Monday, January 3, 2011

Maybe This Time, by Jennifer Crusie - Review

To Borrow A Bandwagon
One of my favorite bloggers is running a blue light special on Crusie reviews, and since Crusie is also one of my favorite authors, I figured I'd hitch a little ride.  Hopefully Jessica won't mind too much.

"Maybe This Time" is a great title for how I was feeling about Crusie when I bought it.  She used to be one of my all-time favorite writers; I just couldn't get enough.  But... well, I haven't loved everything.  The collaborations with Bob Mayer were OK, but they weren't the Crusie stories I loved.  And to be honest the two three-way collaborations with Anne Stuart and others were pretty much stinkers.  So I was pleased to see that this was a new solo act, and I thought, "maybe this time..."

It sat on my shelf for a little while though-- it's a hardback, and I usually don't drag my hardbacks back and forth on the commute, so they wait for the perfect weekend moment.  And what could be more perfect than Christmas Day in the afternoon, with my kids sleepily playing with their new loot, after the chaos settled?  A little gift to myself, as it were.

The Characters
Now, I've been keeping up with Jessica's reviews, and she is pulling so many little tidbits out of Crusie's style, and I'm sitting here going, oh yeah, that, and that, and that's in here too... Andie, the heroine, is a slightly scattered high school teacher who is kind of anti-corporate and yet she'd make a heckuva CEO or drill sargeant:
"Mrs. Crumb, I do not want to have to fire you, but I will if you cause any more problems.  You will keep the kitchen clean and you can supervise the Happy Whosis*, but you will not tell any more stories about ghosts, and you will not make any more veiled threats, and you will either assist me with the cooking or get out of my way, and you will answer any questions I have without muttering.  Is that clear?"

*the housecleaning service Andie hires

Oof. It's certainly clear to me.

The hero is Andie's workaholic lawyer ex, whose job drove them apart. As the story of how they broke up gets filled in, you see pretty clearly that both of them failed each other and neither is a true bad guy.  His impression of Andie after ten years: "She'd looked so good, warm and round..." (that was for Jessica). Crusie is pretty famous for her characters and dialog, and while MTT is chock full of her trademark madcap secondaries, it's really more of a plot-driven story than I expected.  As a result, North, the hero, is adequate but in a sense is kind of just along for the ride.

Interestingly, Andie doesn't get a BFF in this story, which traditionally has been one of the best parts of the Crusie book.  Instead, she's the centerpiece of several secondary relationships, and I'm afraid that the one between her and Alice, the little girl, kind of steals the show from the romance.  Andie also especially sparkles with Lydia, her former mother-in-law:
"If you find out what's wrong with Carter and fix it, if you bring these children to Columbus, you'll have the full force of the Archer family behind you."

"Okay," Andie said, taken aback.

"But if you break my son's heart again, I'll rip out your liver and fry it for breakfast." Lydia stood up, looking down at Andie. "Don't blow it this time, Andromeda," she said, and swept from the room.

The Story
So.  The story is completely crazy, and the setup doesn't make a lick of sense for any time in the last two centuries.  It's an homage to Henry James "The Turn of the Screw" with a nod to Edward Gorey-- it comes with a castle, a string of suspiciously coincidental deaths, and a very strange late-twentieth century spin on the Agatha Christy houseparty, where the entire cast is trapped together in the creepy house. It takes a certain amount of torture applied to the contemporary format to get it adequately hammered into the James' parallel.  But if you can run with that, the dialog and story pacing will haul you through the rest of the story at a trot.

This isn't Crusie's first run at a paranormal story but it's by far the best.  I'm not a big fan of the ghost stories in general but the ones where nobody's falling in love with an incorporeal being seem to work better for me.  Crusie does a great job turning the madcap three-ring circus into a high-stakes thriller with a convincingly creepy edge.  It turned quite a bit darker than I expected and she got me with the twist at the end.  (Hint: just because there are only a few pages left? doesn't mean it's all over...)

An honorable mention goes to the character of Isolde, the medium who helps them with their pesky ghost problem.  She's got some salty sarcastic one-liners when she's introduced, but here she is when the story takes a turn for the serious, in North's point of view:
She was a caricature of a woman dangerously out of touch with fashion, all dark eye makeup, big hair and shoulderpats, but the emotion she was feeling was real, and he couldn't leave her alone in that icy barn of a hall, especially since she really believed the place was haunted. [snip]... Whatever Isolde Hammersmith was, she wasn't a faker or a con artist.
Which is a pretty nice microcosm of how the whole story darkens from kooky to creepy.

The Tropes
All up, a pretty typical rollicking Crusie story in terms of characterization, humor, dialog and pacing, but with more of a mystery/thriller at its heart and less of romance (perhaps her collaborations with Mayer have left a stamp on her plotting chops).  It's been said that the "old-skool" romances were typically a coming-of-age story for the heroine, and I think that's a pretty good description of Maybe This Time. While we get a glimpse inside North's head once or twice, the story is told almost entirely from Andie's point of view; and a major theme for Andie is resolving old baggage... some of which may or may not be attributed to simple immaturity.

I'm not good at this sort of analysis, but Jessica leaves me no choice but to consider it.  I can't say that the professional woman gets a very good rap in MTT.  Actually, pretty much all the women are crazy or bitchy in some way or another except for Andie, who holds the only remnant of normalcy or "real"-ness.  Wacky hippie mom, piranha mother-in-law and reporter; crazy drunk housekeeper.  The next-sanest (or at least, most sympathetic) woman in the story is Isolde, the medium, so... yeah.  Make of that what you will.

The Buzz
Dirty Sexy Books
S. Krishna's Book Reviews
The Stay At Home Feminist Mom
Romance Rookie
Smexy Books

As always, if you have reviewed this book and would like to leave a link, please feel free to put it in comments and I will edit it into the list.

Note, the Edward Gorey illustration is from his book "The Gashlycrumb Tinies." Hard to mistake the homage there.


RfP said...

I enjoyed this one too.

"pretty much all the women are crazy or bitchy in some way or another except for Andie"

Crusie does write some evil female villains. However, I don't read most of these women being "crazy or bitchy" as a bad thing. The "Wacky hippie mom, piranha mother-in-law" duo are rather awesome when they're not playing the family roles that put them in conflict with Andie. And the medium is another woman who's offbeat and not a nicey-nice girl, but seems to get through life reasonably well by being true to herself.

I don't see this book as presenting a really clear message to women (which is fine), but I would generally put female characters with strong personalities in the positive column, not the negative.

Nicola O. said...

Yeah, I would agree, they all have moments of awesomeness but I can't really call any of them except maybe Isolde sympathetic.

Though I guess the men don't actually fare any better. They're just mostly harmless. Andie is really the centerpiece in every way.

sanguinea said...

I've been wondering about this one. Good review! I have felt the same way about Crusie's collaborations, and ghosts, ugh. But I do like a little madcap, and witty dialog, so this might do the trick for a winter weekend.


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