In 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.
And 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?