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.
Sisters 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-.