Thursday, March 13, 2008

Author Profile: Judith McNaught

Rhett and Scarlett. Jamie and Claire. Heathcliff and Cathy. Bogie and Bacall.

And Clayton and Whitney. And Julie and Zachary. And Ian and Elizabeth.

Don’t ask me why I haven’t read Whitney, My Love until now. Maybe I thought I’d already read it. Maybe McNaught needs a new blurb-writer (because based on the blurb I’d totally have passed). Maybe I’ve been avoiding McNaught thinking she was someone else. And sometimes I get all perverse and contrary and avoid something just because everyone else is telling me how great it is.

I make mistakes sometimes. It happens. Can you forgive me?

Whitney My Love is a bit of a slow starter, especially if you’re used to more contemporary pacing. Even worse, the plotting revolves around repeated “Big Misunderstandings,” which almost always puts a book into my dud category.

However, what not merely redeems WML but elevates it into the all-time favorite category, is McNaught’s ability to convince me that the hero and heroine are made for each other. Not just as in: “oh, he’s just perfect for her,” but as in: “these two people are soul mates, they complete each other, they could never be as happy, as fulfilled, with anyone else.” These couples are not pots and lids, they’re yin and yang, two halves a whole, incomplete without each other.

In a typical romance, the character meet each other, and in the course of facing some adversity, they fall in love, overcome the obstacles, and live happily ever after. If I can identify a pattern after only three books (I have a backlog to go through, hurray!), McNaught’s characters fall immediately in love, with a coup de foudre, even… but are then separated, by circumstance or their own folly or both.

To be completely honest, I would like to see a slightly more complex plot. But McNaught takes her time and builds layered, nuanced characters who are so appealing that you want them to behave perfectly. You expect them to do exactly the right thing. But then they do exactly the wrong thing. Really big, wrong things. You’ll be reading along and saying, “OMG, no, don’t do that!! Anything but that!!” even while you see that they really have no other choice.

McNaught is a master at setting up her character's dilemma such that choosing the fatal “X” is the only possible thing they can do if they are to remain true to themselves and to remain the person that their partner fell in love with. How they find their way back to each other, and learn to forgive each other and themselves, constitutes the meat of the story.

It’s very easy to do this badly—it goes something like this: Hero is an absolute paragon except for one fatal flaw: he is set up to hate, absolutely cannot abide, trait X. I mean, no X, no way, no how! Then Hero and Heroine fall in love, but of course, at some point, Hero learns, or is led to believe, that Heroine is an Xer. Or commits X in some way. With a flounce and a fight or what have you, drama ensues. But after some really good, possibly angry sex, he decides to forgive the Xness because he really really really really really really loves her. Wallbanger.

And if she isn’t really X, there was just some Big Misunderstanding about X and she isn’t really an Xer but was afraid to tell him about the apparent Xness and why it wasn’t really X… well, that would be a double-wallbanger. Note that the gender could easily be reversed here.

What keeps McNaught’s books from falling into this trap is the development of the characters to the point where they can forgive each other. It isn’t an out-of-character, false-ringing 180-degree turn for the sake of the HEA; it’s a progression, a dawning acceptance that happens in emotionally gripping stages. WML and Perfect just might be the ultimate character-driven novels. The choices the characters make, the things they do, seem almost inexorable as a result of who they are, and of McNaught’s ability to create such depth of character. In many ways, her books are not about falling in love so much as staying in love.

I was hoping to add something more recent to my selection of her books but I got too impatient to share my thoughts about the three I’ve read so far. So I can’t specifically vouch for everything she’s written, but Whitney, My Love, Almost Heaven, and Perfect are absolutely a gold standard. I might be the last romance fan to figure this out, but if you have somehow missed them too, don’t wait any longer.

And finally, if you’ll forgive a sappy reference:

These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They're the very things - we kill I guess
Pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us
You know it doesn't keep me warm
I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you, baby
And the more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I'd figured out
I have to learn again
I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But everything changes
And my friends seem to scatter
But I think its about forgiveness

Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”


Niki said...

I love her books too esp. Once and Always.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe you hadn't read WML before! One thing - did you read the new "enahnced" version that got released recently? I didn't own a copy and so bought mine and was really pissed that she went and added a bunch of junk to the end, meant to tie together the WML with Kingdom of Dreams and foreshadow Only You but it just brought the whole end of the book to a slow, skidding, annoying halt.

Now you obviously MUST read Only You, which is *excellent* (follows WML) and Paradise, which actually precedes Perfect. Paradise and Perfect are two of my favorites ever ever ever, and Only You and WML follow closely behind.


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