Sunday, September 25, 2011

"The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making," by Cathrynne M. Valente

The Protagonist: September Morning Bell. A partially Heartless little girl in WWII-era Nebraska who gets the chance to escape her boring life and fly off into Fairyland.The Rub: Living a fairytale adventure is exciting, but a happy ending isn't necessarily guaranteed.
The Secondary Cast:

Ell, a.k.a. "A-through-L": A half-wyvern son of a library with encyclopedic knowledge (except for things beginning with M and beyond).

Saturday: A marid - a wish-granting water spirit who is rescued by September.

The Green Wind: A jolly air spirit to steals September off into Fairyland and lends her his sentient smoking jacket.

The Leopard of Small Breezes: A large cat who, with the Green Wind, helps September fly through Fairyland.

The Marquess: A curly-haired little girl who is not nearly as kind and forgiving as September - she rules Fairyland with a tiny, soft, adorable iron fist.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 Alternate Dimension

Several Significant Clocks

1 Enthusiastic Key

Countless Ineffective Victual Loopholes

1 Surprise Appearance of an Offspring

1 Magic Wrench

2 Windy Cats

1 Remarkably Teary Backstory

1 Lost Shadow

The Word: I adored Cathrynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales, the groundbreaking, soul-shattering two-volume collection of stories-within-stories-within-stories, so when I was offered the chance to review a copy of her new children's book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

What little I knew of the book before going in was that it was an attempt to recreate the Victorian/Edwardian children's novel - and, true enough, The Girl nails that balance between sugar-coated whimsy and razor-sharp menace. Some of the best horror of 19th and 20th century literature (and film!) was made for children. And even though most contemporary stuff tries to keep the scary bits out, that only means that kids will go looking for it somewhere else, because being a child is the absolute best time to have the pants scared off you by books.

In my elementary-school and junior high days, I turned to R.L. Stine - and not even his goofy-scary Goosebumps series, but his older, teenage-slasher books where stepsisters and ex-boyfriends and mysterious foreign exchange students stabbed the more interesting characters until the less interesting characters found them out and reported them to the authorities.

I used to think that I didn't want to be scared or disturbed anymore. Heck, I don't like trying any carnival rides riskier than the merry-go-round. But with people like Neil Gaiman (Coraline) and now Cathrynne M. Valente bringing it back, it's past time to rediscover just how well a little terror can spice up a thrilling adventure.

Our protagonist, September, is swept away from a normal, boring life in Nebraska by the Green Wind, and this ill-tempered, well-read, and mostly Heartless youngster (a term very likely borrowed from J.M. Barrie, whose Peter Pan was all about how children are voracious little sociopaths before maturity grants them a conscience) finds herself in Fairyland. But this isn't Disney's Fairyland - this is Old School fairyland, where there are sharp teeth behind every smile, tricks hidden beneath every treat, and very real, dangerous consequences for every decision September makes.

While searching for an adventure, September captures the attention of the Marquess, the tyrannical young despot who rules Fairyland with an iron fist and a splendid hat. This solves September's quest for a quest rather nicely, as the Marquess has definite plans for September and not all of them involve September surviving until the end.

Besides borrowing from Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Greek mythology, fairy folklore, and dozens of other stories, Valente's storytelling also succeeds because it maintains an undercurrent of reality that follows September around the labyrinth of fantasy like Ariadne's thread. Although September is at first apathetic towards the life she left behind, it subtly seeps into her memories, behaviour and consciousness regardless, such as her fears for her father (who is fighting overseas) and her isolation from her mother (who fixes machines in a factory).

And September herself is a tough, resourceful little nut - a nice, modern change from the sweet-natured little Pollyannas who normally tumble down rabbit holes and walk through wardrobes and get carried away by tornadoes. As the novel progresses, September is forced to make some drastic, painful changes in order to rescue her friends, most especially in how she creates that "ship of her own making" - but I won't spoil that for you.

As much as I loved this book, I could just have easily have hated it. A book like this requires a delicate balance between a number of factors, but Valente pretty much nails it - it's old-fashioned while still being relevant, the worldbuilding is fluid without being inconsistent, the language is self-referential without being twee, and while it subtly and not-so-subtly references a number of previous books and materials, it still remains its own original creation.

I honestly can't describe any more of the book to you - that would be an immense disservice, because, like Narnia and Oz, the joy comes from exploring the discovering Fairyland on one's own. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is a lively literary gumbo that will not only have you racing through it, but will have you poring through the children's section of your library to re-read the classics that brought both you and Cathrynne M. Valente to this point.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Book-To-Film Review: "The Help," by Kathryn Stockett

The Principal Cast:
Aibileen Clark: A maid of considerable experience, particularly in the area of raising babies. She currently works for a white woman who neglects and emotionally abuses her 2-year-old daughter.
Minny Jackson: A maid with an unfortunate tendency to sassmouth her employers who goes to work for a social outcast when a vengeful former boss blacklists her among the more respectable members of society.

Skeeter Phelan: A privileged young white woman who recently graduated with a degree in journalism and is eager to write something meaningful as well as publishable - and winds up in something way over her head.
The Supporting Cast:
Charlotte Phelan: Skeeter's ambitious, disapproving, rigidly conservative mother.

Elizabeth Leefolt: A high school friend of Skeeter's, and Aibileen's employer. A weak-willed social climber who looks to Hilly Holbrook for advice.

Hilly Holbrook: Another soon-to-be former friend of Skeeter's, and the novel's principal antagonist. Founder of the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a program that requires people to install separate bathrooms for their coloured servants.

Celia Foote: A busty blonde rejected by Hilly and her friends for being a white-trash girl who married up. Slovenly and incapable of cooking, she hires Minny in secret in order to convince her husband she's capable wife material.

Constantine Jefferson: Skeeter's family's former maid who was fired under mysterious circumstances.

Stuart Whitworth: The son of the state senator who takes a shine to Skeeter.
The Word:
In many ways, I found The Help to be a lot like Room by Emma Donoghue, in the sense that a lot of my enjoyment with this novel came from the novel's use of changing perspectives, and all of their various limitations.

The novel starts from the perspective of the two black maids living in Jackson, Mississippi, Aibileen and Minny. We read their stories first (or rather, listen to their stories, as Ms. Stockett uses a surprisingly effective dialogue-type of writing style for their POV chapters that cannily captures their voices). Aibileen tends the house of Miss Leefolt and tends her employer's two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, whom she loves and coddles in an attempt to make up for her mother's neglect and indifference.

Minny, meanwhile, is a maid with a reputation for heavenly cooking whose reputation is ruined when prominent Jackson socialite Miss Hilly Holbrook lies about Minny being a thief in order to hire her at a cheaper wage. When Minny retaliates by giving Miss Hilly her just desserts in the most appallingly literal way possible, the only work she can find is as a maid to an isolated, ostracized housewife the other wives in Jackson spurn for being white trash.

Through their eyes, we see the ignorance and weakness and cruelty and indifference of the people they work for, so that it comes as an interesting change of perspective when we get to Skeeter's first chapter. Skeeter, just returned from university, is friends with both Hilly and Miss Leefolt. Through her, we see the other sides to their characters, the shiny, public faces they show to their friends and their neighbours - not the private angers and pettiness they demonstrate in front of their help.

Skeeter, however, does not agree with her friends' treatment of their maids. She recently discovered that her own family's beloved maid, Constantine, apparently quit - although the circumstances are shrouded in secrecy. When the only journalism job she can find is as the writer of a housekeeping advice column, she goes to Aibileen for advice and comes up with the idea of writing about society from the perspective of the help. An editor in New York is tentatively interested in the idea, but Skeeter discovers that actually getting the maids to talk is another obstacle entirely.

As the book proceeds, the changes in perspective set an engaging tone. While on the one hand, I appreciated Skeeter's determination and drive to write an important book, her initial ignorance of the possible consequences of her actions (as viewed from Aibileen's and Minny's POVs) made me cringe. It's also worthy of note that I cared about each character's problems equally, even if in the larger scheme of things, Skeeter's problems (a disapproving mother, self-esteem issues) seemed woefully paltry in comparison to Aibileen's and Minny's.

Second to the perspectives, The Help's best element is its pacing. I started reading slowly, then sped up, then basically drag-raced through the book to the end. Stockett peppers her book with different mysteries and questions (why did Constantine leave? What's wrong with Minny's new boss, Celia?) that, along with the central plot, keep the tension high and the pace swift.

At the same time though, certain scenes and characters seemed a tad exaggerated - Miss Hilly foremost among them. Maybe this is my own ignorance and naivete, but I find it hard to believe a person as repulsive and yet cartoonishly comical as her could exist. She had some nuance in the first half of the novel (from her positive friendship with Skeeter), but in the second she was just an out and out villain, evil in pretty much every way it was to be evil.

But ultimately, I found the story immensely entertaining. I loved the differences in perspective and the sparks of humour and the excellent setting, atmosphere and dialogue.A.

The Help (2011, tarring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer)

Not long after I finished the book, I had the opportunity to watch the movie with my sister. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, aside from a few changes, the movie was actually a pretty close, accurate, and entertaining adaptation from the novel. Having only recently finished the book, I recognized entire passages and pages of dialogue being spoken or enacted nearly word for word. I hadn't encountered that close of an adaptation since Sin City and the HBO television series Game of Thrones.

That being said, there were a few things the movie did change, and this is where my discussion comes in.

What did the movie change?

1. Skeeter's Ostracization
In the novel, after Skeeter revenges herself on Hilly by arranging for people to deposit old toilets on her front lawn (don't ask), Skeeter is ostracized by the white society women in Jackson at the behest of their humiliated Queen Bee. In the film, however, this shunning of Skeeter is never shown. We are told at the end of the movie that Skeeter lost all her friends, and there's one scene where Hilly removes Skeeter as editor of their League's newsletter, but we don't get to see how outcast she became, where even her longtime friends wouldn't speak to her for fear of enraging Hilly.

I was actually a little bothered by this, because Minny and Aibileen encounter the same repercussions they got in the novel, but we don't get to see Skeeter's. While I chalk this up to not enough screen time, I would have liked at least one scene where someone like Miss Leefolt refuses to talk to Skeeter.
2. Stuart's Dick-Ification
In the novel, Stuart and Skeeter get together after a number of mishaps and false starts. While politically conservative and indecisive, Stuart's a pretty decent guy. When Skeeter reveals she spent the last two years writing a book about the lives of black maids, Stuart breaks up with her, albeit respectfully, saying that he doesn't really know her.

In the film, an unshaven and tousled Stuart yells at Skeeter, "How could you do this to us?" and tells her she's better off alone, before flouncing off to his truck, never to be seen again. I disliked how the filmmakers used what time they had to make him selfish, petty and cold - which he isn't in the book. In one scene, everyone in Skeeter's house is watching JFK's funeral on the TV and weeping - except for an impatient Stuart, who leaves early so he can go to work. This scene was never in the novel, but was added in the film to clue the viewers in to what a dick he is before the ultimate reveal.

But he isn't a dick in the novel. Yes, he breaks up with Skeeter after learning she wrote Help, but it wasn't in a "how dare you care about black folk, Skeeter! You deserve to die a spinster!" way but more of a "I don't think I can marry you because I clearly don't know you," way. This is further supported in the novel by his troubled romantic past, where his last relationship before Skeeter, to his high school sweetheart and fiancee, ended with her cheating on him. It made sense that after enduring one woman lying to him, that he would be unwilling to marry another who had also hidden something important from him about herself.

But objectively I can understand that with the time limit of a movie, the filmmakers didn't have enough time to put this across, so they just decided to make him an easy villain instead. Doesn't mean I like it, though.
3. Skeeter's Mama's Sentimentalization
With Skeeter's mum, however, the filmmakers went in an entirely different direction. In the novel, she's a minor character, albeit one with a large influence on her daughter's life. She's critical, conservative, and obsessed with appearances and connections. She loudly disapproves of nearly everything in Skeeter's life - her physical appearance, her literary ambitions, her romantic life. She starts suffering from stomach ulcers midway through the book, and Skeeter only learns that her mother actually has cancer near the end. She's not a capital-E Evil person, but she's not really a positive force in the book at all.

In the film, however, her character openly lives with her cancer from the very beginning. It's an important aspect to her character and influences a lot of what she does in the film. Moreover, her sniping at Skeeter is toned down - it's depicted in the film as comical henpecking rather than the constant barrage of disapproval it is in the novel. In fact, in the film, she actually finds out that Skeeter wrote Help and praises her for it, saying she's proud of her, something the rigidly segregationist Charlotte Phelan in the novel would never have done. She also finds out about what Minny made Miss Hilly eat and makes fun of Miss Hilly for it - which, again seems incredibly out of character. I love Allison Janey (who plays Skeeter's mum in the film) but I couldn't help but wince at this cliched adaptation.

They significantly changed her character a lot in order to give Skeeter a supportive mother figure and once again I do not understand why. Skeeter suffered consequences and took a lot of risks in the novel to write Help - not only did she go against everything her friends believed in, she went against everything her mother believed in. But instead, the movie removes nearly every significant consequence to Skeeter's actions - her ostracization never happens, and her mother instead supports her work. How come Minny and Aibileen come under threat for Help in the film but Skeeter doesn't?

The Sentimentalization continues with the crucial scene in which Skeeter's mum fires Constantine, as mentioned below:
4. Constantine's Daughter's Backstory
In the book, Constantine's termination is a mystery for nearly the entire book. Skeeter comes home from university to discover that the beloved maid who helped raised her is gone, but her mother refuses to tell her what really happened and so does Aibileen (who went to Constantine's church group).

Eventually, it's revealed that Constantine gave birth to a light-skinned daughter, and later abandoned her at an orphanage because she didn't know how to raise a baby who looked white. While Skeeter was away at university, Constantine made contact with her now-grown daughter, who came down to see her - party-crashing Mrs. Phelan's DAR party in the process. Appalled at the idea of a black person infiltrating a white social event, Mrs. Phelan not only fired Constantine but revealed to her daughter the truth about how her mother abandoned her. It's an interesting mystery that's uncovered slowly, and it's a reveal that fits perfectly with Skeeter's mum's characterization.

In the film, however, Constantine's daughter Rachel is not only dark-skinned, but a family friend who accidentally walks in on Mrs. Phelan's DAR party at the wrong time. Mrs. Phelan "is forced" to expel Rachel and fire Constantine in order to impress her DAR friends, although the direction of the scene and how Mrs. Phelan reveals the story to Skeeter strongly imply that Mrs. Phelan is deeply ashamed and remorseful of what she did.

In this instance, I do understand the drastic change - the novel's reveal is a serious doozy of a backstory, but the book has the page count required to properly tell the chapters-long mystery. The movie does not have that kind of time, and they're trying to make the mum a good guy to boot, so I understand the streamlined mystery that makes Mrs. Phelan look somewhat less heinous.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage," by Jennifer Ashley

The Chick: Lady Isabella Mackenzie. Once the scandalous young debutante who eloped with a younger son, her passionate marriage burned up before its time and she now lives separate from her artist husband.
The Rub: Despite their separation, she still cares enough about him to approach him about a possible imposter - even if it means risking a renewal of affection.
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Lord Roland "Mac" Mackenzie. Once a passionate, hard-living artist, he's sloughed off his shallow, enabling friends, weaned himself off alcohol, and has avoided scandal in order to show his wife he's worthy of being her husband again.
The Rub: He knows he has to move slowly to keep from scaring her off, but it's hard to be patient when there's a murderous imposter on the loose.
Dream Casting: Ewan McGregor.

The Plot:

Isabella: Someone's impersonating you and selling paintings under your name!
Mac: Awesome!

Isabella: Wait, what?

Mac: I mean, whatever. Guess I'll totally have to hang around you making flirtatious comments and reminding you of the happy days of our marriage. You know. To protect you and stuff.

Isabella: This concerns me...

Evil Imposter: I am evil! And I look like your husband! Mwahahaha!

Isabella: Wow, this totally makes you look nicer and more responsible in comparison.

Mac: Awesome.

Evil Imposter: *shoots Mac* *dies*

Isabella: Oh no! You almost died! That totally makes me forget all our marital problems. Let's remarry!


Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Bitter Separation

3 Sexy Brothers

1 Artistic Wager

4 Asshole Former Friends

3 Erotic Paintings

1 Violent Impersonator

1 Fake Secret Baby

The Word: The second in Jennifer Ashley's series centering on a scandalous, wealthy family of manly, red-headed Scottish peers (the first being the excellent The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie), the one thing I worried about before I started reading this book is, "How is she going to top Ian Mackenzie?" The first novel was well-written and lovely but it also had a killer hook - a hero with autism. Isabella's novel is a Marriage in Trouble romance, and while there are many, many ways to have a searingly beautiful, heart-tugging Marriage in Trouble romance (just ask Eloisa James), they aren't exactly thin on the ground. So how would Jennifer Ashley make this romance stand out?

Lady Isabella's marriage certainly was scandalous - she eloped with the wealthy, artistic Lord Mac Mackenzie on the very night of her debut. While her family disowned her, society embraced her, and Mac and Isabella showed every sign of being passionately in love with each other. Passion is a double-edged sword, however, and after three wearying years of thrilling highs and devastating lows, Isabella left Mac and requested a separation.

When the novel opens, Isabella willingly seeks out her husband's company for the first time in years, to inform him that someone has been impersonating him and selling forged paintings
under his name. While Mac is initially dismissive of the idea of an impersonator (he paints for the joy and satisfaction it brings him, not for fame or wealth), he seizes on this new opportunity to ease his way back into Isabella's life and hopefully reconcile with her. He's given up his drinking and carousing and wants to show her that he's ready to take life seriously.

However, while Isabella still loves Mac very deeply, she has no desire to return to a marriage as unstable and one-sided as theirs was. Mac is loving and loyal now, but he's always had those moments - until he gets bored and the fighting starts and he flees to paint in a foreign country and send her apologies by postcard. That's not the type of life she wants and she has no way of knowing whether Mac's change of heart is a true change or merely him in a good mood.

The things I liked? Isabella and Mac - I loved the interplay between them. Mac is playful without being thoughtless, Isabella is strong-willed without being tiresome. While there may be disappointment and bitterness, there is no hatred between them or in their interactions. Their antics are an intriguing mixture of old and new - they clearly know each other very well and are familiar with their tic and habits, yet at the same time, the ways they've evolved during their separation continue to surprise them.

Also under the "Good" List are Mac's brothers, who once again manage to participate in the story without acting like Walking Trailers For Their Own Books.

The things I didn't like? The whole suspense plot was completely unnecessary. We could have easily done without the Crazy Impersonator Who Makes Trouble and Illegitimate Surprise Babies, especially coming on the heels of Debra Mullins' To Ruin the Duke, which had a near-identical plot. Crazy Impersonator's antics leave little to no impact on the rekindled romance itself, except perhaps to help spook the protagonists back together faster. Because nothing restarts the Love Machine like the threat of violent murder.

That being said, does this book have the same kind of killer hook that Ian did? No. It takes the Julia Quinn route, actually - taking a pretty realistic, down-to-earth obstacle (a fractured marriage rekindling), and portraying it in a realistic yet romantic and wholly satisfying way.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Movie Review: "Gigi" (1958)

This is a story about a man who falls in love with a (possibly underage) prostitute. Almost. Sort of.

Let me back up and explain. My plans for today were derailed by a shopping trip spent with my Mum (an awesome individual) that ended with us watching one of the old movies I'd bought on a whim - the 1958 best picture winner, Gigi.

And boy is this movie alternately funny and creepy to watch in a modern context. Enough to warrant one of my rare and spontaneous film reviews.

The lovely teenage girl of the title (played by Leslie Caron) is the daughter of a flighty fourth-rate opera singer who has been raised by her grandmother Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gringold) and her great-aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). What the film plays coy with for much of its running time is the fact that both Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia are retired courtesans who have been training Gigi to follow in their footsteps - although most of their lessons seem to involve table manners, how to eat tiny birds and cold lobster, and maintaining a firm grip on the saucer when pouring a cup of coffee.

But instead of this being creepy and appalling, it is instead romantic because they are French and this takes place in France.

But this story isn't only about Gigi - it's also about rich playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan), a self-involved, pompous asshole who gads about town picking up chicks with his horny old bachelor uncle Honoree (Maurice Chevalier). His perverted old uncle is the same reputable gentleman who narrates the movie and sings the first musical number which involves looking at girls "of five, six, or seven" and imagining how hot they'll be when the puberty fairy comes a-callin' ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls").

But you see, he is charming and not at all a cradle-robbing pedophile because he is French and the French are shameless romantics. In France.

The movie actually opens with Gaston le boo-hooing over his rich white boy problems about how bored he is with all his money and material comforts. The only people he's not bored with are Gigi and Madame Alvarez, whom he visits on a regular basis - he apparently knows them because Madame Alvarez and Gaston's Uncle Poonhound used to bone back when she was Not Old. He enjoys Madame Alvarez's company (only in the platonic sense - because she is Hella Old) and he treats Gigi fondly like a beloved pet - playing cards with her, regaling her with stories, and bringing her sweets from his travels.

His pride is dealt a blow, however, when he takes his current mistress (played delightfully by Eva Gabor) out on a date and realizes (in song, naturally) that she's fallen in love with someone else and is no longer bestowing her amply-paid-for-charms upon him with the same skill as before. Even worse, she's in love with a low-class skating instructor! He revenges himself by paying her lover 1000 francs to le scram and dumping her in a humiliatingly public fashion, prompting her to commit suicide ("Your first suicide!" croons Uncle Poonhound proudly).

Of course this is hilarious and not offensively callous because this is Eva Gabor's fourth "suicide," which seems to involve taking just enough poison to make her sick enough to elicit sympathy but not enough to actually kill her. Because the French! They are just so French! And so crazily romantic!

Meanwhile, Gaston's Overabundant Male Ego won't let him lick his wounds and admit to the public that he's been thrown over, so he simply has to throw amazing parties, date dozens of ladies, and engage in debauched revelry in order to keep society from turning him into a laughingstock. But you see, Poor Little Rich Boy is just so bored with his Poor Little Rich Life that in between Wealthy Douchebag Gigs, he crawls over to Madame Alvarez' to whine and bitch and play cards with the charming Gigi.

Things change when Gaston decides to spend the weekend by the seaside in Toulouse and agrees to take Gigi and Madame Alvarez with him. Gigi and Gaston have a grand old time, which doesn't go unnoticed - either by the general public or Madame Alvarez (who gets a lovely musical number with Uncle Poonhound about How They Used To Bone). While Gaston continues on by himself to Monte Carlo, Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia decide to take advantage of the rumours swirling around about Gaston and Gigi by speeding up Gigi's Ho Training, hoping that by the time Gaston returns, he'll have a ready-made Virgin Mistress standing by.

Unfortunately, Gaston comes home to find a newly Sexified Gigi and freaks out when he realizes his coltish pet has boobs. Moreover, Gigi's Retired Ho Guardians declare that as a man with his reputation, he can no longer take Gigi out unchaperoned - unless he makes a certain offer. Realizing he can no longer get his underaged milk for free but must buy his newly-adult cow, he storms off in a huff and complains about how Life is Unfair and how Unattractive Gigi is. But the Healing Power of Song reminds him that Gigi has boobs now, he realizes he's in love with her, and he goes back to make an offer to the Retired Ho Guardians.

So up until this point, the movie is fluffy and enjoyable and full of flamboyant hats - provided you can turn your brain off and ignore that the story is actually about a teenager being trained to be a courtesan and that the man who's known her since she was a child is now going to buy her.

But let us not forget that this movie is French! The characters are French and the setting is French and the lifestyle is French and the French are just so irresistibly and scandalously and un-Americanly passionate! Up until this point, the movie executes a lot of smoke and mirrors and emphasizes the foreign setting, characters, and culture to get a 1958 American audience to excuse, ignore, or mistake the plot of prostitution.

Moreover, the characters do this as well. They frequently talk about the perks and the romantic aspects of their profession. The jewels and the moonlit nights and the fancy dinners and the attention.

But then the movie surprised me. Gaston brings his offer to Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia, and they break the news to Gigi, and then Gaston meets Gigi and offers to "take care of her." This movie is all about the euphemisms, and being coy, and playing up the public face of being a courtesan (the fashionable, romantic aspect) rather than the private face (the sexual aspect).

But then Gigi refuses Gaston's offer. "When say you want to take care of me, you mean you want me in your bed," she says. In one line, she cuts through all movie's hypocritical romantic bullshit and shifts the entire paradigm of her character.

Moreover, when Gaston replies that he wants to make her his mistress because he's in love with her, she flies into a tearful rage, demanding that if Gaston loved her, how could he offer her this lifestyle, with all of its accompanying shame and heartbreak? How could he be so horrible?

All we've seen of Gigi up until this point of the movie is a young, innocent girl who's been trained in dance, table manners, how to roll cigars (a more Freudian task you'll never see) and the arts of romance. She never gives any indication that she understands what she's really being trained for, but in that one scene, you realize that this lively, bubbly character understands all too well what she's been trained for, what the unspoken realistic consequences of such a lifestyle are, and that she no longer wants to do that. With that one powerful scene, Gigi bursts the movie's musical technicolour bubble.

Gaston, prince that he is, flounces out, outraged at Gigi's "lack of romance" (how dare she refer to his intention to pay for her romantic and sexual favours as prostitution! How vulgar!) and he's convinced it's just a plot to secure better terms. But then Gigi sends Gaston an apologetic note agreeing to be his mistress, explaining that she'd rather be miserable with him than without him.

It all stinks a little too much of a romantic cop-out, until he takes her out to dinner and she flawlessly rolls his cigar, makes poisonously catty remarks about poorer courtesans, coos over the emerald bracelet he's bought her and flaunts it for everyone to see - just like every other mistress he's ever had. A classic case of "you get what you pay for." Uncle Poonhound shows up to seal the deal by commenting that Gigi as a mistress "could keep your entertained for months!" Horrified, Gaston drags a sobbing Gigi back to her Retired Ho Guardians and leaves in order to Think Deep Thoughts Set To Significant Musical Accompaniment. He then returns and asks for Gigi's hand in marriage and all is right with the world.

Yeah, Gigi is an interesting and entertaining movie in many ways but Gaston can go and jump off the Eiffel Tower, thank you very much. He's a repulsive individual, a classic Duke of Slut character with all the money and power in the world who nevertheless whines about How Life Is So Boring and Difficult - even when he's visiting Madame Alvarez and Gigi, who have barely enough to live on as it is.

His botched affair with Eva Gabor's character is a clear example of how money can buy you a sexy horse but it won't make her drink. He can buy her attention but he can't buy her love and it offends him on a deeply personal level when he discovers she's in love with a skating instructor - not because she's cheating on him, but because she has the gall to fall in love with someone poor and lower class over the wealthy protector who's paying all her bills. He's outraged that he cannot control that and so he burns her and humiliates her.

I loved that Gigi had the stones to stand up to him. The refusal scene saves this entire movie and gives it a depth and resonance I appreciated. I also enjoyed how her "capitulation" to Gaston served to demonstrate how everything Gaston thinks he wants is wrong. I loved how she finally showed Gaston that if he insists on controlling everything in his life according to his own rigid personal tastes, of course he's going to be bored because everything is going to be the same.

And that's how I came to actually appreciate why the movie used prostitution as a plot device - because prostitution is a form of "controlled" love. Gaston uses mistresses and courtesans because it's a form of love and romance he believes he can own and control. However, it isn't really love, but only a cheap, pretty surface gloss that covers falsehood, greed, and desperation - much like the movie itself, which uses flamboyant costumes, lavish sets, and chirpy songs to mask the fact that Gigi's being trained as a courtesan because she doesn't have many other options (her father is never mentioned, and her mother is a floozy opera singer too concerned with her failing career to take care of her daughter or even appear on-screen).

In order for Gaston to achieve "true" happiness and romance, he must accept Gigi for who she is by marrying her, not by purchasing her. I quite enjoyed that aspect.

Yes, some aspects of the movie are still creepy from a modern context, like Uncle Poonhound's bon-mots and Gigi's age - it's never mentioned how old she is, but she's often dressed in a schoolgirl uniform and unbound hair to look about 15 or 16. But the music is cute, the costumes are amazing, and Gigi is a terrific character (if you can ignore how she ultimately ends up with a toad instead of a prince) who, unlike the movie, would rather live an ugly truth than a pretty lie.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

"Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," by Helen Simonson

Our Protagonist: Major Ernest Pettigrew. A quiet, staunch English villager, he's a man who enjoys tradition and the smooth beaten path - until he wanders off it, big time, when he develops a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani owner of the village shop.
The Rub: Stupidity knows no race or geographical boundary - and the Major runs into a lot of it when his friendship with Mrs. Ali starts to possibly blossom into something more.

The Supporting Cast:

Mrs. Jasmina Ali: The widowed owner of the village shop who helps the Major deal with his grief over his brother's death. Loves reading and soaking up knowledge, but must deal with societal pressures from her traditional Muslim in-laws.

Amina: A young single mother who befriends Mrs. Ali and the Major.

Abdul Wahid: Mrs. Ali's disapproving and religiously devout nephew who harbours a secret past relationship with Amina.

Roger Pettigrew: The Major's self-absorbed and ambitious son who's gotten engaged to a sophisticated American, but has no real plans for marriage.

Grace DeVere: The village spinster, mutual friend to both the Major and Mrs. Ali.

The Word: If I had to list two settings I love to read about, practically heedless of whatever the plot involves, it would have to be small towns and Britain. I'm an Anglophile - love the books, the TV, the architecture, the history, the music. But I also love stories that take place in insular, small settings with strong communities - where a whisper in one ear travels to every other's in the span of a Sunday afternoon.

So I was fully expecting Major Pettigrew's Last Stand to be my crack, to become one of those books that I bury myself in, dead to the rest of the world until I emerge.

Well, not quite - but it was still a pleasant, substantial read. One that I enjoyed while I was reading, that also had me thinking afterwards.

Major Ernest Pettigrew, a deeply-rooted inhabitant of the picturesque English village Edgecombe St. Mary, has his structured and orderly life upended when he learns of the sudden death of his younger brother Bertie. Half of his mind copes by considering the problem of what to do with his brother's shotgun, one of a matching set of family heirlooms bequeathed to the brothers by their father. While the Major just wants to reunite the pair, Bertie didn't officially bequeath it to him - and the prospect of selling the guns for a small fortune brings all sorts of family members out of the woodwork.

The other half of his mind reaches out for comfort and finds it from a surprising source: Mrs. Ali, the widowed owner of the village shop. Warm, compassionate, insightful, and intellectual, Mrs. Ali surprises and delights the Major, and they start spending more time together, bonding over Rudyard Kipling, roses, and tea. However, the insidious antagonists of pride and bigotry (both from the Major's family and white neighbours and Mrs. Ali's own relatives) strive to keep them apart.

The novel focuses on setting and character more than plot - because Major Pettigrew is, structurally and narratively, a romance (*gasp!*). But I don't think the novel would have worked any other way, for without a singular character like the Major, none of the subplots about real estate, pushy Americans, grasping sons and familial politics would be nearly as interesting.

Major Pettigrew is a fascinating character because he's so old-fashioned that you'd almost never expect this story to happen to him. He's a great believer in The Good Old Days - he lives for tea, tradition, hunting, classic British literature, the right of primogenitor, and untamed English countryside. The book is told entirely from his point of view, with loving descriptions of the fields behind his house and of the tea cups his wife Nancy cherished, as well as passages fraught with disgust and horror at the garish crisp-wrapper-strewn landscapes of more modernized towns and lifestyles.

Yet at the same time, the Major is like the embodiment of idealized Good Old Days - the Major extends politeness and friendship (and eventually, more) to Mrs. Ali almost without even considering her race or religion. While characters who advocate Modernity (such as the Major's cluelessly ambitious son Roger) are vilified in this book, so are the characters who espouse (or appear to) the appeal of the Traditional English Village, but to whom Traditional English means "white." Their racism is all the more potent and painful to read because more than half of it is unintentional.

But the Major isn't perfect either - it's easy to see it that way when he's the major voice in the story, but from time to time Helen Simonson does give us tantalizing glimpses that show us how the Major's adherence to old-fashioned notions of inheritance and behaviour may have strained his relationships with his brother Bertie and his son Roger.

But mostly the Major is delightful - a lonely figure of common sense who must tight-rope walk between the old and new to discover that certain rules of decency, compassion and love don't alter with age.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

"One Night of Scandal," by Teresa Medeiros

The Chick: Carlotta Anne Fairleigh - a.k.a. "Lottie." A spoiled and mischievous debutante who just wants to read, write Gothic novels, and collect cats. Oh - and violate people's privacy in order to spice up her novel.
The Rub: Her love for Gothic novels wanes when she winds up compromised with an infamous Marquess would could very well be the hero of one. Or the villain. Dream Casting: Brittany Snow.

The Dude: Hayden St. Clair - a.k.a. the "Murderous Marquess," whom society believes killed his friend and his wife when he found them in bed together. The Rub: After the way his first marriage turned out, he's not pleased to be roped into a second with a girl he barely knows. Ah well, it's only 'til death. Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.

The Plot:
Lottie's Relatives: Time to be an adult, darling!

Lottie: *escaping out window* Five more minutes!

Lottie and Hayden: *compromised!*

Lottie's Relatives: Time to marry and save our darling Lottie's reputation! *mean glares*

Hayden: Five more minutes?

Hayden and Lottie: *married*

Hayden: Time to meet and tame your new Token Rebellious Stepchild!

Lottie: Snooze button, please.

Lottie and Token Rebellious Stepchild: *Token Rebellious Parenting*

Lottie: Okay, it's time for you to grow up and stop being such a stupid self-hating SadFace!

Hayden: Just a few more minutes?

Lottie: *leaves*

Hayden: *follows* Okay I'm done.

Lottie: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist

1 Would-Be Writer

1 Stupid Ugly Friend

1 Crazy Wife (Deceased)

1 Token Rebellious Stepchild

Far Too Many Kittens

1 Highly Successful Novel

1 Confrontation with Duelling Pistols

I Stormswept Cliff

The Word: Just off of reading To Ruin the Duke, a story that tries to be Serious and Dramatic but is really just Unbalanced and Crazy, I found One Night of Scandal, a delightful meringue of a novel that doesn't just toe the line between Madcap and, well, Just Plain Mad, it tapdances.

One Night of Scandal is a particularly frothy example of a good Crazy Romance. It takes a certain amount of skill to take the archetypes, Animal Sidekicks, and Nosy Heroines of a Julia Quinn novel and mix it with the Deep, Dark Angst of a Bronte novel.

My previous flirtation with Teresa Medeiros started beautifully, had a fantastic twist, only to crash and burn at the very end, so I was a little tentative about this novel. Everything we initially know about Lottie Fairleigh, this novel's heroine, screamed Very Fucking Annoying. She 's into Gothic novels. She's cosseted by her family. She drove her finishing school teachers insane with mischievous pranks and is both the bane and the apple of her weary guardian's eye. I was all set to hate this Ritalin-deprived little monster.

And yet I didn't. I suppose one's person's Hyacinth Bridgerton (*shudder*) is another person's Anne Shirley. Okay, so Lottie's no Anne (I don't think any character could ever match that), but she's so lighthearted and charming and effervescent. She's a bubblehead, but with a touch of self-awareness.

The book opens on the night of her debut, as Lottie's sneaking out a window for one last immature hurrah before settling into demur adulthood forever. It seems the man living next door is Hayden St. Clair, the infamous Murderous Marquess, reputedly responsible for the deaths of both his wife and his close friend. Lottie, whose dream is to write Gothic novels, thinks this could be the perfect chance to spy through his windows and get some good hands-on research for the villain for her latest work-in-progress.

However, girls in slightly torn, violently-flounced ball gowns are not the most discreet of spies, and she's soon caught by this same Marquess, who mistakes her for a tart one of his old friends had threatened to send over to cheer him up. He doesn't go much further than a smooch before realizing his mistake, but since neither character was thinking clearly enough to close the drapes, they are witnessed together by half the guests of Lottie's debut. A hasty marriage is swiftly arranged.

The ensuing dramatics in the first half of the novel are quite entertaining - Medeiros pokes a great deal of fun at Gothic novel conventions (such as a mysterious locked trunk that does not contain anything remotely mysterious) and introduces a Token Rebellious Stepchild who is taken in hand by Lottie in a hilarious and original fashion. Also, for a man with such Deep, Dark, Angst - Hayden's sly and exasperated deadpan humour makes for witty and endearing dialogue when paired against Lottie's scatterbrained energy.

The novel slows, however, after the midway point when it stops poking fun at Deep, Dark Angst and starts, well, focusing on the actual Deep, Dark Angst of Hayden's first marriage. Frankly, the novel starts to drag here. Because there is also a thin line between a Sexy, Brooding Hero and a Lame-Ass SadFace Hero, and this is one line that the novel walks less gracefully. The pacing drags as he starts digging in his SadHeels because oh He's a Monster and He Doesn't Deserve Happiness and He's the Worst Father In the World, etc. etc. It's irritating and less compelling because he's passive rather than active in his brooding. When the Black Moment occurs to separate the hero and heroine, it's a surprisingly lax, anticlimactic scene where he politely asks Lottie to leave and Lottie leaves crying and despairing as if even she would prefer to pretend he'd done something more interesting.

All in all, however, everything I expected to not like turned out to be wonderful - specifically, Lottie. You go on with your Batshit Crazy Sunshine-Child self. I liked her immensely. Lord SadFace was a little less interesting, and I'll start caring about Token Rebellious Stepchildren the moment authors stop using Token Rebellious Stepchildren as Plot Coupons to Mature Our Heroine or your money back.

But all in all? One Night of Scandal is a solidly enjoyable romance with lovely dialogue, (mostly) spot-on humour, and nice tension.