May 19 2009
Dear Ms. Martin,
I really enjoyed your last book, Power Play, enough that I was looking forward to With a Twist. Unfortunately, this book never really got off the ground for me, owing to shallow characterizations and a heavy (and irritating) reliance on stereotyping over true character-building.
Natalie Bocuse is a Frenchwoman waitressing in her sister Vivi’s bistro in Bensonhurst. Natalie was raised in Paris and has a certain snobbishness about her current less-than-cosmopolitan surroundings. She wants to move to Manhattan and find a job as a restaurant manager – and she aspires high, to a quality restaurant, in spite of the fact that she has no experience.
Quinn O’Brien is a reporter with the New York Sentinel. Quinn lives and breathes his job, He’s having a tough time lately, though, because the Sent has been bought by a Rupert Murdoch-type media mogul, who has installed an Australian, Mason Clement as boss. Mason wants to make changes in the paper, turning it into a tabloid and cutting down on the hard hitting metro news that has been Quinn’s beat in favor of celebrity gossip and silly “local color” stories.
As the book opens, Quinn and Natalie are already acquainted; he frequents Vivi’s bistro, where he enjoys sparring with the prickly Natalie. He’d love to ask her out, but has been hesitant to because his devotion to his job makes relationships difficult and because he thinks Natalie will turn him down.
It’s true that Natalie is ambivalent about Quinn. She enjoys their little interactions as much as he does, but he is definitely not her type, being a bit more rough-around-the-edges than she is used to. However, when Quinn finds out that Natalie is looking to move back to Manhattan, he offers to try to help her get a job waitressing at his parents’ Irish pub, the Wild Hart, something to tide her over until she can find her ideal restaurant management position. Natalie, desperate to get back to more refined surroundings (and already luckily having the use of a fabulous apartment dirt-cheap when a diplomat friend moves back to Paris) agrees to come with Quinn to the pub to meet his parents and see if the job there would be a good fit for her.
At the Wild Hart, Natalie encounters a motley assortment of characters (far too motley for my taste, honestly): a woman who comes in with her dead husband’s parrot (the parrot harangues passersby), a failed writer who has been working on a magnum opus involving lechprechauns for the past several decades, and several other oddball types who put Natalie off with their outlandishness. She also meets Quinn’s parents, who are right out of old-country central casting (Quinn’s mother sports a “pillowy bosom”) and his brooding bartender brother, Liam.
It was at the introduction of the bar that this book really started to go south for me. The bar patrons were several notches too twee for me, and from then on the relentless stereotyping of all things Irish was omnipresent. Now, I am part-Irish, and proud of it. But I don’t go around with a shillelagh on my shoulder and shamrocks in my hair. From this part of the story on, every aspect of Quinn’s personality is attributed to his Irishness. Apparently, Irish people are stubborn and loyal. Which makes them different from…who, exactly? All those ethnicities that are known for being shifty pushovers? I’m not big on taking general personality traits and attributing them to one nationality or ethnic group.
Natalie’s Frenchness is rather ham-handedly contrasted with Quinn’s Irishness, and each are used as shorthand for their broadly-drawn personality types. She wants the pub to serve more upscale fare, such as coq au vin and quiche, instead of Guinness Beef Stew and Irish Soda Bread. He drinks Jameson, she likes French wines. She likes the symphony whereas he’d rather veg on the couch with sports or news. Almost every Irish character – and there are many in this apparently unassimilated enclave in NY – has a stereotypically Irish name. We meet Siobhan, Brendan, Declan and Maggie. This whole aspect of the story felt like it would have fit much better in a book set 100 years earlier, when there were many more recent immigrants who had not yet assimilated into American society.
One of the things that bothered me about Natalie’s characterization was that she didn’t really feel French to me. She was given surface attributes meant to convey her Frenchness, but her “voice” never felt like a truly European one to me. I did like that she was a bit of a diffferent heroine – her snobbishness and her shopaholic tendencies (which I guess were detailed in a previous book, which featured Vivi as the heroine) set her apart from the sweet-doormat heroine-type I’ve come to abhor. Natalie is frequently accused of being shallow – and she is, to a degree. I only wish she hadn’t been so shallow in her shallowness – that there was an underlying reason for her attachment to surface judgments. Instead, I felt that it was sort of conflated with her Frenchness, which was then contrasted with Quinn’s Irishness. It got to a point where I felt there was a certain reverse snobbery in the book; Quinn’s salt-of-the-earth qualities were seen not just as different but as superior to Natalie’s sophistication. I didn’t really feel that that was necessary – it would be okay for them to be different without one being better than the other.
Quinn started out okay but got less likable as the book went on. He was really attached to his job, and while I appreciated the realism in that (and the realism in the conflict that it eventually caused with Natalie), his selfishness got to be off-putting. At times, it almost did not seem that he was that interested in Natalie. At first, his interest in her seems greatly spurred by the fact that his hated boss likes her and manages to go out on a couple of dates with her. Later, he says he cares about her but consistently puts his job first. Again, this was realistic, and I appreciated that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very romantic. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a romance where the hero is so blithely able to put off sleeping with the heroine when she is willing.
There were some subplots that didn’t work well for me, either. Liam the brooding bartender brother has apparently resented Quinn their whole lives, but Quinn doesn’t know why. They have a conversation, work it out, and things are better from there. It just made no sense to me, and felt very artificial. I will ask my sister why she’s mad at me if she’s bitchy for a few minutes. I know men are different, but I can’t imagine letting it go on for decades, apparently having no idea what the problem is, and then deciding to ask one day.
There is also a subplot involving the Irish mob (sigh), gentrification in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where the pub is located, and Quinn’s pursuit of a big story on the connection between the two. This also felt very artificial and dated to me, and at times I wondered why Quinn was so heavily involved in something that seemed like it should have been a police matter (I understand that he was following a story, but he seemed to be taking the “investigative” part of investigative reporter a bit too literally). I also felt that he was awfully blithe about his safety considering how bad the bad guys were depicted as being.
Not to be all, “other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, but I will say that the writing was smooth and the book was readable enough – it didn’t bore me. I think part of the problem was that I am not a big fan of sparring hero/heroine combinations in the first place. Readers who are, and who like realistic relationship conflicts (while tolerating unrealistic ethnic stereotyping) may like With a Twist quite a bit better than I did. My grade is a C.