Phillipa Ashley recently won the Romantic Novelists' Association 2007 Joan Hessayon Award for Decent Exposure,
her debut novel [...] published by Little Black Dress. The judges said: "This book had really great characters right from the start, especially the fish-out-of-water heroine and the hero who is 'always happiest when he's got something to be angry about'. We believed in this couple and their bumpy path to love. There is a real sense of lives lived, the close-knit team, the local rivalries, the small village, as well as the practical and psychological obstacles in the way of pulling the calendar together. We liked the humour nicely balanced with humanity and a bright, contemporary voice. Oh, and it has a cracker of a first sentence!" (Romantic Novelists' Association)I haven't been able to find many reviews, but there's an excerpt available here.
Given that the premise of the story involves the making of a nude calendar for a charity fundraising effort, I couldn't help but be reminded of the film Calendar Girls,* but as Rosy Thornton of Birmingham Words explains, Ashley's initial inspiration was the BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South:
Phillipa had the original idea of placing a version of Gaskell's novel in the present day [...] A sharply witty romantic comedy, it tells how PR consultant Emma Tremayne seeks to raise money and publicity for a Cumbrian mountain rescue team by means of a nude calendar – falling as she does so for ‘Mr July’ Will Tennant. Like North and South it is the story of a bright southern girl being forced to travel north, and finding a culture shock and unexpected love in the process.What I'd like to focus on is not the story but what Jenny Crusie's been describing as 'foreshadowing' using 'subconscious clues':
Subconscious clues are the deep structure clues, really more cues than clues, triggers for the reader that she or he many not even notice, often the motifs and metaphors that run underneath the story. [...] Is anybody but an English major ever going to notice this stuff? We certainly hope not; it destroys the enjoyment of the story. Is it crucial to the depth and resonance of the story, to the catharsis of the reader at the end? Absolutely.In Decent Exposure the subconscious clues worked for me because I didn't notice them until I'd finished the book and started to think more closely about it. The foreshadowing begins in the first few pages (they're in the excerpt). I'm going to try to avoid giving spoilers, so this will be a relatively short post and I hope it doesn't 'destroy the enjoyment of the story' for anyone.
The most obvious theme is that of nakedness:
Excuse me, love,’ said the bearded man in the front row, ever so politely, ‘did you say naked?’By the end of the chapter (and the excerpt) we have Will, the hero, agreeing to pose nude, 'But only if I absolutely have to' (2006: 18). What he doesn't yet know is that by the end of the novel he'll have been forced, despite his reluctance, to lay bare his emotional life as well as his body. Emma, the heroine, is his mirror image in that she's fairly open about her relationship history. She gives a synopsis of it on page 11 to a female member of the Mountain rescue team: 'My boss was shagging my boyfriend. I threw something at her and she sacked me' (2006: 11), but she's rather more cautious about literal, physical nakedness.
Emma Tremayne clutched her folder of proposals tighter and smiled a smile that went no further than her cherry-scented lipgloss. ‘That’s right, Bob. Naked.’
Bob, bald, ruddy-faced and fifty-something, nodded as if she’d just confirmed the price of a cheese scone in the local café.
‘You mean without any clothes on?’ murmured a whippet-like lad whom Emma recognised as a local builder.
‘That’s the general idea of a nude calendar, Jason, yes.’ (2006:1)
A second theme is that of risk, as embodied in the activities of the Bannerdale Mountain Rescue Team. All walkers and climbers take a degree of risk, and the purpose of the team is to rescue those who get into difficulties. What Emma doesn't expect is that in helping this team who have
saved over fifty lives in the past twelve months alone and were expert at abseiling and belaying and all kinds of skills which weren’t needed among the sushi bars and coffee houses and mirror-window tower blocks of the city life Emma was used to (2006: 2)she's going to have to literally take a risk and learn a skill which wasn't required in her previous life: abseiling. She's also going to have to take a metaphorical risk, and in both cases she'll have to trust Will. Will too is going to have to take a 'leap of faith' (2006: 267) as he falls in love.
A third theme which is foreshadowed involves spin and PR. Emma may be a 'a seasoned PR person' (2006: 2) but 'she felt she’d tasted enough deception and spin over the past few months to last a lifetime' (2006: 11). Will may not trust PR, but, as we discover, he has deliberately shaped his own public persona and the reasons for this are hinted at in the first chapter when he opposes the calendar plan on the grounds that it would make the team a 'laughing stock' (2006: 4).
Ashley also slips in details which have a deeper symbolism. For example, Emma's duplicitous ex-boss at the appropriately named 'Rogue' PR agency is called Phaedra. In Greek mythology Phaedra first of all got her husband in somewhat ambiguous circumstances (some say Theseus preferred her to her sister, Ariadne, whom he abandoned after she'd helped him escape from the Minotaur). Phaedra later became an unfaithful wife and, in some versions of her story, a mistress of spin who made false rape allegations against Hippolytus. We also learn that at Rogue
If there wasn’t a pot of Blue Mountain bubbling somewhere in the office, there was always some assistant willing to fetch a Starbucks coffee or a smoothie. Emma shivered. That last beverage was now off the menu. In fact, she hoped she’d never see one as long as she lived. (2006: 12-13)Emma has swapped 'Blue Mountain' for the hills around Bannerdale and 'smoothies' (both the drinks and men 'with a smooth, suave manner' (OED) ) for Will, 'a man who had all the charm of a grizzly bear' (2006: 4) and whose 'designer stubble made him look more like a grizzly than ever' (2006: 7).
Ashley, Phillipa, 2006. Decent Exposure (London: Little Black Dress).
* At the end of the novel mention is made of the fact that 'a production company [...] want to make a documentary' (2006: 274) about the making of the calendar, just as happened with the story of the 'Rylstone WI Calendar: 12 sepia-tinted photographs, showing various members naked - their modesty concealed only by the jam-panned, cider-pressing paraphernalia of traditional WI pursuits' (The Guardian). This became the basis for the film Calendar Girls, though it's hardly a documentary: ' "It's 75% of the true story," he [Director Chris Cole] estimates. That number might be a little generous' (Carrano 2003).