Friday, June 13, 2008

If you mess with us, man, you're gonna cry, baby, cry

I just got done with Tina Welling's Crybaby Ranch. I enjoy fiction set in the modern West a lot, especially E. Annie Proulx's stuff, so I was attracted to this one, about a woman who pulls up stakes and moves to Wyoming. She faces many external pressures: she's an empty-nester at age 38, in a stale depressing marriage, with a mother who's fading away to Alzheimer's and a father who refuses to acknowlege that fact. But mostly, her flight from her marriage to Wyoming is in response to something deep inside of herself, something that she spends the rest of the novel sorting through and coming to grips with.

The main character, Suzannah, never really got to be herself. She went straight from her parents' house into that of her employer and future husband, an older college professor with a young child. Now, at the age of 38, she's trying to figure out who she is and how to become that person.

In the midst of all this, Bo Garrett interjects himself. Not content with the typical relationship between homebuyer and homeseller (that's how he and Suzannah meet), he takes it a step further. He cooks for her, he shares the electric bill and post office box with her, he introduces her to family and friends and makes her feel welcome in a strange territory (Suzannah is an Easterner: raised in Florida and lived her adult like in Ohio). Welling has created a deep character in Suzannah, and Bo is a love interest worthy of her. He was raised by two women, his mother and his aunt -- but he doesn't know which is which and they've never told a soul. His father is known as O.C. -- short for Old Coot. Bo comes from a long line of ranchers -- but has sold off all his cattle to concentrate on his sculpture. He and Suzannah embark on a long, slow journey towards each other.

This is a fairly ambitious book, and Welling should've left it there. Instead, she introduces a human roadblock to the coupling of Suzannah and Bo. This is the only part of the book that fails. Caro is the wife of a wealthy rancher, and she and Bo may or may not have had a thing going at one point. It almost seems as though someone else made Welling introduce the Caro angle, for nothing about it feels real. Even the nickname they've given her jangles as you read it (shouldn't it be "Car?" "Carrie?" "Lina?" would an influential adult woman really let people give her the same name as a bottle of corn syrup?) Welling tried to make her self-invovled and arrogant, and she is, but far past a degree any normal person would tolerate. Yet Bo and Suzannah both do, time after time, allow her to barge into their own homes, insult them, ruin their evenings, and waltz out again.

However, I recommend this one anyway. Ignore all the Caro syrup and concentrate on the character of Suzannah as she emerges, finally under no one's influence but her own, and on the character of Bo, who finds in Suzannah not just a mate but a jump-start for his own stalled life, and on the beautiful, if too fleeting descriptions of Wyoming itself. This is escapism of a more substantial sort than is typically on offer in books aimed at women. It's a perfect summer read. Take it to the beach or the mountains, or just take it to your own porch with a nice cool drink. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Charisma, or historical fiction done cleverly

I have begun to think that the historical novel is a difficult genre to pull off. It requires much research on the part of the writer, especially when the novel deals with real people. If you have a character sitting on a couch with his wife on a sunny day, you need to make damn sure that 1. your charcter had a wife 2. couches existed during that time period 3. your character was of the correct socioeconomic bracket to have a couch and 4. it wasn't one of those freak years when there wasn't much of a summer.

Then, you have to make the people involved come to life. Your audience could go to any number of nonfiction books for a simple accounting a famous person's life. But those often leave out the big question of why, since it's something that can mostly only be speculated on. The Rag And Bone Shop, by Jeff Rackham, does a good job of making the characters sing. The book is about Charles Dickens, but he is almost more of a force in the lives of the three tellers of the story than a full-fledged character.

The plot is simple enough. The book is about Charles Dickens' affair with actress Ellen Ternan. Few hard facts are known about it, as they took such great care to keep it quiet. We hear the story from Dickens' friend, fellow writer Wilkie Collins; Dickens' devoted sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth; and Ellen herself. Fascinating, gothic characters lurk around the edges of the tale. There's Dickens' wife Catherine, who shuts herself up in her bedroom for days on end. There's Collins' girlfriend Caroline, with many names, many pasts, and a daughter she introduces as her niece. There's the creepy Joseph Clow, who lives among hundreds of guinea pigs and leaves poorly spelled poems (and one on occasion, a dead guinea pig) on Caroline's doorstep.

The three tellers of the tale are interesting in their own right. All three are very different from one another, in social standing and temperment, but their interests in the tale are the same. Each believes that they alone know the true Dickens who was at that point adored by an entire nation. Each believes themselves to be special to one who society venerates as being special. In this book about his life, Charles Dickens is not so much a character as a force, and as the the lens through which each views their own life. Yet, it provides enough detail that Dickens fans will enjoy it too. This one was worth the late fines!