This summer, Miss Bates listened to a Brene Brown series of lectures called “The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.” (It’s a wonderful series, especially if you’re given to self-protection and perfectionism, as Miss Bates is. Austen’s Miss Bates is beautifully vulnerable, which leads Emma to take that nasty shot at her at the picnic.) One interesting point Brown made was that vulnerability does not mean oversharing, or as Miss Bates less elegantly puts it, TMI. In reference to the same, Brown said you have to really think about who deserves your story. Reading Judith Arnold’s seminal romance about breast-cancer survivor Beth Pendleton and Ryan Walker, the builder-rogue who falls in love with her, Miss Bates thought about Brown’s words a lot. Too often, in romance, the heroine keeps secrets, secrets that result in an annoying Big Mis (I’m looking at you, secret babies) and a sure-fire way to being dumped onto the DNF pile. Barefoot In the Grass, on the other hand, is about a private woman, not a secretive one, whose story earned its privacy. Beth is a charming, intelligent, sympathetic heroine who confronted physical and psychic pain and fought a hard battle to embrace life, as echoed by the novel’s title and Beth’s oft-declared promise-to-self to find joy in “walking barefoot in the grass.”
Beth wants everything life offers, including intimacy’s pleasures and joys. But when she is attracted to Ryan Walker, her status as a “differently-bosomed” woman holds her back: will Ryan recoil, reject, rebuff, flinch, or run? For the reader, for Miss Bates, does Ryan live up to everything Beth wants and everything she deserves? Arnold doesn’t mince words: Ryan is carefree, not exactly a womanizer, but roguishly charming, fit, competent, and so handsome ladies pursue him. Beth evokes something in him, however; he enjoys her wit, smarts, blue eyes, and soft, cropped blonde hair. Ryan likes Beth and is attracted to her. On occasion, he senses a vulnerability that awakens his heart, but Ryan prefers his heart firmly, steadily beating in his bosom, not jumping about and questioning his comfortable uncommitted, devil-may-care choices. Beth’s revelation, when Ryan earns it, tests his manhood and heart.
One of Arnold’s great achievements in Barefoot In the Grass is how she maintains a light-hearted and serious tone. Miss Bates loved the novel’s opening. Beth recently moved to New Hampshire, joined her BFF’s law firm as their real estate expert, bought a rambling old colonial with acres of land, and adopted a rambunctious puppy-mutt from the local kennel. Said mutt, “Missy,” is leading Beth a merry tune down Main Street when Missy’s intrepid adventure is interrupted by a steel-toed boot on her leash. It’s really one of the best meet-cutes Miss Bates has ever read. Arnold navigates that initial spark of sexual interest, making “Missy” a great source of comic relief, in Beth and Ryan’s first encounter. Ryan ruefully informs Beth that “Missy” must be renamed “Chuck”! As it turns out, Ryan is Jeff Miller’s best friend and Jeff is Cindy’s, Beth’s BFF’s, husband and law partner. Beth’s new law partnership also makes her attorney to Ryan’s construction company. Beyond this initial character and inter-connections set-up, Arnold’s novel is plot-lite. The brilliant, nuanced, at-times difficult working-out of Beth and Ryan’s emotions and physical joining is its heart and proffers the romance reader, as RT rightly called it, one of the greatest romance novels ever written.
Arnold balances Beth’s “embracing life” enthusiasm with emotional reticence. Beth’s cancer lead her to reject the competitive grind of a NYC law firm and move to a smaller practice in New Hampshire. She wants life to be full of simple pleasures and joys, nature, friends, and connection:
When death threatened, a person had to reassess her life, to reorder her priorities. Making partner and accumulating billable hours had come to seem a lot less important to Beth than walking barefoot in the grass and observing the shapes of clouds.
She’d moved to Devon to walk in the grass and study the clouds and witness the many miracles of Erica’s first months of life [Beth’s god-daughter, Cindy and Jeff Miller’s daughter]. She’d moved to a town where she could relax, slow down, restore herself.
Ryan is delighted, but puzzled over Beth’s decision to move to a small, sleepy town. (This is before she tells him about her breast cancer.):
“I just don’t get it. Explain to me why a gorgeous lady would bury herself in a town like Devon.”
“I’m not gorgeous,” she retorted, smiling to mute her impatience. “And I moved to Devon because I’ve been doing high-pressure things my whole life and I was tired of it. I wanted to simplify my life a little. I wanted to live in a house with a yard. I wanted to walk barefoot in the grass.”
Beth’s brush with mortality brought her to a better place and life, with parametres that allow her to live every moment, to notice the world around her, savor and delight in it. It’s great how Arnold draws Beth as a delicate character, but not a weak one. Beth resists her vulnerabilities: quietly, firmly, defeats her grief at her altered state and losses. Beth counts her blessings and is grateful, a code we should all live by.
Nevertheless, Beth is vulnerable to her own sense of diminished womanhood and Ryan’s potential judgement of her less-than body. (Arnold’s characters have such healthy, likeable sexual appetites. Neither is promiscuous, or sex-starved, but they enjoy the connection and intimacy of sex and they seek it in positive ways. Beth misses sex, but pushes aside the heart-engagement that keeps it company.) Beth’s emotional state is cautious and self-protective:
The likelihood of rejection – by him or anyone else – was enough to make her wrap herself in the heaviest emotional armor she could muster. She was still fragile, still healing. To have a man like Ryan Walker shrink from her with revulsion was, quite honestly, more than she could take.
Beth’s sense of self is sad, but she’s also raw, honest, and brave. Miss Bates really really liked her.
Arnold’s novel was published in 1996, but there is nothing “old skool” about it. It’s as fresh, relevant, and compelling today as then. Miss Bates doesn’t know if other contemporary romances published before that date had ever dealt with the topic of breast cancer. Nevertheless, Miss Bates thought Arnold’s novel did something important: honestly portray a body altered by suffering. Beth’s body takes on so much meaning, so much more than what we usually read about in romance: perfect h/perfect h, perfect sex. Here’s one passage that impressed MissB:
She removed her bra, slid the prosthetic pad out of the left cup and glimpsed herself in the mirror above her dresser. Over the past year, she had grown accustomed to the way she looked. She rarely hesitated or recoiled from the sight of her lopsided body, her scar, the odd flatness where the disease had been cut away. She had learned to avoid self-pity by viewing the scar as if it were a war wound – and reminding herself that she’d won the war.
Beth has come to a good place, but is confronted with doubts when she considers the possibility of sharing her body: “Of course he would expect a lover to come with a matched set. Beth couldn’t blame him. In all honesty, the first thing she’d noticed about him was his physique. If she could be so conscious of his appearance, she couldn’t condemn him for taking an interest in hers.” Miss Bates thought this a particularly fine passage: Beth’s honesty and ability to put herself in Ryan’s place is moving and compelling.
When Beth tells Ryan about her illness, surgery, and scarring, he … well, he reacts quite badly. Miss Bates would have enjoyed giving his fictional self a good smack on the head. Arnold’s dialogue is perfect:
“I know I’m not handling this right, Beth,” he said, his eyes dark with apology. “I’m sorry about that, but this one falls a little out of my range of experience.”
“I’m sure it does.” …
… “I’m trying to be honest. Would you rather I lied?”
Yes. “Honesty works for me.”
“I just didn’t bargain for this.”
“Ryan. I’m making it easy for you.” She strode to the door and opened it. “No explanations necessary.”
He started toward the door, but when he was within a few feet of it – a few feet of her – he paused. “You hate me, don’t you.”
“No.” … She couldn’t hate him for being normal, for expecting her to be normal. “I’m a bit more of a challenge that you’re looking for. I can’t blame you for that.”
Miss Bates often argues that essential to Regis’s romance narrative “dark moment” is a betrayal. Ryan’s betrayal is of the worst sort, isn’t it? Certainly, Miss Bates had a hard time with the above. How does Arnold bring him back? How convincing is she? Quite. Miss Bates would venture to say that the more awful a character’s betrayal, the greater his suffering to achieve redemption. Does Ryan suffer? Yes, he does. Does he deserve to suffer? Yes, he does. Does he deserve Beth? Ryan realizes that he doesn’t, but she deserves him, the best of him. And that’s what he offers.
Judith Arnold’s Barefoot In the Grass, like her heroine, Beth, deserves accolades. Does Miss Bates have quibbles? Arnold’s romance novel has been author-independently-reissued, but proofreading did not happen. An error appears every five or so pages. Should it stop you from reading the novel? No. Way. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that in Arnold’s Barefoot In the Grass, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Miss Bates likes the novel’s original cover, so she includes it here. Barefoot In the Grass is available as an e-book at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates purchased it for herself many many years ago. She’s so glad Wendy’s TBR Challenge came along and compelled her to read it.
(Miss Bates highly recommends her two favourite breast-cancer survivor-heroine romance novels: Donna Alward’s How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart and Karina Bliss’s Here Comes the Groom. Kathleen Eagle’s The Last Good Man is also very good. If you know of others, please mention them in the comments.)