Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three Novels About Relationships

I just finished the sequel to Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, titled "The Girl With No Shadow" and I've also completed Lauren Willig's latest romantic intrigue/suspense novel, "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" and prior to that, I read Dave King's book about a Vietnam Vet called "The Ha Ha."
All three novels contained strong relationship themes, though each explored a different aspect of relationships.
The Ha Ha takes place in modern times, and is the story of Howard "Howie" Kapotash, a Vietnam veteran whose head was nearly blown off by a land mine when he'd only been in Nam for 16 days. Howie was put back together by the military, but has been unable to speak coherently for the past 30 years. He can still think, and act somewhat normally, but his ability to communicate was blown to bits with part of his skull. Howie was once involved with a junkie slut named Sylvia, whom he still has feelings for, even though it becomes apparent early on that Slyvia is a selfish, evil, manipulative b*tch who uses Howie every chance she gets. Currently she's using him to babysit her 9-year-old son Ryan while she completes yet another round of rehab for her coke habit. Inevitably, Howie comes to love and care for Ryan, who is damaged in his own way by having lived with his druggie mother. The two develop a friendship and trust that is realistic and touching, only to have it ripped away by Slyvia when she "graduates" from rehab and calls the police on Howie because he'd taken her son to a baseball game, and she didn't remember that the two of them would be gone that afternoon. Howie's heartbreak at having to let go of Ryan and his torch for Slyvia is palpable. Yet I was distracted by the fact that Slyvia never seems to get what karma she has coming to her, and instead is allowed to treat Howie like garbage, run off with some slimebag from rehab and still get her kid back. It also bothered me that Howie seemed so oblivious to Slyvia's true nature, and seemed to love her anyway, though she was really worthless as a person. I was troubled by the way that King allowed the death of the homeless vet to remain somewhat in question by not telling the reader if Howie went to his funeral. Fortunately, Howie does get 'the girl' in the end, just not the one he originally wanted, and its made clear that he's still allowed to see Ryan and go with him to ball games and such, so there was a bit of an HEA. And King's prose, though a bit stiff and intellectual in spots, was rich and full of interesting descriptions and metaphors. I can't say this is a book I would have read if it wouldn't have been assigned for book group, but I am glad that I've read it anyway. It's a window on what modern American fiction has become, complete with a sprinkling of unnecessary profanity.
Lauren Willig's latest "flower-monikered spy" book in her series that began with the "Pink Carnation" is really more of the same, just focusing on another woman and one of the witty lords from the previous books. In this one, Lord Vaughn who is handsome, wealthy, witty and inevitably bitter and emotionally damaged by a previous relationship, runs afoul of Mary Alsworthy, a willowy and gorgeous raven-haired woman who is fast approaching spinsterhood since her sister ran off and eloped with her one wealthy suitor. Vaughn, whose cynicism gets a bit old after awhile, is the target of the assasin the Black Tulip, whose nefarious plans Vaughn has nipped in the bud one too many times. Mary is negotiated into acting as a mole for Lord Vaughn to uncover the identity of the Black Tulip before he causes any more trouble. Because the action takes place alternately in the Napoleanic era and then in modern times, the plot tends to jump like a rabbit on steroids, coming to a halt when we're back to modern-day London and our hapless researcher (she's a bit too much like Bridget Jones for my taste) who is in love with an ancestor of Lord Vaughns. There is the mystery, the breathless kiss, the witty banter and the 'out of nowhere' return of Vaughn's supposedly deceased wife to liven up the plot of the ancient-era text, but there is little to make the modern day plot stand out among even moderately-interesting chick lit novels. Everything was so predictable that I knew what was going to happen long before it did. I also knew that we were in for a wedding and an HEA for Vaughn and Mary, but I was slightly surprised by the identity of the Black Tulip, as I'd come to nearly the same conclusion as Mary. Willig's prose is a bit too detailed with historic trivia for my taste, but I realize that once you've done that kind of research, you want to make it useful. I've not read the intervening two novels by Willig between Pink Carnation and Crimson Rose, The Masque of the Black Tulip and the Deception of the Emerald Ring, but, as this novel was so similar to the Pink Carnation, I think I will just wait to find those two in the bargain bin or at a garage sale or thrift store. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical romance.
Finally, The Girl With No Shadow was much more frightening than its predessor, Chocolat. I must mention that I've read all of Joanne Harris' novels, and I've loved all but one of them (Gentlemen and Players was a horrible tome--its reviewed on this blog somewhere). I was nervous about Harris destroying the lovely world she'd created with Chocolat, because Gentlemen and Players was so cynical and ugly, I feared that something in her personal life had thrown Harris into some kind of depression or funk that has become caustic to the optimism and hopefulness present in nearly all of her work. Fortunately, Harris was able to reign in some of that cynicism, at least for the ending of the book, which was quite a relief. I was disappointed that the evil character did NOT get what was coming to her in the end, however, and is left to continue her criminal activities in America.
I can't imagine that Harris would believe that people could become fond or forgiving of "Zozie", the bad seed character in the book, yet we are, I think, supposed to find her manipulations somehow charming.
At any rate, this is the continuing story of Vianne Rocher, now called Yanne Charbonneau and her daughter Anouk, now called Annie, and Rosette, a baby who is born somewhat fragile and autistic. Vianne has settled in a small chocolate shop in Monmarte in Paris. She's sworn off magic, and has sworn her daughters off it, too, though Anouk is a preteen who wants to use her abilities to fight the forces of conformity at her school, and Rosette doesn't understand enough of the world to restrain her magical abilities, as she keeps having 'accidents'. Vianne has even taken up with her landlord, a boring, egotistical jerk named Thierry, who wants to 'rescue' Vianne and institutionalize her children to make them "normal." Vianne doesn't see Thierry as the jerk that he is, however, she seems to be willing to nearly sell her soul for the ability to buy a steady income and norma, boring life with a roof over their heads and food on the table. She seems to believe that all the travel and unpredictability makes her children unhappy and uncared for, which is far from the truth. Vianne has ceased to wear her dramatic clothing and doesn't even hand-make her own chocolats anymore. Into this scene of graying domesticity rides Zozie, a grifter of the worst sort, who steals mail and identities for a living. Zozie, who has magical powers similar to Viannes, but who has become rehearsed in using ancient Aztec and Mayan magic from "the dark side of the force" finds the mystery of why Anouk and Vianne don't use their powers irresistable, and she sets out to find out all she can about the Rochers, so that she can steal Vianne's life and subourn Anouk to the dark, vengeful uses of her powers. In the final third of the book, the wonderful Roux returns, and I was gratified that Harris hadn't chosen to turn him into a character losing his identity, too. Though I could see a showdown coming, I was surprised that Harris allowed compassion to win the day, especially from a nearly teenage character (though Harris' depiction of the cruelty of teenagers was spot on).
Harris' prose is, as always, sterling and delightful, and her descriptions of chocolate made by hand with magic and the very best ingredients makes the reader want to run to the nearest chocolate shop and buy dark French chocolate by the pound. There is a luminescent quality to her writing that sets the stage so beautifully for the characters to play upon, that its hard to understand why Harris seems intent on allowing less that savory characters to muck around with such heartbreakingly beautiful settings. Why not let karma kick their sorry butts and allow the good guys and gals to air out the pages of the stench of cruelty and evil? But, we are fortunate in knowing that Vianne lives to rebuild her chocolaterie and her relationship with Roux, and that her daughters won't grow up supressing their natural talents. I would give this book a solid B plus if I were to grade it, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chocolat, with the advisory that there are some seriously frightening and nasty bits in there, and that if you expect them and try to account for them, they won't cause you as much grief. I am glad that I read the book, and I hope that whatever Harris is up to next, that its something with a balance of justice for whatever evil-doers she cooks up.

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