she opens the nitty-gritty of her review by acknowledging how beautifully Knox used the novella’s truncated form in Making It Last, and how cleverly she paired it with the introductory one about the characters’ courtship. She allowed a lapse of fourteen years without resorting to backstory, working with nuance, atmosphere, and the characters’ memories. She did not bite off more than she could chew. She kept the plot minimal, but fluid and focused on creating rich inner lives for her couple, poignant dialogue, and one emotionally-wrenching amorous scene. She structured her novella into four perfectly-executed parts: the family vacation in Jamaica where Amber’s sadness is so palpable that Tony arranges for her to stay and take some time for herself; Tony’s return to Ohio and realization that he’s losing his wife; the renewal of Tony and Amber’s courtship centred on a “strangers-meet-in-a-bar” pick-up game; and, their return home and re-found unity as a couple tackling real-life problems. The reader is left hopeful and satisfied.

The glue of this novella is Tony Mazzara; the reader roots for him, or at least this reader did. He’s the one who deserves an HEA. He takes the heroine’s place in being the character the reader wishes to see happy. He’s uxorious, a dedicated father, an ideal family man. He’s handsome, virile, strong, and funny. His wife, Amber, is a mess, a self-admitted mess, but a mess nevertheless. She’s a whiner too, though she recognizes her problems as endemic to the “first-world.” She knows she should be grateful for what she has in Tony and her three boys. She is desperately unhappy, adrift, uncertain; she’s lost her confidence. She’s lost her sense of self. The boys are in school. She left her job ten years ago when she married Tony. She’s alone in a big, clean house without a raison-d’etre.

Tony, the hunky, hard-wording husband, recognizes and acknowledges her misery. Note how he tells her he’s arranged for her to stay on in Jamaica for a few days, “This vacation sucked for you. I think – I think a lot of things must suck for you, and I can’t usually do anything about it … This time I can.” He’s perceptive and Miss Bates loved him for it. Amber? Not so much. In the end, it’s Tony’s HEA Miss Bates rooted for; if that means rooting for Amber because Amber is what makes Tony happy, then so be it. But the road there for Tony is in the same vein as Jane‘s Rochester. Tony is humbled, broken down, made less than the colossus he is and Amber acknowledges he is, “He worked so hard – worked as close to constantly as one man could without breaking.” Work doesn’t break Tony … yet, but Amber’s malaise near does.

Amber is not a bad person, but she has come to a point in her life which has made her unforgiving and morose. When the novella opens, she’s lost 25 pounds. That weight loss symbolizes her lost sense of self. She’s been a good mother and wife, long-suffering, silent, so giving that she’s no longer grounded in the person she once was. Her core-self is a gaping hole, eaten away by her husband’s and children’s needs until all that’s left of her is a diminished, lost creature. Tony astutely makes this observation about her as the airport shuttle pulls away from the hotel, leaving her behind, “She’d looked like she was lost, and even though it didn’t make any sense, he knew it was because he’d lost her.” Loss, absence, emptiness: words that echo throughout the story for Amber and Tony. When Amber finally has time alone at the resort to think about her life, the marriage and children that have have been her life, she says, “She and Tony didn’t have the kind of problem that could be fixed with a gesture or a glorious truth delivered at exactly the right moment. They had a dead ember. A light that had gone out … they’d lost each other.” (Italics are Miss Bates’s.)

The “grand gesture,” the hero’s grovel with which so many romance novels conclude is insufficient here, even though Tony makes it and it’s great and sexy and sweeping and endearing and irresistible. Tony returns to Jamaica to bring Amber home, to tell her he loves and needs her. When he arrives, he finds a transformed woman: her hair is short, her dress is new, her shoes are impractical and spikey. His attraction for her is brought home. He sets out to re-new their relationship by playing a game. He says to Amber, “I’m Steve,” … and stuck out his hand. She smiled.” It’s the first time Amber smiles and everything shifts. Tony has struck the right note, made the right gesture, prepared the ground for the fine grovel. It’s cheesy and a little cringe-worthy in the love-making department, but it works for Amber … everyone needs to play once in a while and they do play beautifully … until, the morning after.

This part of the novella reminded Miss Bates of one of her favourite Mad Men episodes, “Souvenir.” Don and Betty Draper travel to Italy where, like Amber, Betty dons (pun intended) a new dress and hairstyle, and flirts with strange men. Don enters the picture, like Tony, competes with the strangers at the bar, and wins his “wife.” Don and Betty go to their hotel room and make love. As do Tony and Amber, but this is a romance narrative and Mad Men is critique of 1960s America. In Miss Bates’s opinion, this was the beginning of the end of the Drapers’ doomed marriage; however, it is a new beginning for Tony and Amber. The love scenes’ aftermaths are key to appreciating Knox’s terrific novella from this perspective. When Don and Betty return to the U.S., Don gives Betty a memento, a souvenir, of their trip, a gold bangle of the Colosseum. Betty accepts it without interest or care because it doesn’t hold any meaning for her; they no longer hold any meaning for her. Their marriage is a house built on sand, something that glitters like the bangle but is not gold, without love, communication, or friendship.

When Amber wakes up the next morning and hears Tony’s incessant work-related phone ringing, she is reminded she’s still married to a workaholic, just as Betty is. But this workaholic’s houses are real. The house of their marriage is on rocky ground, but it can be bolstered because the foundations are sound. Tony doesn’t give Amber anything materialistic by which to remember their time in Jamaica; instead, he gives her the most precious gift any person can give another in the messy symbiosis of a marriage, he gives her back herself. And because Amber is, in the end, a good person, she meets him half-way. The gold charm, “all that glitters is not gold,” is like Gatsby’s “green light,” superficial, a husk of a dream. But Tony’s gift, the marriage-bed he made and where Tony and Amber meet as equals in the final chapter, adrift in the uncertainty of life, is where the safe place is.

And this is why you should read Making It Last, not only because it’s smoothly and beautifully written, but because it’s hopeful and loving. And, irresistible to Miss Bates, because the stalwart, loving, they’re-not-heavy-they’re-my-family Tony echoes Brian Adams, “Everything I do, I do it for you” … sniff, sniff, does it get better than that for an HEA?

Miss Bates’s last word often involves the ethos of the romance narrative. Here too, Tony’s been humbled enough that Knox gives him the last word on the sanctity of a marriage based on love, respect, friendship, attraction and desire, “He didn’t believe leaving could ever be an act of grace. He thought the acts of grace happened when you stayed.” It’s as simple and as difficult as that, staying, seeing it through, holding on, and holding tight.

Ruthie Knox’s novella won’t take much from your pocket, reasonably-priced novella that it is, but it will take a piece of your heart. As Tony would gladly gift to Amber, as Darcy lovingly said to Lizzy, “You have bewitched me.” Pride and Prejudice, for the hero really has.

Amber, well, Amber’s another story. Miss Bates had a hard time feeling for Amber; her problems really were “first world” problems, but her pain was real, if not thoroughly sympathetic. Miss Bates’s problem with Amber remains what it was initially: her passive-aggressive stance expects Tony to fix things for her. She doesn’t seem to ever take initiative; she can’t. Her soul is paralyzed. She also wants Tony to be everything to her: husband, father, lover, and friend. Working 12-hour days can dampen the ardor and communication in a marriage; she’s right about that, and Tony’s work schedule will send him to an early grave. Seems to Miss Bates that Amber, who doesn’t have any female friendships, could have benefited from a lunch or coffee date with a group of female friends, not sculpting herself down to nothing in a gym. And the final image of this couple in the marriage-bed bodes well for them, but Miss Bates can’t help feeling that their insularity will lead them to the same impasse again and again. For this reason, Miss Bates has to leave Making It Last with a less-than-perfect score, even though she’d definitely urge you to read it for “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart” Emma.

Miss Bates received an e-ARC of Making It Last from Loveswept Random House via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. You can download a copy from your choice of the usual places.

[ASIDE added at the last minute, read at your peril and ensuing puzzlement, with possible spoilers not involving Making It Last: It was very interesting to read Knox’s romance right before watching Richard Linklater’s third film in the “Before” series, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. (If you haven’t seen these films, made about nine years apart, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, filmed in Vienna, Paris, and Kardamili, Greece, respectively, you’ve missed one of the great cinematic love stories! Watch them and keep in mind that the dialogue is ad-libbed.) Before Midnight is made with realistic strokes, documentary-like, but bears an uncanny resemblance to Knox’s novella in its narrative and thematic concerns. The leads, Céline and Jesse, are also on family holiday. They leave the kids behind to spend quality couple time at a hotel … and there, you witness one of the most spectacularly realistic all-out couple fights ever … Jesse’s no fantasy-man like the hunky Tony Mazzara. Céline is beautiful, but also a sharp-tongued career woman, with the rounded body of a mum and the harried responsibilities of a 21st century woman trying to “do it all.” Jesse is charming, good-looking, and shiftless; as Céline says of him near the start of the film, “I married an American teen-ager.” Their physical intimacy is bland, a bit stale and, thanks to the fight, aborted, not the mind-blowing fantasy wonderment of Tony and Amber. In Céline and Jesse’s case, however, the game … ah, the game … they play in the final scene, like the spreading embers of the Greek sunset, is a renewal of commitment and memento mori, unlike the Drapers’ or the Mazzaras’.]

Have you read Knox’s novella? What are your feelings and thoughts about it? What connections did you make?