REVIEW: Deeanne Gist’s FAIR PLAY, Or “What Did You Do At the Fair?”

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.

Fair_Play

Miss Bates loves this cover!

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.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Deeanne Gist’s FAIR PLAY, Or “What Did You Do At the Fair?”

  1. The sense of smell really is difficult to convey, and it’s such a powerful trigger for memories. I could taste that hot dog, Miss B, and see you quite clearly in your pinch-y Mary Janes. It’s funny and fascinating what we associate with different smells.

    When I get a whiff of caramelized onions, I’m immediately transported to occasional visits to the state fair as a child. That sweet, buttery, slightly nutty aroma induces memories of a 6-year old me, eyes shut tight and squealing at the top of my lungs as my dad and I ride the Ferris Wheel for the first time. I remember clutching his hand as we go up in the night sky and round and round, quite sure I would be sick. I can still hear the laughter in his voice as he says, “Open your eyes and you can see for miles.” But I just couldn’t open my eyes. And, oh the relief to be safely on the ground again.

    When my nephew was 2 or 3, I bought a box of crayons and a coloring book to occupy him when he visited me. When we opened that box of Crayola crayons and I got a whiff of that waxy smell, I was in first grade all over again. I could see the long, wooden, rectangular tables with small chairs lined up on either side, the semi-circle of chairs for the reading circle. I remembered the old book smell of the first grade readers, and the yeasty smell of bread wafting from the cafeteria. Gosh, everybody loved those rolls so much! About 10:30 in the morning, the first ones started coming out of the oven, and everybody’s stomach would start rumbling. 🙂 We all have our particular “Proustian Madeleine” experiences, don’t we?

    I am very curious as to Hunter’s “most embarrassing condition”, and I can only hope it doesn’t involve an unsightly rash requiring a shot of penicillin. Maybe a little peppermint tea for his, er, tummy pains? Or does poor Hunter need to perhaps add fiber to his diet? I’ve thought of a million (okay, maybe NOT a million, but SEVERAL) reasons for a man to be embarrassed to see a female physician, but I don’t think I’d like to struggle through a “flagging middle and bathetic conclusion” to find out. 🙂 Loved that phrase BTW.

    I couldn’t agree more concerning “bedroom shenanigans.” I’ve read Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, and there’s plenty of romance but no sex in that one. Likewise, Betty Neels’ books never go further than kisses – on the cheek or sometimes an implication of more than a quick peck when our RDD “thoroughly” kisses the dear British nurse of his dreams. 😉 I just read Mary Burchell’s Under the Stars of Paris, and there’s one kiss (a “thorough” one to be sure), before the HEA ensues. Was I disappointed from the lack of bedroom shenanigans in these books? No. No, I wasn’t. Because there was a richness and a depth in the story, and characters, as well as a wonderful exploration of the relationship between the hero and heroine that I sometimes find lacking in many romance novels I pick up to read. Most of the time, the “shenanigans” seem to be added as page filler, or as an afterthought, or maybe because it’s expected that after x amount of pages readers need a “hot sex scene” (or three or four) lest they lose interest. Without that emotional pull of angst or joy, I just start skimming pages.

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    • What wonderful memories: if we focus on our senses other than the visual, which is so privileged in our screen-based world, the intensity and our ability to transport ourselves “back,” are greater. Miss B. especially loved your Ferris wheel story as the thought of going up and up … um, no … she’s never been on a Ferris wheel in her life! And she would most definitely have kept her eyes shut! But what a great memory to have the sound of your father’s voice right there. Miss B’s own dad, a newly arrived immigrant to the Americas, took a Ferris wheel ride as one of the first things he ever did for fun here. Lightning and thunder ensued and he was stuck high up for a good hour: so Miss B.’d say our whole family is amusement park “averse”. 😉

      She thinks that school smells are some of the most powerful, especially of when we were in elementary school. Maybe because it’s, for most of us who are blessed to grow up in a safe, secure, and loving home, our first encounter with a world outside of it. She once walked through her old inner-city elementary school and was immediately transported to her first day at school the moment she smelled that distinct school corridor smell. So indescribable, but bringing the fear, anticipation, and strangeness of early school years to heart.

      LOL! Miss B. cannot keep you in suspense regarding poor Hunter’s ailment: let’s say that he required special tea and a few weeks of massage (this is what threw the poor guy and later, the idea that Billy might have to offer similar therapy to other men) to “loosen” him up. The scene was quite hilarious and like nothing Miss B. has ever read in romance. If the author had remained in this vein, she might have liked the rest a lot more.

      Ah, “bedroom shenanigans”: Miss B. would say that rather than treating them as the raison d’être of the romance narrative, they should be no more than the pepper you add to a well-cooked dish. They have to be integrated into the very reason behind the couple’s journey to the HEA. No one does this better than Cecilia Grant, in Miss B’s humble opinion. That is why she is soooo looking forward to your thoughts on A Lady Awakened. On the level of sheer taste, Miss B’s preference is for Heyer-esque decorum. 😉

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  2. Someone mentioned on Twitter (sorry, can’t recall who now!) that Gist was moving away from inspriational and more “mainstream.” Her books have always been light on inspirational elements anyway, but this one they were fairly non-existent. Still, I chortled when I read a review that said the examination scene between Billy and Hunter was “nothing short of erotica.”

    Uh, OK. Please gentle reader – do not come over to the Bat Cave and casually flip through some of the books I own. You will have a brain aneurysm.

    I’m hoping Gist fills that Americana niche that has been pretty well vacated ever since Pamela Morsi went contemporary. Because as much as I love westerns, I’d like to see even more variety with American settings. But then I just want more variety in general.

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    • They were definitely “non-existent,” maybe there was a kind of mood or ethos to Fair Play that we see in inspirationals and maybe she’s working it off, like a snake sheds its skin? As for the scene, Miss B. thought it a hoot, but not half as much as when she saw your tweet about the GR reader’s shock over its “erotic” nature. It was one of the least sexy scenes Miss B. has read in romance in ages!

      Miss B. is going to second your desire to see more variety: also maybe settings beyond the US and GB!

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