Monday, July 02, 2007

The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes

Jennifer Crusie posted recently on her blog Argh Ink that fifty copies of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes were being given away to people who promised to review them on their blogs. So I sent in my name and this blog and about a week later received a wonderful envelope from Saint Martin's Press in the mail, so here I am, reviewing the book.

Except, well, I'm a literary critic, not a book reviewer. So there's going to be more analysis than review, although I guess the two overlap here and there. But do watch out for some spoilers.

Links to reviews can be found here on the UMF website blog and an excerpt is here.

The premise of the novel's construction is that it's one novel (NOT an anthology, but a full-length novel) written by three authors, Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer, and Anne Stuart. Each author wrote one of the sisters' stories (like Crusie's collaboration with Bob Mayer, in which she writes all the scenes from the womens' perspective, and he writes all those from the mens' perspectives), and the three story-lines were interwoven into one master narrative. Dreyer wrote the scenes from the perspective of Dee, the oldest sister, and (I assume) Danny, Dee's hero. Stuart wrote those from the perspective of Lizzie, the middle sister, and her hero, Elric. Crusie wrote the scenes of Mare and her hero, Crash. I've never read Stuart or Dreyer before, but I certainly recognized Crusie's signature writing style in Mare's scenes. There are also the scenes of the sisters' aunt, Xantippe and her "evil minions" Maxine and Jude. I don't know who wrote those or if they were pure collaboration.

For a Crusie novel, this cast of nine characters (with a few extra very minor characters like a discarded fiance, Mare's boss and co-worker, and a waitress making it thirteen) is actually pretty small. Crusie has said that her normal cast of characters averages about seventeen characters. So compared to her other books, it was easy to tell the characters apart and to understand their relations to each other (unlike Fast Women when I had to draw a family tree to figure things out). On the other hand, with three main love stories in 391 pages, every single page counted and you had to pay very close and strict attention to every scene. You couldn't take a break and skim through the scenes of secondary character interaction, as I know I sometimes do, because there were no scenes of purely secondary character interaction. It's a book that's much better read in one or two sittings (and easily done) rather than trying to read it with too many interruptions, because there is so much symbolism, so much to keep track of (magic: Dee's is green smoke, Lizzie's is purple fog, Mare's is blue sparks) from scene to scene that it's better to try to do it all at once. In a house with five children, one pregnancy, two dogs, and a husband home for the summer, I didn't manage that "no interruptions" thing, so I got confused now and then. For example, Mare and Crash separate for a short time in the time scale, but a long time narratively, and then pick up their conversation almost exactly where they left off, and I had to flip back a long way to figure out exactly when and where they did leave off, because there had been too much story piled in between their two meetings for ME to keep track of (others might not have the same problem).

The time scale of the book (48 hours) and the consequent speed of the romances didn't bother me as it does in some books, especially paranormal ones in which the characters are each others' One True Love, like they are in this book. The magic that brought the couples together was such a strong part of the narrative that it was very believable to me that two of the three couples would fall in irrevocable love in two days (Mare and Crash had a history) and I could absolutely believe in their Happily Ever After, despite the packed nature of the narrative. I also believed in the character transformation and growth of all six of the main characters (except maybe for Elric, Lizzie's hero, but he was too delicious to care much that he didn't change a lot), which was refreshing and unexpected for such a relatively short examination of each couple individually (as in, each couple probably received the length of a novella for their story). The motivation of the villain wasn't just that she was evil and nasty. She was evil but vulnerable in a way that was totally believable and actually made you sympathize with her now and then, which was also refreshing.

What fascinated me about the book was the interweaving of the characters' story-lines and the differences between the placing and pacing of the eight elements of a romance. As I mentioned in my previous post, "Pamela Regis has brilliantly delineated the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal." (For clarification, the recognition represents "the new information that will overcome the barrier" [Regis 36], and the betrothal represents the characters' commitment to a happy future together, rather than just a legal marriage, so marriage of convenience plots still have a betrothal scene at the end, even though the characters are already married.) There's also the optional elements of the scapegoat exiled, bad characters turned to good, and the wedding/dance/fete representing the happy union. Each of the elements, and any or all (or none) of the optional elements, can be depicted in any order, together or separate. For example, the meeting and the attraction often happen together in romance novels. And the general consensus is that better romances locate the barrier and recognition in the characters and their relationship, rather than in external problems. So, in romantic suspense, there might be an external reason keeping the characters apart or a mystery that needs to be solved for the purpose of the larger narrative, but there also needs to be internal or inter-character conflict as well to make it a good romance novel, rather than just a good novel.

***This is where the spoilers really start, so be warned!!***

The narrative of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes as a whole led up to the scapegoat being exiled; that is, the climax of the novel was the optional element in a romance of the showdown between the sisters and their murderous aunt, Xantippe. She was suitably "exiled" and the denouement after the showdown depicted each couple going on their way, happy and secure in their relationship with their respective hero. No weddings/dances/fetes represented the happy unions, and, to be honest, they weren't needed. Despite the time it took to locate the narrative tension in the showdown, however, each couple also had either an internal or inter-character barrier to overcome, or sometimes both: Danny didn't believe in magic and Dee couldn't have sex without shifting; Lizzie couldn't control her power but Elric quickly veered from trying to take it from her in order to keep the universe safe to teaching her how to use it properly; Mare had to overcome her feelings of abandonment by Crash because he left five years ago as well as her own feelings of inadequacy. The weaving of the conflicts, internal, inter-character, and external, was brilliant. If I were doing a more in-depth analysis, I'd have to draw a chart detailing the elements of the romance and in what order they occured for each character and each couple and when in the narrative they occured in relation to the other story-lines. This is probably what Crusie, Dreyer, and Stuart had to do (I didn't read the blog, so I'm not sure), and, excuse my language, but must have been a bitch to accomplish. But Crusie, Dreyer, and Stuart absolutely managed it. It's a brilliantly plotted book and, while being dense, the story-lines work almost seamlessly together.

For example, interestingly, the first sister to receive a declaration was the last to achieve her recognition. Mare and Crash admit their love for each other almost immediately, but Mare is left (or leaves herself--it's just ever so slightly contrived) in suspense about Crash's true motives for finally coming to find her until the denouement. Both Dee and Lizzie, on the other hand, get their declaration of love from their heroes much later than Mare does, but are both secure in their hero's love and their HEA before the showdown. Dee and Danny have the most conflicts to overcome (Dee's shapeshifting, Danny's dislike of magic, Dee's feelings of responsibility for her sisters, Danny's double life), and to me, their HEA seems the most solid and real as a result because somehow they actually had time to work through it all in a realistic manner. Lizzie and Elric seemed to have the least conflict, either internal or inter-character, to get through, but there was a huge imbalance of power between Elric's magic and experience and Lizzie's lack of control and inexperience that was overturned at the end when Lizzie learned to control her enormous power, prompting Elric to say to Lizzie, "Remind me never to get you too pissed off at me" and lamenting the fact that although "I'm usually the one in control," he wasn't any more. This switch somewhat made up for the lack of conflict, but then, Lizzie and her power were the center of the external conflict with Xantippe, so less conflict between her and Elric probably made sense. This is just a sampling of the analysis that could be performed on this deftly plotted book, and I think this would be a wonderful novel to choose to do an in-depth analysis of the effect of the placement of the elements of a romance, precisely because of the interconnectedness of the narrative(s).

I have to end saying I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I'm actually looking forward to reading it again to capture the many layers of the stories, because I know I missed stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah, reading your review makes me wish I had more interest in the narrative structures of Romance, because you found a magic in this book that eluded me. I felt that the book's greatest success was in the collaborative integration in terms of the different voices of each author, but in terms of characterization and plot, it felt, well, trite. And I'm still a little bothered by the portrayal of Xan, because, as you say, there are moments where we have some empathy for her fear of impotency, and yet the book cannot transcend the destroy or be destroyed dynamic with her and her nieces. It felt, well, cannibalistic, I guess. Not ironized enough -- something.

    Anyway, I'd love more insight into what you found brilliant about the book. Because I wanted to like it so much more than I did.