August 02, 2007
A promise not worth keeping
My sister has been posting some thoughts and critiques about the romance genre and references this review I wrote for Irreantum a few years ago. So here it is.
When Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew announced the store's revised buying guidelines late last year --and specifically that Richard Paul Evan's latest novel, The Last Promise, hadn't made the cut--my immediate reaction was to snort in derision. A bunch of sanctimonious, neo-Victorian fussbudgets trying to micromanage our moral and aesthetic lives, under the guise of what Dew had the audacity to claim was a "business decision."
Then I read the book.
Deseret Book may indeed be run by a bunch of sanctimonious, neo-Victorian fussbudgets, whose recently-discovered principles in this case only gave a bad book much free publicity (I read the book, to start with). But they are right to insist that The Last Promise does not deserve the imprimatur of any institution even peripherally related to any church anywhere.
This isn't the primary reason, but the overwrought title is itself ultimately germane to nothing. The "last promise" (indeed, not made until the last 40 pages of the book) is quickly broken, which I suppose should be read to mean: this is the last promise people like this should make to anybody. It is, in fact, a category romance of sub-par quality. I hasten to add that I have nothing against category romances--an unjustly slighted genre, I believe--just bad writing in general, and especially pretentious, bad writing.
If nothing else, The Last Promise will quickly exhaust any fondness you might have for the epigram-as-chapter-heading style.
Delving into a subject Evans knew something about might have also clarified in his mind what was worth promising in the first place. Eliana, our heroine, is ostensibly "a devout Catholic," though by all indications what the author knows about Catholicism he picked up on the Vatican tour. He keeps his protagonist away from any actual worship, keeps her from breathing a word to any actual priest, because "the priest at the small church near the villa used copious amounts of incense in his worship," and the incense gives her son asthma. Alas, "She had tried other churches in the area and found them all to be the same" (p. 10).
The only discernable point to this bit of biographical background is to enable her to marry the scion of an Italian winery without turning the whole thing into a comedy. Straining credulity further, he has her growing up in Vernal, Utah. You would think that a Catholic growing up in Utah would have something to say about the plentitude of Mormons there, and the inevitable clash of small-town religious cultures. Nope. You would not know from reading the book that any Mormons live in Utah. Thus do the incongruities gush forth.
It would not have been an insurmountable problem had Evans played around more with the obvious subtext, analogizing the non-Mormon in Utah to the fish-out-of-water American in Italy. Instead, he shies from the intriguing dramatic possibilities and resorts to hackneyed story devices that are old by category romance standards.
To sum up: impossibly beautiful wife (Eliana) is trapped in a loveless marriage to philandering rogue of husband (Maurizio). One day a handsome American expatriate with a mysterious past (Ross) rents a flat in the family villa. But when you get right down to it, it's no different than those silly French farces about the wife who discovers her husband is cheating on her, and gets even by cheating on him back with the houseguests. Except that Evans' version is not even indecently humorous.
Okay, Evans can't actually have them sleeping together. No, wait, they do sleep together, the loophole being that they only "sleep." Evans has claimed that the snogging going on when they are awake is "not adultery." Yes, and Bill Clinton did not have "sex" with "that woman," and "didn't inhale," either. If it is facile to assert (as I do) that the explicit description of sexual behavior is, ipso facto, immoral, then it is equally facile to argue that a narrative somehow garners a patina of respectability solely because of its lack of explicit content.
At any rate, I wasn't aware that copulation alone defined adultery. Stranger still, given Evans' protestations, are his several references to the Vestal Virgins, remembered for the gristly fate that awaited them if they fell from "virginal grace." In a climactic scene (p. 221), Eliana interrupts Ross's museum tour group before an exhibit of The Vestals and asks in a loud voice if it was "worth it" to these women to break their vows, considering the penalties that awaited them.
To which Ross answers, "I guess only the Vestals could say. But apparently eighteen of them though so."
Now, exactly how are we supposed to read that?
Evans rationalizes this morally muddy relationship with he-hit-me-first logic. Short version: if your husband is a jerk, it's okay to get emotionally involved with another man. Fifteen billion times we are reminded of what a louse Maurizio is. The narrative from his point-of-view exists only to damn his character with cheap shots and borderline ethnic slurs.
Our first introduction to the Italian male (not Maurizio) consists of the following: "Just then a man, shirtless, maybe in his later fifties with a belly hanging over his swimsuit and a cigar clamped between his front teeth, stopped in front of her chair."
Feel swept off your feet yet? Eliana later helpfully explains that "the Italian men regard a lone woman the same way they would a bill on the sidewalk." And Evans (in authorial voice) confirms that "It was true" (p. 4). True or not, it's not the point. I'm reminded of the Dilbert strip in which one of Dilbert's colleagues confides to Dogbert, "I criticize my coworkers to make myself look smart." To which Dogbert replies, "Apparently it isn't working . . . . Oh, remind me to add nuts to my grocery list."
Evans thinks this is a workable strategy. So we are further reminded that none of the wives of Maurizio's friends "expected their husbands' help in domestic matters," either (p. 15). The marriage counselor Eliana drags her husband to sides with him and tells her that it's all her problem (p. 16). And the husband of Eliana's sister-in-law, Anna, "left her for a young Swiss woman she discovered he had been having an affair with for more than seven years" (p. 53).
Ross, in contrast, is described by every Italian woman he encounters as bello, and a hotel receptionist he's known for about five minutes offers to sleep with him (p. 200). "We'd have fun," she tells him (p. 202).
Oh, and Maurizio is the World's Worst Father Ever. It is simply not enough that he be immature, irresponsible, or a workaholic. We are supposed to believe that the man is utterly indifferent to his son's existence, that he "never inquires about his son's health" (p. 13), has "no idea how to take care of his own son's basic needs" (p. 15), and uses him as a pawn to keep his wife a kept woman.
We are supposed to believe as well that the son, in turn, should deny all the incalculables of human nature and transfer all his affection, at the drop of the proverbial hat, to a complete stranger. By page 116 we find Eliana telling Ross, "[Alessio] was so upset that he missed you the last time. I had to promise him that he could stay up until you came." And by the end of the novel, Maurizio is confessing to Eliana, "He's not really my son . . . . He doesn't call me father . . . . He hates me" (p. 261).
Of the six impossible things I'm willing to believe before breakfast, this isn't one of them. But, gee, doesn't it make divorce the easy next step to take.
Still, Evans must reduce the Maurizio to wife-beating status to make the case compelling enough. The literary ends do not justify the means. While Maurizio is undoubtedly a jerk, the thesis, "My husband is a jerk," is a thin and unrewarding source of conflict. This is not to say that infidelity or bad parenting should be lightly excused, but it's not like he's smuggling drugs or harboring terrorists. The man has tact, if nothing else. He doesn't bring it home, like, ahem, his stupid wife. And why, your grandmother would ask, should he change his behavior when he can have his cake and get the milk for free?
All Eliana has to say in her defense is that she married "too young." Too young--she was in college. So she went to the store one day to pick up a rich, handsome, Italian husband, and, darn, if she'd waited a day or two she could have gotten a better model, and on sale, to boot.
Were she a conservative John Paul II American Catholic, that would have made things interesting. But the obvious contention, "I can't divorce you because I'm Catholic," is never raised. Instead, she stays in the marriage, we are told, because she's afraid she would lose custody of her child, a child whose existence is exploited by Evans for all shoddy manner of story conveniences. (When in doubt, send the sick kid to the E.R.) It is a valid concern--the reasons sound fairly convincing once you accept the Maurizio-as-monster caricature--but such a concern should lead to the weighing of freedom and happiness, and the making of deals with your own personal devils.
Even as compromised a woman as Hillary Clinton reportedly whacked Bill with an ashtray on occasion, and then went out and made a life for herself. Sure, her not-yet-erstwhile husband being President of the United States sure helped. Call it metaphysical alimony. And Eliana is hardly a single mother struggling to survive on scant child support payments. In exchange for her husband's money, she lives a comfortable, almost royal (no kidding, Evans makes her by marriage a de jure countess), if dilatory existence.
She does nothing to change the state of her life, a curious contrast with Birdman-of-Alcatraz Ross. That's the sinkhole the book crumbles into and never crawls out of: she's BORING. No wonder her husband never comes home, to a beautiful but dull woman who mopes and sighs and makes dinners he won't eat, and dabbles at paintings no one will see, and spends an awful lot of time doing laundry for three people (a glaring lapse: a man of Maurizio's stature and resources, if for no other reason than sheer vanity, would hire help for these menial tasks).
Early on in one of Evans' many head-hopping digressions, we are treated to Maurizio's thoughts on the subject. In a passage that feels like the author was responding to an editor's suggestion that he try to show the husband's side of things, the reader is rewarded with a several hundred words of the man's stream-of-consciousness, detailing his coping strategy in this dysfunctional relationship:
American women are crazy, [Maurizio] thought. She works all day to make me a meal, then sulks through it . . . .
Eliana would sulk for a while then she'd blow, inevitably launching into a tirade about how little time he spend at home or why he hadn't bothered to call her . . . . Either way, [she] didn't have the stomach for conflict that he had. She would go off for a while then come back and be civil--be a good wife.
Always the same foolishness, he thought. If she wants me home so much, why does she make it so damn miserable to come home? (pp. 31-32)
Why, indeed? But having raised them, Evans never effectively counters these charges. He only tells us that Eliana "blamed herself for not seeing it coming," and then reverses himself a page later, asserting that she "felt the victim of a marital bait and switch" (p. 16). Victim turns out to be her primary occupation.
Based on the themes of her General Conference addresses, I can believe that this is what raised Sheri Dew's hackles most of all. Evans is climbing on his best-seller soapbox to preach a medieval theme I've encountered in other Mormon romances, that of the Great Wheel of Fate. Climb aboard at the wrong instance and your life is doomed until it rolls around and rights itself. We are supposed to admire the protagonist merely for hanging on and letting go when the sunny side of life shows up like a stop on a Disneyland amusement ride.
Had Evans eliminated the implied infidelity business from the start, he would then have had to address this problem with human agency. Were Eliana already divorced, for example, but in the interest of her sickly child living in her ex's villa and growing dependent on his largess, and he on the free child care and the warm hearth to come home to--and were it not strongly implied that, despite his travails, Ross still had bucks in the bank--this would have forced her to make a decision of her own volition, not wait for heaven to smile upon her, the ball to drop into the right slot at the roulette table.
To write the story right, though, you would have to have some insights into why the Hillarys end up with the Bills in the first place. I'm not convinced that Evans has a clue. And we're not necessarily talking about deep psychology. As Slate's "Dear Prudence" advice columnist advised a reader in a similar quandary, the quandary that Eliana apparently blew through without a second thought: "My dear, when it comes to making a judgment about a man's character, what else is there besides his past? It is through one's history that you learn about judgments, morals, and choices."
Judgements, morals, and hard choices are the last things on anybody's mind in The Last Promise. Which is why Evans can't begin the book without first rationalizing his choice of subject matter. Though here he does demonstrate some talent in composition. Evans introduces himself in a self-deprecating account of the Famous Author Nobody's Heard Of, bumbling around Italy with his family. One day he's relaxing poolside at a country club outside Florence and is told this story by a gorgeous, sunbathing woman he strikes up a conversation with.
Unfortunately, this promising narrative voice is soon drowned out by the drone of a loquacious, self-important guy who's got you cornered on a five-hour bus trip and is convinced that you are dying to hear his profoundly superficial life story. But who only convinces you that this is the last time you're riding this particular bus anywhere, thank you very much.