When Miss Bates was a tyke, the circus regularly came to town. One spring, a world’s fair did. On Easter Sunday, wearing a white straw bonnet, accompanied by family and friends, she entered its gates. It was 1967: skirts were short; music was loud … but Miss B’s mom and friends wore white gloves and hats with their new Easter outfits. Miss B. would say that anyone whose native city hosts an event of this magnitude holds the experience as a seminal moment in her life. MissB.’s unsure that such an event would have the same impact in our world of insta-experience on the Internet. But the Internet, at least for now, is strictly visual and aural, and therefore more limited. It is in the other senses that our deepest, most visceral memories reside. Miss B. remembers the warmth of the April sun, her slightly pinch-y, round-toed, white patent-leather Mary Janes, the press of bigger bodies in the queues, the inverted triangle pavilion of her native country, the dazzle of Bohemian crystal in the Czech, the tangy mustard on the hot dog, the fuzzy-pink sweetness of cotton candy.
It was with bittersweet nostalgia that Miss B. picked up Deanne Gist’s Fair Play, a romance novel set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and featuring an older, doctor-spinster heroine, Dr. Billy Jack Tate, and younger-man, Texas Ranger hero, Hunter Joseph Scott. Miss Bates has been to Chicago and loved it, walked along Michigan Avenue, gazed into the waters of Lake Michigan, and spent every afternoon of her few days there at the Art Institute of Chicago sobbing before some of her favourite paintings. The bronze lions, indeed the building which houses the collection, have their origins in the 1893 fair. Miss Bates was excited to read Gist’s novel. Her experience of it, however, was akin to a descending musical scale: a bombastically wonderful start, flagging middle, bathetic conclusion.
Fair Play has a wonderful meet-cute. Dr. Billy Jack Tate is giving a talk to the Women’s Congress at the Women’s Pavilion on the fair grounds. As a lady doctor, she’s keen to bring the message of what women in medicine can accomplish. However, none of the guards believe, because she’s a woman, that she’s there to give a speech and don’t allow her access to the site. She enters the pavilion, feet-first, through a window. A Columbian Guard, Hunter Scott, on loan from the Texas Rangers, greets her, after watching her descending body and ascending outer garments emerging from the window. It is a really cute moment and funny.
Her presentation leads to her hiring as doctor-in-residence. When Hunter is taken ill, with a most embarrassing benign condition and brought in to her ministrations, their, ahem, acquaintance is complete. He exhibits some pretty typical attitudes towards women doctors, but Billy gives as good as she gets. Their men-from-Mars, women-from-Venus banter is predictable, but, at least initially, amusing. Hunter is good-humoured, kind, and protective of women and children. He’s pretty darn charming. Billy is loving, funny, and feisty. Their bond deepens when Hunter finds an abandoned baby and Billy helps care for him. Their straitened and single circumstances see them giving the baby to Hull House, a charity which runs all manner of programs for, and succors, the needy and helpless. When Hunter in particular, but Billy as well, note the terrible conditions in which the children in the tenement neighbourhoods play, they decide to build a playground. They run into ruffians, which cause quite a bit of drama, but they also meet and bond with some of the children. The playground endeavour leads to some violence and high drama in the last third of the novel. Throughout it, Hunter and Billy fall ever more in love, but can’t seem to figure out a way to be together: she wants to stay in Chicago; he wants to return to Texas; she wants to work when she marries; he wants a stay-at-home wife and mother. Compromise and re-evaluation of one’s priorities lead to a satisfying compromise for Billy and Hunter to achieve their HEA.
What did Miss B. appreciate about Fair Play?
Miss Bates enjoyed the initial humour and banter between Hunter and Billy. It was set up as an opposites-attract antagonism and his-brawn to her-brain contrast, which Miss Bates loves … well, because of Chase’s Mr. Impossible, one of her favourite romance novels ever. Miss Bates also appreciated that Billy was older than Hunter and no one made mention, or fuss over it; mind you, reader, it isn’t by much, her 30 to his 26. The novel was well-researched. The reader has a good sense of what being in Chicago in that time and place was like, though Miss Bates didn’t get much sense of the fair and its goings-on. The attraction between Hunter and Billy was nicely handled; it was believable and the two obviously belong together in every way. Their compatibility is made obvious to everyone but the two, lending a certain nice irony to their exchanges.
What resulted in moues of disappointment for Miss Bates?
In the end, Miss Bates can’t say that Fair Play was any more than a middling fair read. There are several reasons for this, some fair and objective; others subjects of her pique and whim. Fair Play is not an inspirational romance, which is what Gist has been known for, but it suffers from some of the sub-genre’s weaknesses. Miss Bates doesn’t have a problem with “sweet romance;” as a matter of fact, she’s less and less drawn to the bedroom shenanigans of the genre anyway. Disappointment with the novel does not stem from that. Miss Bates finds, from many inspirational romances and which translates into this latest Gist offering, a certain calcification of character, which is part and parcel of the narrative’s predictability. Even though a conflict is set up, the seeds of its resolution are already evident from the first few chapters. Even though, for example, Hunter is against a wife who works outside the home, his good nature, early established, bespeaks, without much anticipation, his later conversion to Billy’s way of thinking. Ditto for Billy’s adamant refusal to compromise for Hunter. These are decent people working things out neatly and well: Miss Bates, however, prefers her characters with more nuance and some mystery, please.
Miss Bates’ second quibble with the narrative may not be justified, but it diminished her enjoyment so she’ll voice it. It lay in the portrayal of the immigrant tenement neighbourhoods. Gist shows the poverty and difficulty of people’s lives, which is good and true and accurately researched, Miss B. is without a doubt. Gist also states in an afterword that the movement for assimilation and glorification of the American way, whatever that may be given the context, were true to the times; Gist leaves them as is, up to the reader’s judgement. Without wagging any fingers, or assigning blame, Miss B’s experience with the tightly knit immigrant communities of her youth and adulthood left her with a bad taste after reading Gist’s portrayal. The immigrant ethos that Gist insists is not one Miss B. recognizes, but it may very well have been so. Her reaction may be viscerally personal, but there it is.
Overall, Miss Bates would say that this is a one-dimensional novel. It is not an unpleasant read, but its world-view runs to the conventionally conservative. If those are your druthers, then it’s one you may enjoy. For Miss Bates, it afforded “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Deeanne Gist’s Fair Play is published by Howard Books (Simon and Schuster) and has been available, since May 6th, in paper and “e” editions at your favourite online, or bricks-and-mortar bookstore.
Miss Bates received an ARC of Fair Play, via Edelweiss, with the expectation of a review.