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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.
Title Rules of Magic
Series Practical Magic #00
Author Alice Hoffman
Genre Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication Date October 10, 2017
Setting New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s
Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.
Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.
Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.
The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.
Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.
As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.
Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.
Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.
Title Crimson Peak
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston
Director Guillermo del Toro
Writer(s) Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Genre Drama | Fantasy | Horror
Release Date October 16, 2015
Filming Location USA | Canada
Parental Guidance R
IMDB Rating 6.5
Synopsis: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) always knew there were ghosts. As a child, she lost her mother to the Black Cholera. The night Mrs. Cushing was buried, her ghost appeared to Edith with a cryptic warning to “Beware of Crimson Peak”. Edith received a visit again with the same warning fourteen years later, when she had blossomed into a young woman of unassuming charm – albeit bookish – and keen determination to prove herself as a novelist, with the blessing and encouragement of her businessman father Mr. Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). While Edith prefers writing to society, she suddenly finds her world expanding with the return of her childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who just set up a practice in town after completing his medical studies, and the mysterious inventor Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is trying to gain her father’s confidence in order to gather the capital to build the machine that would help him mine the red clay on which his family estate sits in Cumberland, England. Attraction between Edith and Thomas is instantaneous and he takes advantage of this in hopes of gaining an ally before her father. Thomas’s sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), who accompanied him to help gain the capital, is not impressed, having hoped her brother would have picked a more affluent and vapid quarry. Neither are Mr. Cushing and Alan, who had their own misgivings about the brother-sister duo from the start. Mr. Cushing hires an investigator to learn more about the newcomers, only to discover their very disturbingly suspicious history, and confronts the siblings about their intent towards his daughter, writing them a cheque to leave Edith alone and return to England. He also tells Thomas to break Edith’s heart so that she may move on, which Thomas does with angry reluctance but publically, announcing he will be gone the next day. Except the next morning, Mr. Cushing is brutally murdered and Thomas, who stayed back even though Lucille left, confesses to Edith that he had broken up with her under her father’s instructions. As Edith comes to learn about her father’s murder, Thomas takes advantage of her distress and marries her. Thomas takes Edith back to his home in England, with Edith hoping to have a new beginning with her husband. Only now Thomas is physically distant and avoid consummating their marriage while Lucille is cold towards her and perhaps a bit too intrusive about their marriage bed. Pretty soon Edith is visited by gruesome red ghosts on a nightly basis and is told that the family estate is referred to by the locals as “Crimson Peak”.
Experience: I’m not easily scared by horror movies, only ever startled when things jump out of the shadows and have actors screaming. This movie, however, instated its creep-factor from the first act. I’m not sure what it was, really. Maybe it was the hovering carcass-y melancholically-draped specter of Edith’s mother that crawls into bed with her when she is a child that did it [I mean, who hasn’t ever slept with their back to the wall out of vigilant fear as a child, right?] or the historic setting of the movie and romantic undercurrent between the various characters that made me feel invested and empathetic, or the appallingly possessive way that the Baronet’s sister watched his love and married life progress, but I could feel the morbidity of this movie take hold from the preamble. It definitely put me in the mood for all things evil and ghastly for this Halloween.
I felt the casting of the movie was very well done. From Jim Beaver to Jessica Chastain, everyone showed just the level of curiosity and invasiveness that the characters needed to possess to make the relationship dynamics – one of the most important mechanics of the plot – emanate from the screen. The characters themselves were well-developed and complementally contrasted one another. On the one side you have the open and honest friendship between the Cushings and Alan, on the other side you have the sinisterly co-dependent devotion between the aristocratic siblings. Watching the two worlds merge, split, and then reconnect was interesting and rather flawless.
Going back to the actors, Beaver was as usual just the right level of encouraging and frustrating as a parent to the honestly devoted daughter that Wasikowska played. As always, Hiddleston pulled off the younger sibling, misunderstood and committing immoral acts against those nearest to him (though here misguided by his sister) with aplomb. Once again I found myself wondering should I be disgusted by the character he portrayed or accept him for his redeeming potentials. I found Chastain, as always, alluringly potent. I think it might be her strong bone structure or set facial features or the matter-of-fact regard of her eyes, but Chastain always casts best as a woman of indomitable resolve, which her acting ability greatly complements. Next to her, Wasikowska featured a pale contrast, which cast a perfect effect to play the deceptively polite but equally gritty new woman of the household (I loved how Edith chased after the ghosts to get to the bottom of the mystery despite being utterly petrified by them). Hunnam took a back seat for most of the movie, acting mainly as a supporting role and a necessary plot device to help Edith out once she solves the mystery and rescues herself, but I admired the fact that he could remain subtly in the background until called to action without trying to overpower the screen.
With regards to the plot itself and the script was written and directed with a steadily accelerating pace. While there was little in the way of plot twists (the audience today has wizened up too much to the evil that lurks in people’s hearts to really be surprised with anything), the real mystery was how the truth will unfold and what will Edith do once she is faced by it (I think I was surprised by her last reaction more than anything). But all in all, there was just enough creepiness to make it interesting.
Recommendation: Totally worth watching this Halloween! Or any dark wintry night, really.