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Jennifer Crusie

REVIEW:  Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

REVIEW: Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob...

Dear Ms. Crusie and Mr. Mayer:


I have to admit that I was afraid to read your new Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer collaboration, Agnes and the Hitman. Your first book, Don’t Look Down never got off the ground for me, and Crusie’s other recent collaborative release, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, was not my luckiest reading experience of the year. So I dragged my feet on Agnes, started a few times and stalled, wondering if my days of enjoying Crusie’s new books were over. Fortunately for me as a reader, by the time I got serious about Agnes, the book got serious about delivering high impact entertainment through what I can only characterize as a screwball mob romantic comedy “The Godfather” meets “Bringing up Baby” with a little bit of vintage Julia Child thrown in (think about those episodes where she hacks up poultry). It was fast and funny and made me perpetually hungry for breakfast.

Agnes Hitman Crusie“Cranky Agnes” Crandall, a food writer with a successful book, “Mob Food,” has moved into her dream house, but not yet into the master bedroom she idealistically expects to share with fellow foodie and fiancé, Taylor Beaufort. Although Agnes and Taylor purchased the home together, defraying some of their mortgage by agreeing to cater an important wedding on the property, Agnes is now second-guessing her engagement to a man who spends as little time as possible at the new house and with his fiery fiancé. But Agnes could not have afforded the house without Taylor and without the break in the mortgage, even though the former owner of the house, Brenda Fortunato, has known Agnes since her daughter Lisa Livia brought her home from boarding school when Agnes was 14. After that, Agnes spent every holiday and summer at Savannah’s Two Rivers, and when she finally owns the house, she feels as if she’s come home to family.

Family is a recurring theme in the book, and probably the most prominent. Right away we recognize that Agnes has a knack for assembling a makeshift, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, support system for herself, including surrogate father Joey, local diner owner, subject and cover model for “Mob Food,–? and retired goombah. Joey believes that Agnes and her dog Rhett are in grave danger after a photo of Rhett wearing a gaudy old necklace appears in the local newspaper. The young man who shows up at Two Rivers in the first scene of the book demanding the dog at gunpoint also supplies an early clue confirming Joey’s suspicions. Although neither the reader nor Agnes understands the source or the object of danger, Joey places an immediate distress call to his nephew Shane, the hitman of the book’s title, who hurries home to protect Agnes and Rhett, and becomes the immediate object of lust for the now barely engaged Agnes. Shane arrives at Two Rivers in the middle of a complex assignment, bringing with him a secondary plot involving an assigned hit, a partner/love interest for a secondary character, and, unintentionally, a whole lot of the history that drives the numerous mysteries and conflicts of the novel.

At the most superficial level, Agnes and the Hitman is about one woman’s attempts to carry off a seemingly impossible wedding in order to hold on to the house of her dreams and a life of prosperous normalcy. But if things went according to plan, there would be no fun, especially with all the obstacles in Agnes’s way. So we get mafia grudges and government spooks and family secrets and betrayals big and small. And food, lots of food, especially as it serves to bring people into community around the table and create a sense of cockeyed but emotionally satisfying familial comfort and homecoming. At the center of it all is Agnes, with her tenacious desire for a stable and happy home, some anger management issues, the emotional weight of several failed relationships, a mean way with a frying pan, and a court appointed psychiatrist with whom she has fictitious conversations throughout the novel whenever she feels like she’s going to lose it –” which is often. Someone is sabotaging Agnes’s efforts to throw the perfect wedding for Lisa Livia’s daughter, Agnes’s fiancé betrays her, and people keep breaking into her house to steal her dog. In the midst of the mayhem, Shane becomes Agnes’s constant, his elemental masculinity an irresistible lure. As cool as Agnes is hotheaded, as introverted as Agnes is gregarious, and as deliberate at Agnes is impulsive, Shane represents the quiet that Hurricane Agnes has never really known. Shane has hit his own life crisis, and cannot really afford a distraction from his delicate assignment, but Agnes’s lively energy, her independent and intelligent quirkiness, make her impossible for Shane to resist.

It is impossible to talk much about the plot of Agnes and the Hitman without revealing some of the coincidences, intersections, and revelations that make the book so much fun. Most of the action takes place around the impending wedding and the various family members and friends who arrive on the scene to amp up the tension and the comedy. The mob plot runs parallel to the wedding plot, crossing over at critical points, adding a sort of madcap gruesomeness to the whole shebang and a great opportunity for Mayer’s experience with action-adventure stories to merge with Crusie’s way with romantic comedy. And unlike Don’t Look Down, which read to me like an uncomfortable writing round robin exercise, Agnes and the Hitman is a more integrated, better written, more tightly plotted, and much more satisfying book. Although there are still places where I felt the command of one authorial voice, I didn’t feel that either threw the book off-balance. Rather, I was happy just to read along, not completely convinced of the romantic elements of the book but entertained enough not to care all that much at the time.

In regard to the romance, I warn those who are seeking a more traditional relationship development to suspend those expectations if you want the greatest enjoyment out of the book. The way Shane and Agnes begin their relationship is anything but conventional, and Agnes’s character is not that of an emotionally stable good girl. Her strengths as a character aren’t fully realized until she comes to terms with all her pent up anger, which happens well into the novel and in a way that is both unconventional and delicious. The relationship Agnes shares with Shane, although obvious in the setup of the book and in the way that opposites so often attract, seems based primarily on the fact that Agnes is drawn to the fact that Shane is “Big. Broad. Dark. Strong. Handsome if you liked thugs. Looked like Joey. And he was here to keep her safe.–? The combination of his dark burliness and promise of safety really seems to drive a lot of the connection Agnes has to Shane, and honestly, it seems that Shane doesn’t need much more than Agnes’s “round everywhere–? body and “pattable–? behind to keep him interested. Considering the speed at which these two characters seem willing to commit, I could have done with much stronger emotional development of their relationship.

I didn’t need the book to be full-out Romance; in fact, I think that part of the novel’s strength is its freedom from strict generic conventions. But even on the book’s own terms the romantic relationship between Shane and Agnes comes across to me as shallow, which is both ironic and a bit of a disappointment considering that Agnes had made so many bad choices about men. Part of the problem for me is that Shane remains somewhat remote as a character, like his movie character alter ego, despite the fact that Crusie and Mayer’s book does not end with the same level of ambiguity as George Stevens’s film. There are some significant revelations in this book of mysteries that affect Shane — that would affect anyone in a deep way –” but they are somewhat glossed over. That Agnes is not primarily a Romance kept my disappointment over the relationship development from being fatal, especially because the rapid pacing of the novel kept me turning the pages and staved off any quibbles, questions, and frustrations until after I closed the book and began to contemplate my review. Overall, I have to recommend Agnes and the Hitman as a manically entertaining romp, neither too frothy nor too heavy, steeped in quirky characters, lots of family angst, and emotionally satisfying resolutions. Had I gotten Agnes’s recipe for pecan sour cream buttermilk pancakes, it would have been even more satisfying. But even though I could only enjoy them vicariously, I still have to give Agnes a B+.

Best regards,

Janet

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REVIEW:  The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes by Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer and Anne Stuart

REVIEW: The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes by Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer...

Dear Authors:

A couple of weeks ago there was a small online furor over the Publishers Weekly review of Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer, and Anne Stuart‘s collaborative book The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes. The review referred to the book as three novellas, concluding with the hope that “the authors’ next collaboration will be on a single, full-length novel-or better yet, three of them.–? The book is quite obviously not written as separate novellas. However, there are other observations in the PW review with which I agree, begging a question relevant to my own take on the book: what does it mean when a review captures the core of my own reaction to a book while at the same time asserting something that might make the authors legitimately wonder whether the reviewer had even read their book? As someone who did read every single page and word of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, I feel a little cheated too, not by the PW review so much as by the collaborative novel, which, while a moderately entertaining read, did not feel either as fresh or rich as I would have expected from three such powerful genre voices.

The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes Crusie, Stuart, DreyerSisters Mare, Lizzie, and Dee have been running for years from their evil Aunt Xan, a witch who apparently murdered the sisters’ parents for their magical power and has been after the girls ever since. Aunt Xan, in reaching middle age, is losing her own power, and has been using the years during which her nieces were on the run to hone her magic for the ultimate purpose of draining the sisters of theirs. Not that the younger women are so thrilled with their gifts: Oldest and most responsible sister Dee has been unable to rid herself of her virginity because she tends to shapeshift at exactly the wrong moment; Lizzie can’t yet turn straw into gold, but can create bunnies and shoes in the blink of an eye; and Mare has not yet figured out how to control her power to make the earth move –” or those parts not heavy enough to resist –” when she gets excited.

So with their close bond to sustain them emotionally, the sisters have remained somewhat isolated and alone, on the move from place to place, seeking anonymity and normalcy from a life that threatens anything but. In the meantime, Xan has managed to track them down and sent ahead her own magic in the form of the sisters’ true loves, all of whom arrive virtually at the same time into the small town of Salem’s Fork. At that point, the blessing and the curse of love confronts the sisters, who have grown complacent enough in their isolated closeness that they are not overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement at the prospect of the unexpected surprises that desire and deep romantic love promise. For three women who have spent years trying to focus their power and their chance at safe normalcy, the disruptive power of attraction creates a parade of dilemmas around whether it’s wise to consider living their lives separate from one another, no matter how much happiness each woman senses her true love can manifest in her life. So between these emotional dramas and the external threat that dear Aunt Xan represents –” amounting to three love stories and a revenge tale — The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes has a lot of surface ambition.

At 416 pages, it looks like a substantial book, but like Aunt Xan’s beautiful shell, that’s a bit of an illusion. Ultimately, the book felt to me like Practical Magic meets Walt Disney. Mare was a paranormal take on many of Jennifer Crusie’s heroines in her “Queen of the Universe–? quirkiness, that likeable blend of vulnerability and bravado with which Crusie is so competent at imbuing her heroines. Mare even sleeps on a “watery blue satin comforter,–? which I imagined looked much like Min Dobb’s “watery lavender-blue satin comforter–? in Bet Me. Lizzie possessed that plucky imperviousness to obvious danger that has become an Anne Stuart staple, bright and stubborn, yet oblivious to the natural laws she’s breaking by crossing elemental boundaries in her amateur alchemy. While Mare must overcome a certain cynical insecurity in her ability to be loved for who she is, Lizzie grows through her passionate encounter with an extremely powerful wizard and discovers that she’s so much stronger than she thought. Sound familiar? Only Dee was a bit of a discovery for me, because I have not read any of Dreyer’s previous works, and others will have to decide if the slightly martyred older and responsible sister Dee is anything like her other heroines.

Entertaining heroines all, but no revelation, either in craft or character. They all fall in love in an instant and wrap up their happy ending within the space of a weekend. The dialogue can be snappy, the characterizations quirky, and the love scenes passionate. And although every character is an accomplice in the novel’s movement, and therefore an actual participant in the work of moving the relationships and the ultimate crisis forward, the glib tone of the narration created a sense of superficiality that I never felt the book was able to transcend. Instead, I skated through the novel, attentive but not particularly engaged beyond amused curiosity, and by the time I was halfway through I was checking to see exactly how many chapters I had left, not sure whether I was hoping for more text or less. It was mildly amusing to watch Xan’s menopausal crisis play itself out in her cannibalization of youth (no need for plastic surgery when you have magic!), but it was also unsettling to see that attention focused on her powerful but undisciplined magical nieces. If there was a symbolic point to this familial violence beyond the villainy necessary for any fairy tale, it didn’t feel particularly coherent or cogent to me. And while I could appreciate the thematic relevance of having the sisters own emotional disruptions fuel their lack of control over their own powers, it also felt as if the men (and love) provided the real magic for the sisters, which was pure Romance formula. In the same way that naming the town Salem’s Fork felt more mundane to me than ironic, so did the triumph of three good young women over one bad aging woman.

It is clear that Crusie, Dreyer, and Stuart are talented writers, and each has a strong voice that shines through in this novel. In some cases the collaboration between authors who each have a strong voice can result in exactly what the PW reviewer accused of happening in The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes; that is, the book can feel like a forced truce between competitive creators. TUMF doesn’t come across that way to me, though; instead it feels like a friendly, cooperative give and take of voices and perspectives. Although I could tell right away who was writing which character, I didn’t feel that each authorial voice was jockeying for some kind of narrative superiority, or that there was strong disagreement on the overall vision of the book. In fact, at more than one point I had the distinct sense that this book was probably a lot of fun to write, because it possessed a sort of good-natured self-consciousness, a conversational tone within each heroine’s point of view that nicely matched the close relationship between the sister heroines. And while I appreciated the coherent integration of the different authorial voices, that accomplishment is, in my opinion, the greatest that the novel yielded, which is wonderful news for the prospect of future collaborations, but did not work similar magic on the other elements of the novel.

My general assessment of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes is that it provided a pleasant but not fresh read. I expect that it will satisfy die-hard fans of each writer, and I think releasing it in mass market paperback was both wise and reasonable; this is the kind of book for which I would have deeply resented paying hardcover price. As to how the Publishers Weekly reviewer was able to make the statement about the book being three novellas, I would pose the issue differently. I would suggest that the reviewer’s ability to articulate some of the core issues I also had with the book reflects an overall superficiality in both the review and the book itself. More generally, I think it might be worth thinking about the possibility of reviews being written on the basis of a mere skim, but in terms of The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, I was hoping for a more powerful reading experience with more depth, more . . . magic. Absent that, I would give The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes a B-.

Best Regards,

Janet

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