Monday, December 04, 2006

Marion Lennox - A Bride for Christmas

This is a novella, the third in the anthology Christmas Proposals. I've not been able to find a review of it anywhere, but the synopsis, from the back cover, is as follows: 'When wealthy Guy Carver arrives in Australia, to take over Jenny Westmere’s wedding salon, he finds he wants nothing more than to make Jenny and her little boy his family – by Christmas!' Before I go any further, I'd better issue my usual spoiler warning. This isn't a review, and because I want to look at some of the themes in the novella, I sometimes have to reveal spoilers.

This interview with Marion Lennox, from The Age gives a hint of what her books are like: they're romances which combine intense emotion and down-to-earth practicality. She's won the Rita twice - in 2004, for Her Royal Baby in the Best Traditional Romance category and again, in the same category, in 2006, for Princess of Convenience. As one might expect from her down-to-earth side, Lennox has a habit of giving the princess story a bit of a twist. Jenny, the heroine of this novella compares herself to Cinderella and the hero to Prince Charming and then observes:
'I have a feeling that marriage for Cinders had its downside.'
'I've never heard of any fairytale where they divorce,' he said, startled, but she refused to smile.
'No,' she said thoughtfully. 'But being all alone in his castle, with everyone knowing she'd come from rags to riches ... she'd have to be grateful for ever.' (2006: 346)
In her two Rita-winning romances featuring commoners who marry a prince the balance of power isn't always in the Prince's favour and the Princess-to-be is extremely talented and skilled at her job.

Marion Lennox's novels not infrequently feature widowed heroines, as does 'A Bride for Christmas', and characters who've suffered other bereavements (this is the case in Princess of Convenience, as discussed here), but as they're romances, there are happy endings. As touched on in 'A Bride for Christmas', though, Christmas can be a bitter-sweet (or even just a bitter) time for those whose bereavement is recent and even not so recent (Guy, for example, says that 'The first Christmas was the worst, but it's still bad' (2006: 293) after fifteen years), but in time the celebration can bring comfort to some:
The Christmas after Ben had been killed, when Henry's life had hung by a precarious thread, Lorna had decreed Christmas was off. 'It doesn't mean anything,' she'd declared. 'I'm tossing all my decorations.'
Twelve months later she'd rather shamefacedly hauled out her non-tossed decorations. Jack and Jenny had been desultorily watching television, with Henry on the sofa nearby. They'd been miserable, but they'd fallen on the decorations like long-lost friends. That night had been the first night when ghosts and fear and sadness hadn't hung over the house, and this year Henry had demanded his grandparents start sorting the decorations on the first day of November (2006: 277)
Both Guy and Henry (Jenny's six-year-old son) have been involved in car accidents which have left them emotionally and physically scarred: Guy 'worked hard. He kept to himself. He made money and he carefully didn't know people. His life decisions would never hurt anyone again' (2006: 259) and 'Normally when visitors came Henry was seen but not heard. Henry had been a happy, cheerful four-year-old [...] Now Henry's world was limited to hospital visits, physiotherapy clinics and his grandparents' farm' (2006: 279). Henry's physical scars are the more visible, and Guy comforts him by showing him his own, 'He'd learned not to hate his scars, but until now he'd never been grateful' (2006: 326), and telling Henry that
Most people start out as babies with no marks on them, but as interesting things happen they get marked. We all get marked from life. Somewhere I read that the native people in Australia deliberately make scars on their chests to show they're grown up. I think the more marks you have on you, the more interesting you become. ' He smiled at the little boy [...] 'So you and me, Henry ... we're really interesting [...]'. (2006: 327)
The theme of scars, life experience and how it making someone more interesting also turns up, though in a rather different way, in Jennifer Crusie's Christmas novella, 'Hot Toy', but I'll blog about that another day.

There's a second theme, also related to outward appearances, which is about style and different tastes in decoration, particularly kitsch (2006: 308). Kitsch is:
a German term that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious or in bad taste [...] most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art. (Wikipedia)
I may be wrong, but I see parallels here between different styles of wedding (the kitsch 'pink tulle' wedding versus the elegant, minimalist celebration) and different types of fiction (romance versus some types of modern literary fiction). Jenny's extremely pink wedding salon was founded by Lorna, who reads 'romance novels' (2006: 358). Romance, like Jenny's salon, is often described as 'fluff' and, like kitsch, is often described as formulaic and overly sentimental. As Guy observes, however, kitsch can be 'fun when you're not forced into it' (2006: 309). Of course, there are only a few romances which are kitsch, but even those can have a certain charm, even if some romance readers think of them as 'guilty pleasures'.

Guy's 'Carver Salons are sleek and minimalist' (2006: 254), whereas Jenny's shop is called 'Bridal Fluff', and it certainly doesn't fit in with the image of the other Carver bridal salons:
what he saw made him blanch. Bridal Fluff was indeed ... fluff. The shopfront was pastel pink. The curtains in the windows looked like billowing white clouds, held back with pink and silver tassels. A Christmas tree stood in the window, festooned with pink and silver baubles, and a white fluffy angel smiling seraphically down on passers-by. The name of the shop was picked out in deeper pink, gold and silver. (2006: 238-9)
Kylie, the first bride Guy meets, is having her fitting in the shop and is being dressed to meet her mother's idea of 'what a bride should look like - which was a vision in every decorative piece of lacework she could think of. The veil even had tiny cupid motifs hand-sewn onto the netting. Seeing the veil turned into a train, Jenny estimated Guy was looking at approximately eight hundred cupids' (2006: 247-8). The second bride-to-be is a celebrity, Anna Price, who 'had been pilloried in the press for her bad taste. Of course she'd want pink tulle' (2006: 264). I suspect that Anna's tastes in wedding dresses matches those of Jordan, with whom she shares a surname. Jordan/Katie Price was married in 2005 in a dress which 'was pink with a tightfitting bodice made out of Swarovski crystals and a large wide Cinderella style skirt, adorned in 1000's of crystals. She had a large tiara with rose and clear coloured crystals in the shape of interlocking hearts' (from this website, where pictures are available if you scroll down a little).*

In some ways, romance novels are like 'Bridal Fluff': they're stereotyped as being pink and fluffy, but they appeal to a range of customers and, in fact, not all are 'fluffy', just as not all the wedding's Jenny's run are 'fluffy' 'pink tulle' weddings: when Guy flicks through the catalogue of past weddings she's organised he sees 'Fluff, fluff ... But every now and then something different' (2006: 259). In fact the 'pink tulle' style is more to Lorna's taste. She was the one who founded Bridal Fluff, and her taste in Christmas decorations is equally over-the-top but 'there was a reason why the [Christmas] decorations were just ever so slightly over the top' (2006: 277) at Lorna, Jack, Jenny and Henry's home. For them the over the top decorations are a way of showing they're going to make the very most of life. Similarly, even the fluffiest, pinkest wedding has a special meaning for the bride who chooses it. Of course, it isn't a style that suits everyone, as Lennox acknowledges. Despite appearances to the contrary, Kylie longs to have a special day which reflects her own tastes, not her mother's:
'that dress ... Mum had you make it for me when I was sixteen. She chose it. Not me. Every week since then Mum gets it out and pats it. Do you know how much I hate it? [...] when Mum rang and said I could have a Carver Wedding I thought suddenly, A Carver Wedding! I could maybe have it like I want. Elegant. Sleek. Sophisticated. Something so when our kids grow up they'll look at our wedding photos and think, Wow, just for a bit our parents weren't assistants in a butcher's shop. If you knew how much I hate pink tulle...' (2006: 306)
Deep down, Guy isn't really a minimalist and he comes up with an inventive solution which gives every bride the wedding that suits her, whether that be pink tulle or something a little different. In this way Guy rediscovers what had first made him take up wedding planning. The first wedding he organised was run on a tiny budget, and 'The bride had been ecstatic' (2006: 256), but Guy faced a lot of prejudice, including from his now-deceased fiancée who had declared:
'If you loved me you'd keep doing law. Your father's expecting you to take over the family firm. Your mother's scared you're gay. Guy, you play with paints. Paints! And me ... How do you think I feel being engaged to a wedding planner?'
She'd said the words with such scorn. (2006: 258)
I may be wrong, but I wonder if there are parallels here with the way in which male romance novelists face even more prejudice than female ones. The big problem with Guy's retreat from emotional weddings is that some of his staff don't just scorn 'pink tulle' weddings, they also scorn women whom they assume would want that sort of wedding, perhaps in the same way that some people mistakenly assume that romance readers have lower educational levels than those who read other genres. When Jenny visited the Carver salon in Paris:
I could have been there to talk about my wedding. I could have been there to make enquiries about anything at all. But I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying a small backpack Lorna had given me. [...] The backpack was pink. Anyway, they obviously sorted me as a type they didn't want. They asked me to leave, and suddenly there was a security guard propelling me onto the pavement (2006: 255)
Jane Austen's novels are romances which get past the literary security guards, but other romances, particularly those with pink, sparkles, clinches, or the Mills & Boon rose logo on the cover probably won't. At their core, romances, like Bridal Fluff's business model, are about emotion. Some romances may not be as stylish as others but deep down, there's a sincerity, joy and hopefulness in romance which is likely to be lacking in sleek, minimalist works.
  • Lennox, Marion, 2006. 'A Bride for Christmas', in Christmas Proposals (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon), pp. 235-377.
* Incidentally, apparently Jordan's 'princess-style fantasy wedding has helped send sales of Barbie dolls soaring' (Louise Barnett, The Daily Record, 26 September 2005).

Coincidentally, the last book I analysed was by a 'Squawker' and included a pet chicken. Marion Lennox keeps chooks, and some appear in this novel. They're described as 'Feathery things that lay eggs' (2006: 294) and if you look at some of the photos of chooks on Ally Blake's blog (e.g. here and here), you'll see that that's really a very accurate description. Ally Blake, like Marion Lennox, is a romance writer who keeps chooks. Seems that where romance writers are concerned, feather boas are out, and feathered friends are in ;-)

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