Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Colleen Hoover

Colleen Hoover's It Ends With UsThis Christmas I gave myself the best book I’ve ever or quite possibly will ever read.

In It Ends with Us, author Colleen Hoover explores the complexities of human emotion, entangled layers of relationships, chance meetings and chances missed and the break down of stereotypical black and white judgment on the taboo topic of domestic abuse.

Lily Bloom grows up hating her abusive father and wondering why her mother tolerates the abuse. She vows never to live in fear of the man she loves as her mother did. A homeless boy occupying an abandoned house in her small town Maine neighborhood gives fifteen-year-old Lily her first glimpse at how love could be. She smuggles Atlas Corrigan into her latch key home after school and on cold nights to sleep on her bedroom floor. She gives him clean clothes from her father’s closet, blankets, food and afternoons on the couch watching Ellen DeGeneres, the TV celebrity Lily bares her teenage soul to in lengthy journal entries that describe her emerging feelings for Atlas.

Although happy that her friend has found a home with a relative living in Boston, Lily grieves the loss of her first love. Atlas tells her of his plans to enlist in the military after high school graduation and promises to find her.

The years pass with no word from Atlas. Lily graduates from college, takes a job with a marketing firm in Boston, and realizes her dream of opening a florist shop, determined to put as many miles as she can between herself, her parents and a painful past. When her father dies, Lily delivers a meaningless and embarrassingly brief eulogy. That evening, she climbs to a star-gazing perch on the rooftop of a building near her Boston apartment and accidentally observes neurosurgeon Dr. Ryle Kincaid’s private tantrum sparked by the needless death of a young boy.

The turbulence of their on-again, off-again love affair and Lily’s resistance to severing the remaining emotional connection and a renewed friendship with Atlas reveal realities and emotions attached to destructive memories and motivations. The surprising “Us” in the title serves as an exclamation point on the far-reaching consequences of violence aimed at the ones we love.

My attitude toward women and men who remain with abusive partners changed after reading this book. Lily’s gut-wrenching decisions brought on by her unintended, perilous plight, along with her own revelations and forgiveness of her mother, opened my eyes to more reasons for every possible course of action or inaction. Domestic abuse isn’t only between the victim and violator. There is no absolute black and white solution or resolution.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The story continued in Heartland published in 2015 and concludes with Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, published in October of this year. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three rescued Husky kids.


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Susan Carroll and the Allure of the Regency Romp

I’m doing it again.

The days are shorter, the nights are longer, and there is more time to snuggle on the couch reading. I could be diving into all the wonderful new literary fiction that’s out there (just found Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed on my library’s to-read shelves). I could be reading some other Shakespearean novels I’m come across in researching my latest article (two novels I know of featuring Amelia Lanyer as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, not to mention that Elaine Scarry has a new theory about the lovely boy of the sonnets). I could even be catching up on the stack of books by local authors I’ve acquired from doing the book tour circuit this summer and Writers on the Avenue’s fiction writing workshops this fall.

But nope, I’ve been plowing through Susan Carroll‘s backlist. Specifically, the early Regencies. Specifically, the Regency romps.

Why? That’s precisely the question I’m asking myself.

One reason is that I signed up for Susan’s novel workshop through the Midwest Writing Center this fall. Five years of graduate study in creative writing—the MA from FSU, the MFA from Cornell—and I still feel like I have so much to learn. This is in no way a reflection on the beyond-excellent instruction I received from the amazing writers at both of those schools. Rather, I think it is a reflection of how truly slow a learner I am. And also, there I was writing short stories—which I pretend to know something about—and not novels, which I am learning how to write now, with the one I’ve been working on for how many years now.

I started with The Dark Queen, the first in the series about a group of powerful women in Renaissance France who are rumored to be witches. It dovetailed with research into the other article I’m researching, on medieval magic and fairy lore, and it’s so far a terrific book. I’ve got my bookmark in it and will go back to it. But I decided that for purposes of “researching” the novel I’m writing, I would read some of Susan’s Regencies. I know she loves writing them, and I know she writes them well, and I’ve already read every single work by Georgette Heyer several times, so I’m in the market for something new.

And now I can’t stop.

Sugar Rose by Susan CarrollWhat I like most about these Regencies (at least the ones I’ve read so far) is that each heroine has her own individual quirk. Aurelia Sinclair of The Sugar Rose is what you would call plus-size, not at all like the willowy silhouettes in fashion. She swallows her frustrations along with her chocolate bonbons, a coping tactic I know well. Predictably—for what gives these books their appeal is that we expect, nay demand a certain outcome, though we are willing to be surprised as to just how the characters achieve their HEA—the man she comes to genuinely care for is the man who likes her at any size.

The rest of the appeal, I’m coming to realize, is not the escape to a different time and place. It’s having a fantasy setting in which to work out our own modern dilemmas (like, how can women learn to love themselves within a fashion culture that is obsessed with thin, young, flawless beauty?) and get a healthy perspective on them. Or at least read about someone who deals with them more courageously (and more effectively) than we do.

In The Wooing of Miss Masters, Audra is not at all duchess material. She is a reclusive bluestocking who would rather sit next to her own fireplace and read a book than go to a ball and try to catch the attention of a duke. Of course, this being a romp, after several hilarious, aggravating, and interesting encounters, the duke will decide that he must have Miss Masters, and find a way to win her heart. Nerdy, socially inept girls CAN win the handsome jock! Hooray and huzzah!

My favorite heroine so far has to be Gwenda from Brighton Road.  She’s the author who writes thrilling Gothics for Minerva Press, has a family legendary for their madness, and does the hero a favor by critiquing the marriage proposal she accidentally overhears them making. This one had the most flavor of a Heyer (as well as the plot device about the road trip gone horribly wrong) plus several in-jokes for the authorly reader, and the hero who is first humiliated and beaten, then softened and won over, by the heroine’s winning antics.

And, because it’s Christmas and because I have reached the age where I like to celebrate the season by reading holiday-themed books, I also read Christmas Belles, which is about a family of four sisters who eventually find their HEA. Chloe, the lead, is the dreamy one who eventually has all her own dreams come true.

Is that the real appeal of books like these—they indulge the daydream of winning the affection of a handsome, attractive, capable man whose admiration and devotion will secure a girl lifelong sexual fulfillment as well as economic wealth and safety? Let’s not deny that social status as well as material comforts come in the package, as well as the hero’s sworn lifelong monogamous fascination and interest. It seems a rather adolescent fantasy, the longing for the prince as well as secure entry into the social world of rank and privilege. But it’s also a persistent one. For me the appeal of this fantasy lasted well into my 20s, and consuming romances with an insatiable appetite (a guilty pleasure I hid and denied during graduate school) was part of enjoying the excursions into Fantasy Land, rewarded with a HEA every time.

Now that I’m older, my fantasies are more about fulfilling quests, achieving career aspirations, and establishing myself in the world on my own terms, not in relation to someone else. Maybe that’s why I loved Disney’s latest animated feature Moana so much.  After growing up on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and finding a new favorite in Mulan, I finally get a Disney princess who does something useful with her talents, like save the world—which gets me exactly in the fantasy nerve at this particular moment in my life.

But there’s no denying that I return to the historical romances, and especially the Regency romps, for a particular kind of comfort, and a particular kind of joy. Sometimes I just don’t want deeply emotional sagas where tragedy strikes each generation of a family or the hero and heroine torture each other for 400 pages of the book. I don’t want to be confronted with social injustice or historical inequalities that can’t be cheerfully resolved by a plucky, insightful, determinedly upbeat heroine. Sometimes, let’s be honest, I don’t want to do with emotional and mature work of reading literary fiction and getting deeply inside the experience of another mind, another world.

Sometimes—especially when things outside are dark, the world seems overwhelming, or I feel stressed out and inadequate—I just want the sweet, easy fantasy. I want the chocolate bonbons.

So, as insurance against the winter getting too dark or too long, I’ve got Susan’s latest, Disenchanted, on pre-order. I’ll keep thinking about the romance formula and its enduring appeal, from its earliest beginnings until now. But I’ve also given myself something to look forward to in the new year. Because I can’t think of anything I love more than a book that takes a cynical, even ironic approach to the formulaic fantasy—and delivers a satisfying HEA nevertheless.

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Ciji Ware

Book coverI’ve read two books by this author. My motivation and interest in reading both extended beyond entertainment to assistance in researching a story I plan to write. A Race to Splendor dropped me in the middle of earthquake-ravaged San Francisco circa 1906 into the fictional life of Amelia Hunter Bradshaw, an architect and woman patterned after the real-life struggles and triumphs of Julia Morgan, the first licensed woman architect in California. Over 100 years later, in That Autumn in Edinburgh, designer Fiona Fraser of High Point, North Carolina, struggles to be recognized and respected by old boys with attitude in the South and New York City.

book coverThis is a romance novel of the highest quality, the love story of Fiona and Alexander Maxwell and the tenuous circumstances that bring and keep them together despite a six-year time span and an ocean between them. But the author ventures far beyond the boundaries of romance and the star-crossed history of the present-day lovers’ descendants to career and livelihood destruction perpetrated by the rogues of international free trade. The families of Fiona and Alex, and the people their respective U.S. furniture manufacturer and Scottish textile mill plants employ, are threatened by deceitful businessmen who steal ideas and profit by paying workers in Far East sweatshops next to nothing.

Ciji Ware’s lessons in history, eloquent prose, and extensive place-setting descriptions may offer a bit more than most romance readers expect from a love story. But once you start this good read, I’m sure you will, as I did, keep turning the pages to the requisite happy ending.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The story continued in Heartland, published in 2015, and concludes with Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, published in October of this year. Teresa appeared alongside romance writers Leigh Michaels and Amy Manneman at the Book Bums Workshop in West Liberty, Iowa, on Saturday, November 5. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three rescued Husky kids.

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Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han

Front cover image of Swimming Hong Kong Take a deep breath before you dive into Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong, because this brilliant collection will pull you in from the very first story and hold you there until the end. Han’s collection was a 2015 finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, an award coveted by just about every short-story writer, and is forthcoming from Willow Springs Books, a lovely literary press housed at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, right up the street from my old stamping grounds at Lewis-Clark State College.

Han teaches in Hawai’i and graduated from City University of Hong Kong and resides in both places, and the stories reflect the outlook of narrators who are cosmopolitan, internationally informed, and sometimes a touch travel-weary in their outlook. They cross boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, gender, and age, from Koreans in America to Americans in Korea, with locales moving from Seoul to Hong Kong to the Grand Canyon to Nantucket. For all that, the stories adhere to what I think of as a uniquely American (or at least uniquely Western) model of the short story: they are subtle, they are evenly paced, the conflict resonates across multiple levels, the stories ripple with metaphor and symbol, and the language is luminously attentive, rigorously controlled, and delicately precise.

For all the varieties in their situations, the early stories all feel as if they share a narrator, so similar are they in conflict, and in situation: an intelligent, sensitive young woman confronts a culture that doesn’t quite feel like home, whether in Asia or the Americas, and quite acutely observes the particular prejudices aimed at her for her Asian face and Western access. In the first story, “Invisible,” a faithful exercise in the obligatory early-MFA-workshop second-person narrator story, a young woman sits at an ex-pat bar in Hong Kong and experiences the peculiar vanishing trick that has become all too familiar to her as the Asian wife of a white husband. He’s looking right at her, even talking to her, but her husband’s co-worker and friend clearly doesn’t see her, and certainly doesn’t catch the barbed hints she sends his way.

Asianness is likewise the mask that the radical young college student in the second story, “The Body Politic, 1982,” is trying to throw off, or emerge from behind, but she doesn’t know to what extent people are interacting with her or their stereotypes about how a young Asian woman should look and act. Exposed to the feminist movement on a liberal campus, we see her in the opening scene chanting “I am not your servile Oriental sex object! Capitalism equals colonialism and sexism!” and debating how far she is willing to be the poster girl for this or that Asian campus club. And yet she falls prey, as so many young college women do, to a man who coerces her into sex, and gains her compliance because she wants to be “nice,” even though the encounter is painful on all levels. Han shines a light on the difficulties not just of being female, and therefore already Othered, but being doubly or triply removed from the charmed hegemonic circle—by ethnicity, by nation of birth, by the ability to cross over and see beyond boundaries, but at the same time never feel that sense of belonging anywhere.

Home is what the young narrator of “Canyon” is searching for, particularly a home identified by the comfortable materiality of Western culture, a Christian boyfriend who loves her, and a familiarity with the great U.S. landmarks, like the Grand Canyon. But in this, my favorite story in the collection, a hike with her lover becomes a confrontation with all the ways she is disconnected from him, including the painful secret  about what she left behind in Korea. Her Asianess likewise seems the thing that bars the sweet young summer worker in “Nantucket’s Laundry, 1985” from her desired love interest, Ted—the seeming epitome of the charmed and privileged white boy, who goes on to have a terrible life.

Her Asianess, however, is the very thing that attracts the painfully loutish, culturally tone-deaf Dan in “The Ki Difference” to this story’s narrator, but even so she is gentle with him, patiently trying to correct his demeaning manner toward the locals and improve his knowledge about the culture that is an economic opportunity for him, but home to her. Han doesn’t descend to caricature or stereotype, but she doesn’t need to do so to get her point across; the reader gets the sense that she is accurately, patiently, and sometimes with outraged grace reporting on the many, many things she has observed or experienced from her unique point of view about the several cultures she can call home.

Later stories in the collection depart from the love interest/Orientalism theme and explore challenges that seem less place-specific and more universal, while introducing new and fresh voices. A young girl in “Hong Kong Rebound” watches the subtle way her father is excluded from a sport he enjoys. In “Languages” the challenges of the schoolteacher narrator feel more relatable despite her Korean context, for many women have mothers who fear they will never find husbands, and many women have experienced being attracted to someone who is not suitable husband material at all. In “My Friend Faith, 1977” it’s the Asian girl who gets to go home to America, where she learns that her brief summer friendship in Seoul with the white missionary, Faith, has less of real connection to it than even she knew.

The last story in the collection, the title story, feels the most mature, controlled, and accomplished, and yet at the same time the most incomplete. The narrator, an older man nicknamed Froggy, takes an interest in a young woman learning to swim at his local pool. An excellent swimmer himself, Froggy distracts himself from fretting about the life path of his eldest son by watching this woman tackle her new skill, and gently coaching her. The story also incorporates the viewpoint of the woman, Ruth, a Jamaican-American who is truly a global citizen and ready to move from Hong Kong to anywhere. She conquers the breaststroke, but it’s not entirely clear what else changes for Ruth, or causes her to move to India—when you have no home, your home is anywhere? And the resolution of Froggy’s relationship with his son with a simple invitation to swim also seems a little too pat for the sophistication the rest of these stories have demonstrated.

Still, the collection delights for its extraordinary range, the subtle clarity of its vision, and the painful truths it honestly confronts about how white culture treats the Asian Other. As always, fiction can deliver the message more meaningfully than even the best political satire. And yet Han’s faith in her readers to see and grow beyond such limited thinking is generous and persistent, even through to the end. If Froggy can learn that the seemingly hard-headed younger generation can still share some of the values cherished by their elders, even the most culturally bound readers of Han’s memorable and masterful collection can take a broader, birds’-eye view of the world and go swimming, however briefly, in new and explored worlds.

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Leigh Michaels

Ruining the Rake by Leigh Michaels

The last non-contemporary romance I read had this guy named Darcy in it. Could any author ever rise to challenge Jane Austen? I certainly didn’t think so. Until I read Ruining the Rake, a book I closed only when my late-night eyes blurred, opened the pages again for too few minutes the next morning before work, and rushed home to finish in time for dinner.

Leigh Michaels wrote the book on the craft of romance writing and continues to lead by masterful storytelling example in this delightful romp through the flirtations of 19th century London high society. Elinor Holcombe’s desperate plan of escape from an arranged marriage to an aging wine merchant who reeks of onions amuses Augustus “Gus” Rackham, aka Lord Rake, a nickname earned by his notorious flirtations and reputation for seduction. His anticipated single day diversion with the outwardly inexperienced Elinor becomes an unpredictable adventure with more physical and emotional twists than the rain-rutted roads the couple travel on through the English countryside.

Bets, bargains, and misunderstood false flirtations all come into play before the truth is revealed and the rake is ruined! The plot, character development and style of dialogue are simply perfection 101. Writers—study and learn. Readers—enjoy! I’m both so I plan to read it again.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The story continued in Heartland published in 2015 and concludes with Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, published in October of this year. Teresa will appear alongside romance writers Leigh Michaels and Amy Manneman at the Book Bums Workshop in West Liberty, Iowa, on Saturday, November 5. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three rescued Husky kids.

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Monsters: A Love Story by Liz Kay

Monsters: A Love Story, by Liz Kay

Monsters: A Love Story, by Liz Kay

I study monstrous women (exhibit A: my dissertation on Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance), so a book called Monsters: A Love Story shoots to the top of my must-read list. I had the initial impression that this would be an update of the Frankenstein story; such, at least, is the subject matter of Monsters in the Afterlife, the novel-in-verse that protagonist Stacey Lane is about to sell the film rights to. But when the buyer is Hollywood’s sexiest A-list actor Tommy Demarco, and she flies to his home on the Turks and Caicos Islands to get drunk on expensive scotch with him, I realized this story was going to be a fantasy. Specifically, the fantasy about the seemingly unassuming Midwest girl (Stacey lives in Omaha, Nebraska) capturing the heart of the World’s Sexiest Man, on the pattern of Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We, and of course the Julie Stiles film The Prince & Me. All my intentions about giving the book some serious feminist analysis got derailed as I stopped thinking about Mary Shelley’s wonderful postpartum I’ve-made-a-monster horror tale and started thinking about my (and our entire culture’s) enduring love of the Cinderella fable.

reality-of-love-movie(For the record, my favorite of the unassuming-girl-snags-sexiest-man-alive genre is the movie Reality of Love, a made-for-TV movie originally called I Want to Marry Ryan Banks. She’s from Boston, not the Midwest, but her name is Charlie, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Emma Caulfield, and since Charlie is sassy and smart and does crosswords and stuff, the movie star of course immediately falls for her, but so does the movie star’s best friend, played by Bradley Cooper, and just shut up no Bradley Cooper is not my Hollywood crush. Though he might be an interesting casting choice for Tommy Demarco – I imagine he would have a lot of fun with the movie-star-playing-a-movie-star riff, like Julia Roberts did in Notting Hill, and now that I’ve revealed my taste in movies, we understand why I enjoyed Monsters so hugely.)

ella-enchanted-bookSo, Cinderella. The outlines are familiar: girl, hopelessly stuck in her own life, gets chosen by powerful, charismatic man for her a) sweetness of heart, b) purity of mind, or c) naive sexual allure, and gets whisked away to a life of wealth, privilege, and comfort in which no one will oppress her ever again or make her sweep out the fireplace goddammit because now she has a powerful protector. There have been several interesting takes on Cinderella’s allure in recent incarnations that I quite like. In Ella Enchanted, the prince likes Ella for her intelligence and spirit, but instead of saving her, he merely helps her break the spell of obedience put upon her. In The Princess Diaries, Mia ascends to wealth and power through inheritance and gets to choose her own prince. Drew Barrymore’s character in Ever After teaches the prince about statecraft and humility, and in Disney’s latest Cinderella, as imagined by Kenneth Branagh, she teaches him to enjoy life.

But Monsters is perhaps the most interesting Cinderella remake I’ve read yet, for this heroine needs to do absolutely nothing that is winning, wise, or self-sacrificing. In fact she’s allowed to be an emotional wreck, prickly, cold, floundering, unable to take care of herself or her kids, blind to the feelings of others, promiscuous, desperate for male approval, craving nurturance and a male protector to shield her from all the bad stuff in life so she can just mill around and write poetry—and she still gets her prince.

YES! Take that, cultural stereotypes about women!

frankensteinI’ve painted Stacey as if she’s unlikeable. She’s not a monster. You can see where she’s coming from. She’s mired in grief, for one thing. She tells us right away, first page, that her husband died and she’s still not doing okay. This is a story about a woman who is not doing okay. She is not a princess. She is attractive, definitely, but also acerbic, foul-mouthed, able to hold her liquor (for the most part), and cold, distant, and sometimes mean to the people who most love her (including, sometimes, her kids). But she still manages to get the guy to gallop in, take her away from her sad Midwestern town, sweep her off to a life of ease and wealth and privilege, where she has help to do the housekeeping and watch her kids and she need do nothing but write all day and have mutually satisfying, enthusiastic sex with her prince whenever he or she wants it.

SOLD. I will take that fantasy, thank you very much.

everafterposterI was interested by so many qualities of this book. First and foremost, the very lean, minimalist prose. It sweeps you in and carries you along. I suspect that’s because Kay is trained as a poet. Poets make great novelists, when they want to write something that long. They make the line carry no more than it has to, and every once in a while they toss in the perfect metaphor. Kay’s prose has the kind of pull to it that keeps you turning pages—just what every author wants. But there’s also the question that keeps the reader tuned in: is Stacey ever going to realize what a basket case she is and pick herself up and pull herself together, or is she just going to keep wallowing, manipulating, lying, withholding, controlling every bit her kids eat (this was the weirdest thing for me) and blaming everyone else for her misery? (That last part wasn’t weird at all; I understand grief.)

royal-weSome books give the lie to the advice given aspiring writers that you have to have likeable characters. I hear it’s more the thing to have unlikeable, irredeemable characters; Gone Girl and Girl on a Train are frequently pointed out to me as examples. It’s a gamble for the rom-com format, and I admire how Monsters pulls it off. I was to page 220 before I realized, I don’t think Stacey is going to have a character arc. I think she is going to keep going on like this: drinking a lot, lying to men, communicating mostly through swear words, not knowing what she wants, feeling sorry for herself, and trying to find others to take care of her, which works first because she has a lovely family (I loved her sister, Jenny) and second because she is sexy to men.

That’s really the only thing in Stacey’s positive column for much of the book. We’re told she’s very smart, but we don’t see this wisdom applied to either herself or the people in her life, and it would probably drag down the plot if it were. Fortunately, being sexy works. The prince is obsessed with her because she wears sexy footwear and swears a lot and drinks with him and is good in bed and because she is emotionally closed off and unavailable, she’s not like all the other too-available women throwing themselves at him, so of course she is thereby interesting and he must have no one but her.

i-take-you-coverI like the breaking of the formula, that the girl doesn’t have to be good or special to get the guy; she can be completely screwed up and broken and grieving and lost and still find love and a happy ever after and a man to take care of her. It worked in Eliza Kennedy’s I Take You, but there our heroine, Lily has a kind of self-deprecating humor and a cheerful lack of self-knowledge that made her a lovable tramp. Stacey is more or less a prickly bitch, most of all to Tommy, but he just keeps coming back for more. I LOVE that wrench in the formula; she doesn’t have to be the good girl.

I think we’re supposed to see Tommy as a monster, too: promiscuous, drunk, arrogant, wicked temper, self-absorbed and expecting everyone to give him what he wants. But there’s some sense that Tommy is a coherent character. Stacey, as a character, feels oddly empty, perhaps because her motives are intentionally hidden from us. She’s always searching for things to pull her together (like boots) or hold her up (like wine); the images primarily associated with her are curling up tight, tucking in, seeking space, trying to breathe. She spends the whole novel suffocating, and she never does come to any self-knowledge or epiphany or awareness; she just, suddenly, gets handed an oxygen tank and a free ticket out of Omaha to an enchanted life on a tropical island (spoiler alert!) because she is a wealthy man’s sexual preference. Tommy is perhaps a more relatable character because he has very specific goals, motivations, and desires, and acts on them in direct ways. Stacey just spends most of the novel trying to find some air.

prince_and_me_posterIt’s a big gamble to do this with a character, to abandon the usual goals-motivation-desire formula, especially when Stacey is already broken and grieving to begin with. At least Sadie, the broken movie-star’s daughter, is honest that she’s needy and wants love (don’t we all?). Stacey can’t admit that she does, perhaps because it seems like weakness. One wonders what love feels like for her. It’s never clear that she actually loved her husband; most of what she remembers are the petty wounds and betrayals of marriage. I think Kay gets away with creating such a damaged character because the prose is so strong, the dialogue is whip-smart, and the other characters are hilarious, compelling, and just the right balance of sweet.

And, deep down at the core of it all where the archetypes rumble and the fairy tales speak, we crave the resolution we know is coming. We have to know that Stacey will get her prince—the doctor or the movie star, whichever she decides she wants—because otherwise there is the danger that if she shuts herself off entirely, her sad fate will await all of us and we, the reader, will be trapped forever in our own monstrous skin, with our desperation and our brokenness, mired in grief, unable to see part our own misery to take the simplest care of another person, crushed with the weight of our denied dreams, hemmed in and gasping for air.

So, prince. As opposed to the hard road to self-realization and pulling yourself together for real. Because that is a lot less fun, though I see more and more of it in the rom-com/chick-lit genre lately, and I’m all in favor of that. (Lily of I Take You, on the other hand, gets slapped with a dose of her own medicine, and has to figure out if she really wants to embrace the sexual double standard, or the old tried-and-true hetero monogamy, or what.) I’m all for the prince (I have one in my own life), but I do have a soft spot for the women who fix themselves and their own lives and then allow the prince in as a gift, rather than standing at the side of the road, feet aching in the come-do-me shoes, waiting for the white horse.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the Turks and Caicos Islands . . .

Meanwhile, somewhere on the Turks and Caicos Islands . . .

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