Miss Bates has a crise de coeur when she starts a Jessica Hart novel. Could it be that she’s fallen into … gasp … chick lit? The beginning of Hart’s novels is deceptively frivolous. When Promoted: to Wife & Mother (a fave of Miss Bates’s) opens, the hero and heroine are attending a corporate conference on personality types. Silly. When We’ll Always Have Paris opens, the heroine is trying to convince the hero to star in a reality show she’s producing, Romance: Fact or Fiction? Kitschy. But Hart’s novels do not end as they begin, do not remain in “frivolous” territory for long. Hart doesn’t tarry before she brings her characters from flat to full, from two dimensions to three, consistently increasing the reader’s sympathy and liking for them.
Hart cleverly plays with allusion to popular film, the title itself an echo of Casablanca; the narrative, analogous to The Sound of Music. (There are moments of screwball comedy reminiscent of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.) The hero and heroine of Hart’s novel, Clara and Simon, enact the story of Maria and Capt. Von Trapp. This gives the novel tongue-in-cheek charm and novelty. Hart establishes Clara’s light-heartedness and joie de vivre and Simon’s dourness through their clothing: Clara meets Simon in a fuchsia mini-dress and purple heels; he is dressed soberly in blue, or grey throughout. Clara is a TV producer, a purveyor of fantasy; Simon is an economist, grounded in hard economic reality and fact. Hart machinates some less than stellar coincidences forcing Simon onto Clara’s show. But when the star opposite Simon bails on the production, Clara has to step in and sparks fly. What ensues is a debate, embodied in witty dialogue, between the heart, Clara, and the mind, Simon; between fantasy and romance, Clara, and reality and pragmatism, Simon.
If Miss Bates claims that Hart brings her characters from flat to full, how does Hart accomplish this in light of the “allegorical” nature of her novel as described in the previous paragraph? Hart fleshes out her hero and heroine by filling in their lives previous to the meet cute. Their present demeanours mask the pain of their pasts. In Simon’s case, this means a spendthrift dad, who died and left the family destitute, and a mom as romantic and blithe as … well, Clara. Simon shudders to think how alike Clara and his mum are. Clara’s singing, dancing, and romantic sensibility hide a heart bruised, broken, and irreparable from a relationship where the love of her life, Matt, left her for the high school sweetheart.
The other interesting though less successful aspect of the novel is Hart’s use of setting. Clara’s reality show situates the debate of Romance: Fact or Fiction in location shooting in some very romantic places: Paris, the Caribbean, the Scottish Highlands. Setting acts as foil or partner to the debate between romance attainable and sustainable, or in fact!, a spectre soon dispelled by practical reality. How Clara and Simon arrive at a compromise and fall in love is wonderfully depicted through their dialogue. The frequent shifts in setting are less successful, resulting in a novel that does not flow, is episodic, and leaves annoying gaps in the narrative.
Miss Bates can’t believe she’s stating this, considering her spinsterish ways, but the absence of detailed love scenes is unappealing. Miss Bates reads inspirational romance, devoid of any love-making scenes, and quite enjoys it; detailed love scenes are not essential to portray the connection between hero and heroine. However, in this case, the closed-door “policy” of this category of romance diminished the love story. Maybe the severe hero and carefree heroine would have had yet more depth by a depiction of their love-making? Miss Bates is uncertain, unable to express what she means, but has a niggling feeling about this.
In the end, this is a strong little novel. Hart has humour, clever use of allusion to classic film, especially the beloved Sound of Music, smooth writing, witty dialogue, a tongue-in-cheek awareness of the genre, and the theme of love’s healing possibility. There is a lovely reversal at the end of the novel: Clara’s dans la lune romanticism gives way to practicalities and rueful awareness of the true nature of love in Simon’s steady, faithful presence and support, and Simon’s sober and utilitarian realism gives way to a grand romantic gesture (worthy of the closing scene of Pretty Woman) and the realization that complementarity is the cement of a relationship and not compatibility.
Miss Bates, despite her quibbles, did enjoy this romance novel, and says, “Almost pretty.” Northanger Abbey