Via: Daily Prompt – Bewildered
Author Christina Lauren
Genre Contemporary Romance | New Adult | Realistic Fiction
Publisher Gallery Books
Publication Date December 5, 2017
Setting Broadway, Manhattan, New York
Synopsis: There’s nothing special about Holland Lina Bakkar; at least, that’s how she views her own existence. The last of six children, she was mostly left to her own devices by her parents before being semi-adopted by her uncle Jeff and his husband Robert who don’t have any children of their own to dote on. Her uncles helped procure her MFA in creative writing so that she may one day compose the Great American Novel, gave her a position as an archivist in the theater where Robert is the musical director for until such time when she writes said novel, and continue to subsidize her measly salary by paying the rent of her Manhattan apartment since inspiration for the novel remains ever elusive. In return, she merely assures them her unwavering love and loyalty and a brunch comprising of eggs Benedict every other weekend. To make matters worse, she has been crushing on the mysterious busker with the hypnotizing guitar-skills (who was already too sexy to be in her league) and passively prowls the Fiftieth Street station where he performs thrice-weekly (though it’s quite outside of her daily route). Then, on the one night she imbibes enough liquid courage to talk to him, she is attacked by a drunk bozo on the deserted platform and is accidentally thrown onto the subway tracks. And while Calvin [yes, she now knows his name] the Sexy Busker does phone in the police to prevent her being killed by the midnight train, she is disappointed to discover that he doesn’t stick around long enough to make sure she’s okay, which does nothing to boost her confidence. Just when Holland’s spirit reaches its all-time low, one of Robert’s star performers resign the ensemble with weeks to spare before the show’s revival and presents her with the opportunity to be the hero for a change. She introduces Calvin (who turns out to have received his music training from Juilliard) to the team and he is an instant hit with the theater’s board members – until they discover his student visa expired four years ago so any media limelight would lead to instant deportation to Ireland. So Holland does the only thing she could do to save the day: she marries Calvin McLoughlin so his dream of playing for Broadway can come true and Uncle Robert’s production can have its debut star. And she? She can be fake-married to the man she’s been secretly stalking for the last six months. No conflict of interests there at all…
Experience (with rudimentary spoilers): I liked this novel so much that I finished it cover-to-cover overnight and then went back to skimming it for notes the following week. The witty narration delivered in the first-person by the heroine charmed me from the get-go while her innocuous-stalker infatuation for the sexy busker made her immediately relatable [you haven’t lived on the edge until you’ve memorized your crush’s classroom schedule]. Moreover, with the international news in every nation running the gamut on a certain country’s immigration policies, this marriage-of-convenience “Green Card” romance couldn’t have found a more contemporary premise, which may have been Christina Lauren’s inspiration and intent. All in all, it made Roomies read very fast and quite effortlessly.
I want to start this review with the character Holland, who is, after all, the heroine and narrator of this story. Since, in my last month’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post, I discussed the many reasons and ways to avoid writing too-perfect protagonists, my mind was very much attuned to how the authors presented Holland’s flaws and challenges as I went through the book. I was not disappointed but I’d like to address how that could’ve been the case.
In romance stories, too often, the heroine’s flaws are limited to her appearance or some behavioral absurdity that’s really more-cute-than-not, as though she can have no greater aspiration than to charm her romantic interest with her form or demeanor. As if describing her as the hag who chews her hair when she’s nervous makes her somehow relatable to the reader. It’s the debutante ball all over again – there’s the belle and then there’s us.
What’s worse, once the heroine is presented at her worst state, the narrator can no longer remain committed to the image created, leaving the reader at a loss to understand who exactly is the character they are reading about. Big-boned turns out to be code for Amazon-beautiful, extra-padding is really Rubenesque-sexy, it’s really adorable and not dangerous when the heroine drunk-dives into the pool and loses consciousness bumping her head against the tiles on her way in… I have found this especially common among heroines written in the first-person. Gold star to anyone who can guess the multiple-personality romance heroine described by Adam Ellis in the following illustration:
I understand the temptation of relying on the ugly duckling formula. If the endgame of the romance novel plot is the realization of true love, why not start by presenting the most obvious challenges to that goal – all the visible traits of the heroine that could make her unattractive to her romantic interest? But unless these visible imperfections come with some deep-seated wound or unless there are additional dilemmas that give the heroine’s journey true meaning, I feel that using physical and social flaws to “add dimensions to the character” is a cop-out.
In Roomies, while Holland’s flaws are introduced as her being an average-looking gal with a klutzy comportment that affects her confidence level, we eventually get to see that her self-derision really stems from her awareness that she’s freeloading on her uncles’ goodwill and has yet to discover the purpose of her life. Sure, she’s aware of her physical limitations when compared to the aesthetically varied and rich dating pool of NYC but she knows how to navigate that by playing with her assets. Rather, her real cause for dissatisfaction is that, in an arena surrounded by the creatively successful, she has yet to discover where she fits. That unwritten novel is never far from her mind and that is what I liked about how the authors focused on developing Holland’s character arc. Even through the sexy scenes, even through Holland’s consciousness of having her crush now married and living in close quarters with her, Holland continues to struggle and grow as an individual.
And I love how Holland approaches each setback, each humiliation as well as each realization and triumph with humor and humility. This made her more than the mundane romantic heroine, this made her capable and centered – it made her real and worth admiring. Going back to a heroine’s consciousness of her form and grace; of course, I think it reasonable that they worry about how they look. Every woman, even those living in the remotest locale untouched by media’s image of perfection, feel self-conscious about some physical trait that they would change. So if a romance heroine does grunt and groan over her nose, thighs, or even a pinky finger, it is perfectly acceptable. But I liked how Holland’s self-deprecation when comparing herself to potential female competitions for Calvin’s field of attraction begins with looks but she again re-centers her mind to the theory that she should focus on developing her career and honing her talent than waste time on aspects that she cannot control. That, my friends, is character growth.
Enough about character flaws; let’s discuss the story. As far as the plot goes, I actually felt the whole novel was very realistically written. As I mentioned before, I went through the novel really quickly and without at all skimming on the expositions, but that is not to say that the writing was hurried. In fact, the scenes were really well-paced and what made them so fluent was the wry hilarity with which Holland reflects on each incident in her life, past and present, happy and sad. Events in each scene reveal the changes in the dynamics of her relationships with others, which, in turn, gradually expose the reader to tiny details about these other characters to form a holistic perspective of Holland’s world. For example, I love how Holland picks up Calvin’s little indulgences when he moves in with her – regular use of Chap Stick, going around mostly unclothed around the apartment, being totally casual about reading notifications on each other’s devices, etc. It makes Calvin more human. I could absolutely feel Holland’s infatuation developing into a deeper and more sustainable attachment.
And it also made the romance sweeter and sexier. Holland is not a brash character. In fact, she habitually assesses risks before taking any step, and the one time she decides to jump in with both feet is when she proposes marriage to Calvin, and she is aware how far outside her depth she’s wading. So it’s good to see her return to her cautious self once she is married. She’s consistent and because of that, it is easier for Calvin to know how to behave around her. This is a couple who married for immigration purposes and is living in a small apartment, sleeping with only a door between them. The awkwardness is real. And we feel it. But we also feel how the proximity allows them to become more sexually alert to the advantage of their living situation and the hesitation that accompanies it as well as how they choose to give in anyway. So… the romance is real.
Recommendation: Although the novel isn’t listed under Realistic Romance, I have chosen to classify it as such because I felt that Christina Lauren did a great job in capturing the emotional struggles and perspectives of the contemporary woman in the process of falling in love, that too with a very plausible plot and setting. In a myriad of mediocre romance novels these days, this story puts no pressure on your suspension of disbelief.
And now, having learned that the book was written in collaboration between two authors, I’m left wondering how that is accomplished with such graceful management of character and plot development…
Title Bewitching the Duke
Series Wise Woman #01
Author Christie Kelly
Genre Historical Fiction | Regency Romance
Publication Date December 6, 2016
Setting Regency England
Synopsis: It’s 1814 and while the upper crust English “Society” has come to consult certified physicians for their medical needs, plebeians continue to depend on the local wise women to take care of everything from delivering babies and setting bones to cleansing homes by burning sage and ensuring a good harvest for the season. Selina White, the wise woman at the Duke of Northrop’s country seat, takes her role in the community seriously, upholding generations of tradition passed down through the female line in her family. Her efforts are appreciated by one and all in the region except the Duke himself, who has deigned to grace his estate after having abandoned it to decline for nearly a decade. Colin Barrett’s disparage of wise women stems less from the growing belief that medicine should be administered only by university-trained male physicians and more from his history with Selina’s mother, the former wise woman of his land whom he blames for the death of his wife and baby during childbirth. So when he unwillingly returns to his ancestral home that holds so many tortured memories to arrange a wedding, only to discover Selina very much active in practicing her craft not only among his tenants but also within his household, he is incensed. First, he throws her out of his home and then he banishes her from his land. However, he miscalculates her determination to do her duty by his people as well as the loyalty said people harbor towards her in return. Pretty soon his servants are sneaking her back into Northrop, hiding her right under his nose in the unoccupied wing of his house, and business recommences as usual. To further complicate the matter, with every chance encounter, the instantaneous attraction that sparked between Colin and Selina when they first met continues to grow – an attraction that begins to transcend their individual prejudices and encounters that become less and less chance on both sides.
Experience: In all honesty, I’m a snob when it comes to book covers. The illustration absolutely plays a part in whether I’ll invest in the book because, to me, it shows that no effort was spared from start to finish. And this book’s cover instinctively warned me to not pick it up. Nevertheless, when I read the blurb and learned the premise of the book, I was intrigued and decided to risk it. It so happens that Bewitching the Duke confirmed both my earlier misgivings as well as my latter anticipations. The premise of the story does manage to uphold the originality it promised and the cover of the book accurately portends its poor execution. However, that is not to say this book was a total loss.
Let’s discuss the premise first, which after all helped me move past my superciliousness. Immediately, we are informed how the advent of modern medicine threatened both the livelihood and the tradition of wise women in the English society even as the poor continued to depend on them because male physicians were more expensive as well as due to the somewhat retained superstitions that surrounded these women’s healing capabilities. We are introduced – though it is kept in the background for most of the novel – the transferal of the role of the “caretaker” of people’s wellbeing from the female to the male, bringing into sentience yet another instance of how the culture of gender inequality became more dominant as the old religions receded further into obscurity. [I should acknowledge here that I love a story that makes me dive into a little history research of my own!] In Bewitching the Duke, the change comes in the form of the Duke of Northrop who openly declares Selina a hack upon his return to the country and uses her mother’s role in the fatal childbirth that prematurely terminated his domestic happiness as evidence. While his tenants and servants continue to store their faith in her powers, he does not make it easy for them to access her services.
This premise also neatly proceeds to generate not only the romantic conflict in the plot, i.e. a man who blames a wise woman for the death of his wife and child cannot fall in love with her daughter who also is a wise woman and vice versa, as well as the character arcs for both the hero and heroine, given that Colin is unable to move past the memories of his loss to allow himself to love again while Selina herself harbors a guilty secret surrounding the said loss. The trajectory of the story is set with ease and since romance novels generally promise happily-ever-after, we know that somehow the two main characters will have to get over their individual issues and the “wise woman” must rise to the occasion to reign supreme. Yay!
Except, maybe the historical accuracy is completely forsaken to keep the premise of novel adjustable to its length and, thus, the level of effort required, i.e. to say, the story was set a century or three too late. By the nineteenth century, wise women had largely receded into the background of society, most of them having suffered enough horrors related to being labeled “witches” to justly hide their abilities from the public. If these women still dared practice medicine, it was in secret. Say, for the sake of the plot, we, as readers, accept that wise women continued to openly practice their crafts in some remote corners of England where people were optimistically more open-minded, the novel completely avoids any mention of the religious persecution and social ostracism “alternative healers” suffered in the historical period immediately preceding the time in which the novel is set. For me, that was a no-no. Even if the author wished to have none of that “cloaked in the danger of religious persecution” mystery hanging ominously over the characters’ heads, why avoid any mention of what had once happened to Selina’s kind when her knowledge and powers still carried the same mysticism as witches? Alas, a lovely premise was thus unhappily stifled for the convenience of the narration and the result was a loss of intrigue and integrity that encompassed the true history of the subject.
The characters themselves were simple enough to follow. I felt, while they lacked depth, the romance between them brewed in a forthright fashion that I could appreciate. They were obviously each meant to grow out of their attractions and dilemmas towards one another rather than alone, which is always appreciated in a romance novel. It cries true of the notion that true love takes precedence over past conflicts. Yet, the characters were put upon more as plot devices than entities in and of themselves and kept switching foot on one another to add more twists that the story could have just as easily have done without.
There was one particular part of the novel where I could not reconcile with Selina’s character. When Colin confesses to her that he thought he saw the ghost of his dead wife in the unoccupied third floor window of his house, Selina does not set his mind at ease even though she realizes he had mistaken her passing the window for his wife’s ghost; instead, she enjoys a private bit of joke at his expense. This does not present a raving endorsement of her character as a human being, does it, especially when considering how tortured Colin has always been about losing his duchess?
I did enjoy a glimpse of the country life in the story though, which retained the essence of the hypothesis the author was aiming for, i.e. the continued importance of the wise woman in a country neighborhood where people can barter for her services and believe in the influences of pagan rituals without fear of ridicule. This is nicely reinforced with a scene in a fortuneteller’s tent at the traveling fair that all the primary romantic characters of the series attended. The fact the fortuneteller’s words are taken more seriously than a simple diversion shows the reader that here is a society that is not entirely jumping to relinquish the old ways. This I found refreshing and reason enough to keep reading.
Recommendation: Despite some flaws, the story is actually an original one and may be appreciated by readers who are suckers for historical romance and mysticism. Just remember, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
Title The Christmas Wife
Author Elizabeth Kelly
Genre Contemporary Romance | Holiday Romance | Christmas
Publisher Elizabeth Kelly
Publication Date November 29, 2015
Synopsis: Deacon Stone, CEO extraordinaire of one of the world’s largest independent toy making companies, is in big trouble. His dear grandmother has finally lost her marbles and threatened to bequeath her controlling shares of the family business – the same toy company that Deacon worked his buns off for over the last decade to rescue from certain bankruptcy – to his greedy ill-equipped cousin if he doesn’t marry before Christmas. Not only does Deacon have an aversion to tying the proverbial noose around his neck but the real challenge is that he has less than a week to do the deed. When his best friend suggests he hires an escort to be his wife for the month, he brushes the idea off as incomprehensible. Then six-years-old Hattie, the daughter of his weekly maid Claire Brooks, glides into his living room, breaks a priceless figurine, and hands him the answer. As single mom Claire gets fired from the cleaning company for the damage caused, Deacon pays an apology visit to the Brookses’ dilapidated apartment to find them living in a state of destitution. Furthermore, he discovers their eviction notice, threatening to render the mother-daughter duo homeless, and suddenly a wife-for-hire doesn’t sound implausible. He realizes that Claire being a dedicated mom in dire straits would never reveal the duplicity of their marriage to anyone for fear of psychological repercussion on Hattie and promptly offers the family shelter in exchange of a marriage of convenience. He even sweetens the pot by offering Claire a hundred thousand dollars as long as they can maintain the charade until New Year’s Day when his grandmother would sign the shares over to him. For Claire, there really is no contest when given a choice between defending her dignity and securing a comfortable future for her daughter. And as long as she can put up a convincing act where everyone believes her marriage to Deacon is real but Hattie doesn’t get too emotionally drawn in, everyone can leave the marriage unscathed come new year. Except once married, the volatile sexual chemistry between Deacon and Claire begins to take precedence over a promise to remain detached and when Hattie and Deacon begin to form new bonds, fake family starts to look dangerously close to the real deal.
Experience: I rated this book 5* on Goodreads – not because I found it “amazing” (as the site’s rating system defines) or even because it was technically flawless. But because, having tried and failed to enjoy the works of a series of newly discovered [by me] authors in 2017, I was tearfully relieved to see that Elizabeth Kelly remembered to dot her i’s and cross her t’s before publishing the novel. And it seems this work was self-published too so bravo!
The book itself banks on an evergreen plot structure in the romance genre – a marriage of convenience – that it liberally peppers with lots of sensual scenes between the newly married couple and then honeys up with the beautiful formation of parent-child bond between a reluctant stepfather and a guileless child. It’s not an ingenious story arc but it guarantees success. I don’t think Kelly aimed to wow her readers with this but rather tried to provide them a homey romance to snuggle up with during the holidays – at least that is how it came across to me and, for once, I’m grateful for the salute to simplicity. Whereas recently I have read too many novels desperately gunning to discombobulate readers by adding an inordinate and unnecessary number of plot twists, The Christmas Wife chose to remain old-school and I found that refreshing. I fell in love with romance novels while reading the early cozy romances written by Sandra Brown and this was sort of a throwback to the sensations they aroused – The Hallmark Channel with a crackling fire smoking up the pages.
Another groan factor for me in 2017 was reading how comfortable so many authors are about treating their characters like plot devices, randomly called to action or left to collect dust as the scene of the moment requires. As though everyone but the main characters is afterthoughts. I have read an actual scene where the hero and heroine – secretly in love with each other – are arguing over something absolutely mundane that the heroine’s roommate is helping to moderate, when because the heroine ingenuously trips and the hero gallantly catches her, they become wholly engrossed in discovering adorable freckles on one’s nose and golden flecks in the other’s eyes, having a conversation that would consume minimum ten minutes in real life while the roommate is floating in the background like a ghost stuck in time without any occupation or even objection to being ignored. While the interaction between the hero-heroine was certainly titillating, the roles of the other characters felt insignificant and implausible. This actually was approved by a notable publishing house and then went on to becoming a YA bestseller. And no, the book didn’t get better after that; rest of it was just as inane.
In a happy contrast, Hattie received a salient role in this novel, despite being a child character in an adult romance. Usually, one would find a novel featuring a single mom/dad using the kid(s) to simply cutesy up the plot – like a pet. They may be part of the conflict or the charm but mostly inactive other than when required to either foil or foster the romantic plot. Not Hattie. She got as much downtime with Deacon as her mom and actively contributed to selling the beauty of “fam-dom” to the resolutely-single hero. And not only did she build bonds with the stepdad but also charmed a shrewd grandmother and formed an alliance with a member of the opposition (the son of that inept cousin trying to weasel away Deacon’s company). This novel was not about only the romantic characters. Kelly did not forget the little people – or rather, the little people had large parts to play.
Meanwhile, the adults behaved like adults and not hapless props acted upon for the sake and break of the romance. Here, the hero and heroine made informed decisions unlike a lot of recent romances where the main characters take rash decisions in the beginning of the novel and for the rest, are juggling the pieces of their lives while they choose to remain blind to the changing dynamics in the said romance or become easily misled due process of salvaging their egos. Conflicts invariably equal to secrets and miscommunications. Again, Kelly broke the mold when neither Deacon nor Claire is relegated to such star-crossed roles. Throughout the novel, both characters had an active hand in how their marriage would be upheld, in its catch or release, whether tightening the hold over their congealing relationship or letting go. They weighed their options as well their constraints before entering the marriage, they chose to become sexually involved letting the other know their individual limits in the relationship, and, when necessary, they each backed off and allowed the other enough space to get their bearings sorted. I felt it was their understanding of each other’s wants that made the ebbs and flows of tension so well-paced and believable. Despite the odds that brought them together and despite the fact that they entered a fake marriage, they always remain a truthful ally to one another. In this lie, they are a unit and that makes each partner a strong support system for the other – in a way, a much healthier foundation for marriage. And it was a relief that the tension was not dependent on yet another incident of “forgot to pass the message” or “didn’t reach the venue quickly enough to stop the villain from gaining center-stage”.
The only objection I had to the novel, though, was that there was no concrete foundation to build the romantic arc upon. What I mean is, while there was oodles of lust between our romantic couple and all, there was no other reason for one individual to fall in love with the other individual. Perhaps I felt this way because there was no real character development in either Deacon or Claire but only the outlook of the “ideal family” they created and fell into character with. Throughout the novel, the most we see of each character as individuals is that one is a hardworking bloke while the other a dedicated mom but everything else they undergo is purely circumstantial. Thrown in such close quarters, any set of individuals would form these bonds, an adult unless heartless would melt towards a precocious child, a married couple with the opportunity and license to initiate a sexual relationship may take advantage of their conjugal rights. And in the process, these people may develop soft corners for each other but it seemed that it could be any rich rescuer or any mother-daughter act that would have done the job. I think it was here, in the enriching of the characters, where simplicity took away rather than added to the novel. But then again, since the novel was no race to becoming the next great American romance, this deficiency is easily overlooked.
Recommendation: If you’re ever in need of an uncomplicated and soothing romance with a little heat, look no further. And you know as well as I that Christmas romances are good to read all year round.
Title The Shop Around the Corner
Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Frank Morgan
Director Ernst Lubitsch
Writer(s) Samson Raphaelson and Miklós László
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date January 12, 1940
Filming Location Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Culver City, California, USA
Parental Guidance TV-G
IMDB Rating 8.1
Synopsis: Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is the First Salesman at the Matuschek & Co. boutique store, which has allowed him a rather comfortable bachelor’s living thus far. Sure, his relationship with the store’s owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) is more-often-than-not contentious given that, whenever invited to share an opinion, he ends up challenging the old man’s decisions for the benefit of the store; nevertheless, he also knows that his longstanding tenure with the company and faithful efforts towards its success is appreciated by the big guy, albeit grudgingly. Besides, with a wonderful staff under his supervision, Alfred wouldn’t change a thing about his life. That is, until a steady mail correspondence with an anonymous woman has him wondering about married life and he decides, come Christmas, he will ask Matuschek for a raise. Just around the same time, a woman walks into the store and tries to cheekily talk Alfred into giving her a job by applying to his optimism regarding the upcoming Christmas sale that is likely to demand additional help. Alfred is less than approving of having his gullibility played upon by this Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and refuses her a position. However, Klara, with her salesmanship, manages to impress Matuschek into hiring her and what follows is weeks of resentful verbal combat between Alfred and Klara where neither is aware that the other is the secret pen pal each has been gradually falling in love with. With just a week to go before Christmas, the epistolary lovers decide to finally meet and Alfred gets ready to ask Matuschek for a raise. Alas! His recent exchanges with the boss, who himself has been rather preoccupied with marital problems, is rockier than usual and Alfred ends up getting fired instead of being promoted. When Alfred decides to keep his date anyway, he discovers his mystery girlfriend is, in fact, Klara and there ensues a disastrous evening for both. Meanwhile, other events bring on unforeseen twists of fate for Matuschek that does not bode well for anyone related to their “shop around the corner”.
Title You’ve Got Mail
Starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan
Director Nora Ephron
Writer(s) Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, and Miklós László (play)
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date December 18, 1998
Filming Location Manhattan, NY, USA
Parental Guidance PG
IMDB Rating 6.6
Synopsis: Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of an independent children’s bookstore in Manhattan, NY. It was whimsically named The Shop Around the Corner by her late mother, who had founded the enterprise as the local creative resource for children, from everyday reading requirements to the most unusual literary undertaking – a responsibility that Kathleen was only too happy to inherit and now upholds with relish. All this, and her reflections on the mundane topics that interest her, she relates to a mystery man she met in a chat room many moons ago and with whom she has since been keeping up a steady e-mail correspondence. Though neither reveals any particulars about their lives that may compromise their identity to the other, it is clear that their online relationship gradually takes precedence over their individual longtime love affairs. Enter Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the heir to the mass book retail chain Fox Books, who has been entrusted to expand the family business nationwide and whose current project is ready to commence operation, literally, just around the corner from Kathleen’s store. Kathleen’s fellow storekeepers are wary of this major corporation, which they feel should be considered a formidable adversary, intending to seduce readers away with its cutthroat discounts and designer coffee. Kathleen, however, feels Fox Books’s impersonal salespeople and overstocked shelves are no threat to the knowledgeable service and rare book collection that The Shop Around the Corner provides. At first, it seems that Kathleen’s predictions will ring true, as the community rallies around her store. Even Joe, who harbors something akin to survivor’s guilt over all the independent establishments he has put out of business, becomes enchanted by Kathleen’s naturally gracious disposition towards her patrons and genuine desire to help young readers connect with the world of books – though he cunningly hides his identity from her. However, when Fox Books begins operation, sales at The Shop Around the Corner begins to decline. And when Kathleen discovers Joe’s deception about his professional identity during a later chance encounter, she vehemently condemns him as a spy and the two cross words. Yet, each continues to remain unaware that the other is their online confidant. So while on cyberspace, Joe guides Kathleen to “go to war” with her rival, in the business world, a bitter struggle for survival ensues between the two that forces each to discover a previously dormant side to their natures – and maybe learn to accept the other for their better sides in the process.
Experience: THIS is what watching romantic comedy is all about – discovering the many ways people overcome everyday challenges to learn about their individual weaknesses and strengths to converge as a unit that is better for being a whole. I don’t know how many times I have seen You’ve Got Mail. My DVD experienced its share of wear over the years before I finally laid it to rest when online streaming became the norm. Therefore, it’s funny that it took me so long to get around to seeing The Shop Around the Corner, the original movie from which the famous Hanks-Ryan feature was remade. What did I discover? Well, despite the much higher rating on IMDB for the old B&W classic, I think Nora Ephron made a vast improvement. So much so that it deserves discussing.
You know how sometimes you hear actresses complaining that Hollywood greatly prefers telling stories about male rather than female characters, that there are more hero-centric movies than heroine-centric? If you watch The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail back-to-back, you will realize that it ain’t all wack. The original screenplay was filmed entirely from the perspective of James Stewart’s character Alfred Kralik even though the plot aimed to show how a pair of mystery correspondents who, despite acting as foils to one another in their physical realm, unbeknownst to them, may fall in love over anonymous letters. It is a meeting of the minds that transcends all other superficial qualities one regularly seeks in one’s mate. It is the realization that even daily interactions with a person may only reveal so much about them to form an honest verdict of their character. Indeed it is a story that deserved to be told from both sides of the veil since something must’ve made Klara Novak fall in love with a man she knew not in person as much as Alfred did with her but alas! Luckily, Stewart is a talented actor and the story does not suffer from his singular presence on the screen. Also, the steady earnest gaze of his soulful long-lashed eyes is dreamy beyond comparison.
Mercifully, some six decades later, women finally gained greater access to the rein in Hollywood and thus could endeavor to do better. Ephron put on her hard hat and rewrote the screenplay to tell the story how it should have been told. By adding just twenty minutes to the plot, we are presented deeper insights into both the main characters’ backstories, discovering who they are as individuals and not just the superficial perception that each form about the other. I love how, this time, the screen presence is equally divided between Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox. I love how both the lead characters are allowed time away from one another that demonstrate their actual individual lives and responsibilities. We no longer witness who they are just over a series of arguments. They are given ample room to breathe as separate entities so that when they come together, we can savor the full-bodied texture of their romantic endeavor.
And I’m grateful that we can have more of those letters read to us – letters that were the key component to the main characters falling in love. With The Shop Around the Corner, by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t see why Alfred and Klara finally choose to be together – not after all we initially see is how horrible each is to the other when they personally interact. It almost seemed that when it finally came for the curtain to fall, the two couldn’t walk away from each other simply because they had held fast for so long to the idea that the person writing the letters was the love of their lives that admitting they were wrong would be too great a blow. I did not see love but resignation. Comparatively, in You’ve Got Mail, whatever compromise each character makes with their ego is more believable – in fact, it seems like no great sacrifice. When Joe and Kathleen first begin to fall in love, we can see why those letters compel them to emotionally stray from their respective lovers despite the uncertainty that lurks in their minds regarding the moment they should really meet lurks. When they finally fall in love, it is a person with whom they know they can genuinely share the mundane realities of life – that they once only discussed over letters – without becoming bored. It’s also love that blossoms because two people allowed themselves to wait around long enough to be proven wrong about the lacking of the other’s real self to see how great the other person truly is. The months of war becomes only a prelude to a love that is irrevocable and a friendship that is enduring.
Which brings me to the main gripe I have towards the makers of the original movie. It’s not so much as the lack of focus on the female lead character – Margaret Sullavan did receive first billing in the credits, so there’s that at least – but the fact that Klara is never given the opportunity to rise in our esteem. In fact, if I ever re-watch The Shop Around the Corner, it will only be because Alfred managed to impress me with his integrity and resilience; and should I turn myself away from the opportunity to re-watch it, it will be because Klara managed to annoy me with her myriad of character flaws. Klara is self-serving, whether she is talking a customer into purchasing an unnecessary and trivial cigarette box by pawning it off as a candy box or suddenly complimenting the supervisor she despises to get out of working late on a night she has a date. Klara is manipulative in a way where she repeatedly tries to lead others in conversations so that they would give her what she wants but think it was their own idea. But most of all, Klara is spiteful; she demonstrates a natural tendency to say hateful things, attacking Alfred with a certain regularity and feels no remorse for the hurt they cause unless it has a chance of coming back to bite her in the ass. In comparison, we see genuine guilt etched in Kathleen’s face when she witnesses the hurt her words cause Joe; it is immediate and it is sincere even though she is reluctant to admit that she is at fault. And even though when she does get around to apologizing she also slips in a compliment to herself by professing it is uncharacteristic of her to not be a nice person, we also can be sure she truly is sorry to have caused hurt and that she knows that she has no right to do so. And since there is no self-interest in her apologies other than to rectify a misbehavior, the apologies are not hollow. While Kathleen’s personality just takes a wrong turn every time she comes into close proximity of Joe Fox the corporate big shot, we can’t be as sure that Klara is not self-promoting and mean. So when Klara claims she had found Alfred attractive, it rings abrupt and false, but when Kathleen cries she had hoped her mystery man would be Joe, we have to believe her. Frankly, I feel that, once the novelty wears off, marriage between Kathleen and Joe has much higher chances of survival than Alfred and Klara.
Recommendation: Giving a final recommendation at this point seems superfluous, but unless you wish to do a comparative analysis of the two features, spare yourself from watching The Shop Around the Corner. Contrarily, my heartiest wishes to you for watching You’ve Got Mail; they rarely make sensible romance movies like that anymore.
Title Holiday Affair
Starring Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh, and Wendell Corey
Director Don Hartman
Writer(s) Isobel Lennart and John D. Weaver (story “Christmas Gift”)
Genre Romance | Comedy | Drama
Release Date December 24, 1949
Filming Location Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California, USA
Parental Guidance TV-G
IMDB Rating 7.2
Synopsis: Mrs. Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) is a young widow with a precocious six-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Though Timmy is too conscientious of the daily challenges his mother must face to ever ask for anything that might hurt her dignities in being unable to provide, Connie slogs away at her job as a comparison shopper to make a comfortable living. An indubitable friendship exists between the mother-son duo that prevents her longtime boyfriend Carl Davis (Wendell Corey) from gaining an official entry into their family. Though he is a fairly successful lawyer, cares for Timmy dearly, and an all-around nice guy who promises to provide a safe loving home for Connie and her son, she repeatedly turns down his marriage proposals, assuring him that when her heart is fully recovered from the loss of her army husband, she will ask him for his hand. But then Connie meets Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum), a children’s section salesman at the department store where she purchases a train set on Christmas sale for her client. When Connie returns the toy the day after her purchase, Steve calls her out on her deception but, instead of passing her on to the store authorities, he takes pity on her and writes her a refund. As a result, Steve loses his job and spends the day assisting Connie in her professional shopping. Through a series of mishaps, Connie and Steve are separated and then he eventually ends up on her doorstep, much to Carl’s consternation. What follows are days of confusions in which Connie proposes to Carl even as she is drawn to Steve for his forthright manners, Timmy has his first temper tantrum, and a mysterious Christmas present arrives from “Santa”. Oh, and yes, someone ends up in jail.
Experience: Traditionally, December is the month when one would find me immersed in Christmas jollies. I sing, watch, and read all things red, green, and snowy. Since it’s been a month since my post-surgery recovery began, keeping me from any physical activity beyond eating, rolling over in bed, and making the obligatory trips to the loo, my winter binge began early this year whence it progressed uninterrupted. And though there is a bounty of Christmas entertainments out there, I eventually had to play roulette on what to watch next. And sometimes when you toss it up to fate, you end up catching a big one. I have to say, Holiday Affair was an unexpectedly heartwarming and sensible romantic comedy that just about made my season.
While I love B&W cinemas to bits, the element in midcentury romantic comedies that, I always felt, there could have been less of are the comedic devices used. The farce, the puns, the slapsticks, the double entendre, the frequent cases of mistaken identity – there was just so much of it back in the days. Yes, I fully appreciate how much writers and directors of the time relied upon such ruses to reward the audience with some much-needed relief from the mounting romantic conflict but I have often found them just as unnecessary to the plot as not and their impacts somewhat forced. I admit there are actors who managed to efficiently portray these “funny accidents” in a believable way, but the accidents themselves are distracting nevertheless – and not altogether relatable. Or rather, if you miss such a scene, you haven’t missed anything momentous to the story arc. I was happy to see that Holiday Affair kept these parlor tricks under tight wraps and rather focused more on satire and situations, observations and even self-derision to generate humor, often delivered with deadpan sobriety. This produced an effect much more in keeping with the struggles that surrounded the young family of a fallen soldier and those who come into intimate contact with them. Even the little plot twist involving the jail scene, though surreal and absurd, managed to amplify the consistency of each major character, helping them forward with their respective character arcs.
No, instead of slapstick comedy, this movie presented some truly insightful scenes that endeared it to me. I loved Steve’s direct approach towards nailing Connie’s issues with love and romance. He does not apologize for his feelings for her but he can also understand that she needs to make her own decisions and would not settle for scraps. I love how Carl does not blind himself to what is happening, his character is consistently loyal to Connie’s happiness but he also knows that his own happiness cannot be achieved by ingratiating himself to another. But most of all, I love how even little Timmy is so self-aware and willing to be taught and guided onto the right path, even when he is having a hard time adjusting to the surmounting changes in his life. He can appreciate the reasons behind the actions of the adults around him and truly is a responsible little man even as his soul is uncorrupted by self-interest.
In fact, it is the sincerity and generosity of each major character that onsets the conflicts in this movie. Connie is falling in love with Steve but doesn’t want to cheat Carl out of the conclusion to their relationship that he has been awaiting so long. Carl is pleased that Connie is finally ready to marry him but is unsure what brought on this change of heart and doesn’t want her to sacrifice herself. Steve is forthright about his feelings but, though often lacking tact, he is insightful and tries to help everybody. And little Timmy, a child with such a generous heart that he would sacrifice a deeply coveted toy by first hiding his desire from his mother and then by returning the gift to help a friend out with the refund, inadvertently brings on some terrifying crisis. It seems that everyone’s self-dilemmas get in the way of everyone else’s happiness. But even when one character accidentally acts as the foil to another’s wishes, you can’t blame them for it. Generosity of spirit is the making and breaking of all conflicts in this movie and that’s what makes it a great Christmas story.
Finally, a note for Gordon Gebert, the child actor playing Timmy. Bravo! According to his records, Holiday Affair was his first credited role on screen but to see him act, you would not believe it. As the saying goes, the kid had a calling. Yet, for some reason, the character Timmy was considered a small role by Hollywood standards, which I feel is a total failure to recognize talent – since he had as many dialogues and scenes as the lead actor, which he performed with great gravitas. Gebert went on to perform in other roles in tinsel town though not in anything well-recognized. An utter underutilization of human capital, if I saw any. Not for little Gordon though; he went on to become an architect.
Recommendation: I really really liked this movie. To reiterate, it was rationally hilarious and had intelligent characters that benefited from the honest efforts of the actors who portrayed them. And most of all, it touched all the right notes that call out to the bounty of Christmas.