Stretching Reading Muscles and Learning to Listen

Barefoot_BrideIn the after-math of blogger black-out, midst a stressful, busy work month and nasty flu, Miss Bates turned to her old stand-by and greatest romance love, the category, to help her find pleasure in a few snatched hours of R&R. She coupled reading with listening to an audiobook on dark morning and, thanks to the end of DST, equally dark evening commutes. She didn’t have energy to read more than a few chapters in the evening and wanted the e-reader to tell her that the end was nigh, a you-have-38-minutes-to-finish-this-book message. As for the audiobook commute, let’s say that taking her mind off the sundry tasks she has to fulfill and personalities to juggle are blessings. She hoped that her paltry minutes of comfort and pleasure would offer the thrilling jolt of reading, or listening to things truly great. And the book gods visited boons upon her. Miss Bates read a lovely category romance, Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride. It is as thoughtful, well-written, and heart-stoppingly romantic as its title and cover are trite. (Why oh why does Hart have terrible luck with titles and covers? Miss Bates’ favourite Hart, Promoted: To Wife and Mother, is probably the best worst example. Don’t let the title fool you, though, this is one of the best categories Miss Bates has read.) She listened to and is still listening to (it’s a long one, folks) Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, not The Charlotte’s best known book, but sheer pleasure to Miss Bates. She sends out her heartfelt thanks to Sunita for finding the audiobook and Sunita and Liz for listening along with her.

It IS peculiar for Miss Bates to couple these two disparate titles. What makes her join them together other than the caprice of it’s-MissB’s-blog-and-she’ll-do-as-she-pleases? What interwove these two unlikely reading companions in Miss B’s mind, other than proximity in time and experience, is how beautifully, quietly romantic they were. Their heroes and heroines were so … so … so adult, flawed, maybe even a little broken and wrong about stuff, but there were gestures, moments where they revealed the depth of their feelings, their sensibilities, that moved Miss B. In Miss Bates’ fraught week, these little islands of respite brought a smile to her lips, a sigh to her heart, a little moisture to the eyes.

Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride is a second-chance at love story, the working out of a re-united lovers trope. Alice Gunning is staying with friends Roger and Beth on the fictional island of St. Bonaventure in the Indian Ocean. Alice is in a bad place: she’s unemployed; her former fiancé, Tony, is married and his new wife is expecting. She’s not where she expected to be at this point in her life: NOT settled, or financially stable, nor with a loving husband and children. Alice is a proud woman; her chagrin is closely guarded until a former lover, Will Paxman, walks into Beth and Roger’s party with his five-year-old daughter, Lily. Alice remembers Will fondly and she’s mortified that he’ll see her at her lowest. Alice is also deeply, delightfully competitive: she’s nonplussed that Will, whose proposals she rejected several times, is possessed of everything she’s wanted. She’s jealous of his success and good fortune. How human, how interesting: neither a mess of a heroine, nor sacrificial lamb. Will too is taken aback by seeing Alice after all these years. Contrary to Alice’s perception, he doesn’t possess those enviable things Alice thinks he does. His daughter, after his ex’s sudden death in a car accident, has only been with him for a few weeks. Lily’s father is a stranger to her and she to him. Their interactions are strained and awkward. After nine years, Alice and Will’s reunion is fraught with sexual attraction, anger, nostalgia, and yearning. It is absolutely marvelous. Miss Bates was once again struck by Hart’s elegant writing and fine characterization.

Miss Bates loved that Hart’s heroine, and this is true to Promoted: To Wife and Mother as well, suffers from hubris. Alice Gunning is always choking up over Will Paxman: because he’s a big, hard, attractive, grey-eyed man and she’s desperately attracted to him, also ’cause he’s done so much better than she. His career as a marine ecologist is successful; he heads a team overseeing the environmental impact of tourism on this this beautiful island. He has influence; he’s in charge of people and commands liking and respect. Alice has bupkis. It burns Alice and, if Miss Bates were in her shoes, it’d burn her too. But Hart is too complex and interesting a writer to leave Alice as is: she builds our sympathy for Alice by filling in Alice’s reasons for rejecting Will all those years ago. Thanks to a loving but peripatetic childhood, Alice yearned for permanence, stability, maybe even steady staidness. Will’s career and ambitions were never about staying in one place; they were about moving wherever the environment and his intellectual interests take him. He was forthcoming about his love for Alice; however, he never gave up his ambitions for her, nor understood her anxieties.

Will deems Alice’s career in PR and marketing as frivolous. Her penchant for whimsical shoes, for example (another reason for Miss B. to identity with her), he’s dismissed as part and parcel of the superficial world Alice inhabits. He loves her enough to indulge her, but he doesn’t get it. And that is where the plot-moppet comes in so beautifully. This lonely and morose little girl connects with Alice in a garden of butterflies where Alice wears butterfly-festooned flipflops, objects of Will’s scorn, but a little girl’s adulation. But Will is having a hard time reaching his sad girl and he needs Alice’s help. Alice’s connection to Lily sees her offer to help Will out by acting as Lily’s nanny for a few weeks before Alice returns to London. Thus begins the beautiful romance between them. They admit, not succumb, they’re adults, to their attraction and spend several halcyon weeks making love, talking, laughing, and healing a little girl’s loss. Will falls in love all over again and asks Alice to stay. Alice is heart-sore over her rediscovered love for Will and new-love for Lily and torn about her need to return to England and re-establish her career and seek the steady, stay-put life she wants. She cannot rein in her fear of Will’s wandering life and what it would do to her if she stays.

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.] Here is why this humble category romance is near perfect: because Will lets her go graciously. Because Alice has to realize for herself what home is, not a place of permanence, but the love of those most precious to you. Because love is sacrifice and Will is willing to give up his peripatetic life and return to a life of staidness in England for Alice. Because he and Lily return for her. Because Alice has her ticket all ready to return to Will when he shows up on her doorstep. Because she doesn’t want him to risk his pride and heart again to propose to her. Because the heroine proposes to the hero. Because the hero doesn’t call her baby, or old-fashioned darling … because he frames her face with both hands and calls her “my heart”. That’s why Miss Bates loved Jessica Hart’s Barefoot Bride. And also because the title is woven into the very theme of the novel: that one must run towards love, not away from it … but MissB’ll let you discover this for yourself.

ShirleyAnd what of Brontë’s Shirley? Published in 1849, it is different from Brontë’s beloved 1847 Jane Eyre. Yorksire-set, sprawling, ambitious, rich in the Luddite Movement of the early 19th century, narratively distancing in the third person, it is yet stamped with Charlotte Brontë’s fine ability to evoke the deepest emotions. It is, partly, Gérard Moore’s story, a mill-owner ready to mechanize his business, desperate to save a mercantile family legacy, to the detriment of his compassion for his starving workers and his own heart. Gérard lives with his sister, Hortense. Hortense teaches French, fine needlework, and household arts to the local rector’s niece, Caroline Helstone. Caroline is a lovely heroine: delicate, smart, gracious, and loving. She’s loved Gérard forever. We learn some of her back-story and she only grows in our liking and sympathy. Caroline lived with a negligent, near-abusive, alcoholic father until she was taken to her uncle’s. Her uncle is caring, but indifferently so. Her joy comes from her daily visit to Gérard’s home for her lessons and the possibility that she might see Gérard if he returns in time from his business, that they might take tea, read poetry, and converse. Gérard’s affection is evident, but he is a curmudgeon vis-à-vis marriage, a man whose single-minded pursuit of financial success hardens him, makes him peevish and cynical. He’s not terribly likeable. Except: cracks in his carapace of indifference, a vulnerability and possible desire for love and companionship. In one instance, when Caroline arrives for her lessons, he indulgently converses with her; he picks up her paper and pens. He knows how she likes her notebook lines drawn: he painstakingly draws lines for her, barely sketching a smile on his taciturn and saturnine face. He sees her, notices how she likes to keep her notebooks. It is a small, near-forgettable gesture, but it moved Miss Bates. It was sufficient. It was good. There is hope that the heart will awaken. MissB has 19 hours of Shirley left, but “hope is the thing with feathers,” a tiny flutter of possibility.

What have you been reading, or listening to lately? How did you respond to it?

 

 

26 thoughts on “Stretching Reading Muscles and Learning to Listen

  1. Shirley is the only Bronte novel I’ve read twice. For me, it pales in comparison with North and South. I remember thinking that Bronte let the book drag in the second half, and I remember being frustrated with her dual focus on Caroline and Shirley. Caroline could almost be another Fanny Price, and I love Mansfield Park as much as N & S . . . and I guess I wanted an ideal combination of the two books. But the Luddite angle in Shirley fascinates me, and I think that it’s a shame that the book, as far as I know, has never been made into a film. It might even benefit from the condensation that a screenplay would demand.

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    • Miss B. read it too, but so long ago that she couldn’t recall much of it. She didn’t even remember that it had a double heroine/hero narrative. It’s funny you should mention North and South, which Miss B. loves to pieces, but it came up in a conversation with Liz at Something More too. It’s the mill owner versus the militant workers angle that had us making the connection. And it is a fascinating angle, as you say, for Miss B. too.

      She would LOVE to see a film, or TV series version of Shirley. North and South is her favourite adaption by far … though she also loved Cranford. Have you seen that one? It’s so good.

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        • But you have seen North and South? It’s MissB’s favourite TV adaptation of a book ever, though Cranford is a close second. You are in for a super, unforgettable treat! Can’t wait for you to see it!

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          • Oh, yes! I read the book first and saw the movie later, and it’s my gold standard for period drama. I’ll take Armitage/Thornton over Firth/Darcy any day. And I really like Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret, even though she’s not as tall and brunette as the Margaret of the book. Margaret Hale is my favorite literary heroine, followed very closely by Anne Elliot and Fanny Price.

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            • Miss B. is sure she’s told this story before, but here she goes again (shades of Miss B. as old lady): she read North and South continuously, starting on the bus ride to her job as an exam supervisor (a good 25 years ago), reading through the 3hr exam (supervision lite it was) and then another hour on the bus back home. She remembers vividly looking up from the last page to descend at her stop: the streetlights had come on and Christmas lights because it was December and snow had started to fall in twilight. Miss B. loves those moments when you “awaken” out of a book that you know will stay with you forever. The TV adaptation is perfect: Miss B. is due for a Christmas break re-watch.

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            • I haven’t heard that story, but I love it. I read it for the first time during Christmas break in grad school. The copy I borrowed was from the university library and was published in the 1920s. It was tiny and leather bound, and the pages were so brittle that they were crumbling. My dad was sick, and I was dealing with depression. So following Margaret while she made mistakes and had her life turned upside down and thought she’d never be happy again and then figured out her purpose in life . . . well, it was a bit revelatory.

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            • Miss B. was in grad school too & terribly unhappy like you, with a dad who’d recently passed away, after a very long and difficult illness. Miss B. wishes we had that university copy (she has a copy of Jane Eyre that sounds very much like that): her North and South was one she bought from the university bookstore bargain bin for a dollar. She’d scoffed at the time, not realizing what a “revelatory” read it’d be for her and how it would stay with her much much longer than the books she was writing about. Margaret Hale is such a great character: so flawed and yet so concerned with what’s right and helping others. She so wants her life back and yet is brave enough to face not getting it back. The parent/child relationships in that novel, Margaret with her parents and John’s with her mother, are also some of Miss B’s favourites.

              Have you seen Kieslowski’s film, The Double Life of Véronique, about a girl in Poland and one in France leading parallel lives and never realizing it? It’s a wonderful film: our North and South readings and the circumstances that surrounded them remind Miss B. of it. Kieslowski, not an easy director to watch, is one of her favourites.

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            • Thank you, Miss B., for the film recommendation. I haven’t seen it or heard of it, but I’ll to try get my hands on it. Mrs. Thornton, gruff though she may be, is a woman after my own heart.

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    • Miss B. wouldn’t have touched this trite title and cover with a ten-foot pole BUT … Jessica Hart had won her over with Promoted: To Wife and Mother. It’s funny isn’t it that that’s all it takes to capture someone and win their loyalty?

      The really wonderful thing about Hart is how adult, flawed, but grown up her characters are and yet with what a delicate brush she paints them, with such gentle humour. Miss B. hopes you enjoy it.

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      • The title and cover don’t bother me as much as they do you. (The title of that other book, though: yeesh!) It’s more that categories have little intrinsic appeal to me. Unless Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake (which underwhelemed me) is a category, this will be my first category-length novel.

        Adult, flawed, and painted with a delicate brush — I’m in! “Adult and flawed” reminds me a little of another Hart (Megan) who swims in an entirely different area of the romance genre pool. I have a hard time finding contemporaries that I feel passionate about. Other than Megan Hart (who’s actually more of an erotic romance writer, but whatever), Teresa Weir’s the only writer of contemps that I’ve enjoyed, but I’m not as wild about her books as I am about Hart’s. Though Geek With a Cat Tattoo comes close.

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        • Miss B. is really really nervous … she hopes you’ll like it, but maybe you’d consider reading Promoted: To Wife and Mother, which is an even better book. The title is awful, there’s no getting around it.

          Miss B. found your remarks about category romance fascinating, especially coupled with Hart (Megan) and Weir, who really deviate from the more traditional notions of the romance genre, subvert it one may say. But the category romance, in Miss B.’s estimation, is the distillation of the genre and the interesting thing about it is that any individual book, even a beloved category author’s like Hart’s, are never as STUPENDOUS as what the humble category accomplishes (Harlequin, are you listening?): to bring the pure romance narrative to its most naïve and essential elements. To Miss Bates the category romance is to the romance genre what folk art (like the love-her-to-pieces Granda Moses, or the French artist, Rousseau) is to “high” art, for want of a better word.

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          • What do you think the traditional notions of the romance to which you refer are? I don’t disagree that I prefer more unconventional romances. (I also find historical more generally satisfying than contemporaries.) Even after several years of reading romance blogs and a selection of novels, I remain a genre skeptic — in some respects a genre critic.

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            • Miss Bates is glad you asked that question, mainly because she was asking it of herself when she responded and wrote the very words. It was certainly a vague kind of shorthand she was aiming for, but idiosyncratic shorthand works only for the person who’s using it.

              She’d say that her notion of “traditional” romance, and she’d say “classic” is a better designation than traditional (“traditional” has conservative connotations that she’s leery of), so her notion of classic romance is a pretty set narrative structure/pattern that a romance would follow. She thinks that Pamela Regis’s outlining of the “eight essential elements of the romance novel” would define Miss Bates’ notion. Regis identifies those eight elements as such: social context (it is herein that the category is quite spare), a meeting between hero and heroine, a barrier appears to their relationship, attraction persists, declarations are made (it’s all looking pretty good at this point), the “point of ritual death,” (Miss Bates’ favourite) the romance’s “dark night of the soul” when it looks like this relationship is moribund, events/information, etc reveal possibilities to an end to the barrier, a possibility of rebirth, and the “betrothal” or union (followed by the baby-filled epilogue 😉 ).

              Miss Bates thinks it’s important to have voices such as what you describe, most succinctly and wittily, as “genre skeptic” … in Miss B’s estimation, it’s important to have foils, they help us think about, question, and challenge set notions, well, for example, such as Regis’s, though for sheer reading enjoyment/pleasure, Miss B’s would still prefer to read what Regis describes.

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            • I don’t particularly disagree with that outline of the typical romance narrative. I do, however, sometimes find it constricting. My absolute favorite romantic denouement is that which is found within the pages of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel Gaudy Night, but that would probably be considered a novel with romantic elements, not a romance, because the mystery is more front and center (though not by a lot) than the romance.

              I have a lot of ideas for essays (or one long honking essay) on why I think critics of romance, though misguided, condescending, and ill-informed, are mostly right. But I can’t imagine where I’d post them unless I started my own blog, which I don’t have time for, and can just imagine that flack I’d get from romance fans for it, which isn’t a fun thing to contemplate.

              BTW, it looks like I either have to find Barefoot Bride via interlibrary loan or have to buy it for myself, which I’m a little reluctant to do. My library doesn’t have a physical copy and it’s not available as an ebook. Bummer.

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  2. Pingback: Shallow Reading and Shirley | Something More

  3. I mentioned this on Twitter, but Barefoot Bride was one of the first Harlequins I bought in ebook form, back when I was still reading on the Palm platform. I hadn’t read a category romance from an unknown author in years, but I took a chance and enjoyed it. From there I started buying more in the Romance line and then some HPs and I haven’t looked back!

    Jessica Hart is such a good author and kind of under the radar. That era of Romance books is really good too. There were a lot of terrific authors writing in it.

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    • Miss B. was so tickled by your Barefoot Bride story: not quite sure what made her pick this out of the Tottering TBR, but she’s awfully glad she did. It read fresh and thoughtful and was well-written, none of this extraneous words syndrome that so much of romance fiction suffers from. Miss B. also so agrees about Hart’s under-rated value in romance fiction: she writes about adults, flawed interesting ones and she does so with a light and humorous and compassionate touch. Miss B. wants to see her stay with category, but she is writing under Pamela Hartshorne and MissB. might give one a try.

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  4. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed Barefoot Bride because I KNOW I have a print copy buried somewhere in the TBR (the cover art is burned into my brain). Now that the Kiss line has folded, I’m hoping Hart finds a home back with Romance, but sigh. We shall see. I love her categories and am always selfishly a little sad when a good category writer moves on to new endeavors.

    Hart is writing single titles these days under the Pamela Hartshorne name – but alas, it doesn’t look like they’ve been published in the US. Time’s Echo was nominated for a RITA – maybe the last year they had the Romantic Elements category? Can’t recall now. Not enough caffeine in the blood stream yet 🙂

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    • Miss B. just loved it: from the opening page, it was so refreshing and so easy to sink into. And not because it was fluffy either, but because it was original and interesting. The heroine is peevish and the hero, though smitten and vulnerable, is also a little harsh and judgemental. Reading their development and how they make their way back together was really wonderful. That cover, though: oh, HQ, Miss B. wishes you’d grow up … but Miss B., like you, reads for author and ignores the cover. There IS a pretty marvelous reason why she’s barefoot however, which Miss B. thinks you’ll enjoy. She started reading Hart because of your review of Oh-So-Sensible Secretary, so thank you! 🙂

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