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CLASSIC REVIEW:  The Man Outside by Jane Donnelly

CLASSIC REVIEW: The Man Outside by Jane Donnelly

The Man Outside ~ Jane Donnelly

Dear Ms Donnelly:

Polly was delighted when the man she loved invited her to accompany him on an archaeological expedition in Scotland.

But when she joined the party she discovered a fly in the ointment in the shape of Piers Hargreaves, one of the most disagreeable and exasperating men that she had ever met. Perhaps, if she tried, she could turn him into a reasonable human being?

Dear Ms Donnelly:

The very first romance I ever read came in a large grocery sack of secondhand Harlequin/M&B that my grandmother bought the summer of my eleventh year, in a desperate effort to appease the boredom of two sulky adolescent girls. Both my older sister and I were hardcore “geek girls” long before the concept had been dreamt up; we read Tolkien and Asimov, not dumb books for dumb girls about dumb girls (and Dukes and Tycoons and Kissing and Stuff) but hey, there was nothing else to read; so we decided to give them a try for the sake of mockery.

And mock them I did, but guiltily. The truth is that most of those books were pretty silly… but I loved them. I freaking LOVED them. And none did I love more than THE MAN OUTSIDE.

This story didn’t seem dumb to me. The heroine was admirable, engaged in an interesting profession–one that was important to the plot. The hero wasn’t an aristocrat or a millionaire, but a brilliant antisocial nerd—and his brains and lack of social skills were central to the plot. The rest of the characters were likable, smart people, with skills and personalities of their own—and their likability and intelligence and variety and how all those things interacted… that WAS the plot.

I must have (secretly) read this book three times over that week. And when we left my grandparents’, I (covertly) smuggled it home. For a month I read it over and over, until one day at the public library, I screwed up my courage and pulled an armful of grownup books with heart stickers on the spines. And the checkout librarian didn’t say anything, didn’t raise an eyebrow, didn’t hit the red button under her desk that would set off the ALERT ALERT INNOCENT FEMALE ABOUT TO BE BRAINWASHED BY THE PATRIARCHY alarm.

I was hooked.

I never gave up my beloved spaceships and dragons, mind you; and later I learned about suspense and and true crime and history and all sorts of other genres, and I even found myself picking up a classic or work of literary fiction on purpose, but romance (especially Gothics and Heyer derivatives) always remained my go-to comfort reads. I became a librarian and the Internet crept out of the science labs into my workspace, and there were other readers LIKE ME and they introduced me to sexy contemporaries and chick lit and paranormals and m/m and shojo / josei manga… and that tattered Harlequin paperback was long lost somewhere in a dozen moves, and I didn’t give a thought for [redacted] decades until a thread over at SBTB asked “what trope is a sure-fire guarantee for you?” and I thought “Intelligent heroines doing interesting things. Brilliant, socially inept heroes. A quiet, character-driven plot that sneaks up on you and WHUPS YOU UPSIDE THE FEELS.”

And I remembered A MAN OUTSIDE.

Well, to be honest I remembered “That Harlequin I read that summer at Grandma’s, what was it called?” I remembered the cover; I remembered so many plot elements and scenes and passages word-for-word; I remembered how it made me smile and sigh and elicited Good Book Noise ™. But I couldn’t remember the title (I kept thinking it was A MAN APART, which turns out to be another of your books, along with MAN IN THE NEXT ROOM, A MAN CALLED MALLORY, and A MAN TO WATCH – I guess you like “men”?) or your name, and even with all my mad leet librarian skillz it took one of the Bitchery pointing me to the omniscient Fiction Database to finally track it down.

I ordered a used copy and held my breath. Would it hold up to my memories? Or would it, like so many books I remember with nostalgic affection, have been tarnished by the Suck Fairy?

Reader, I freaking LOVED it.

So that’s hundreds of words about me; when am I finally going to talk about your book?

Polly Blair is a lucky girl. Lucky because she is pretty and smart and kind; lucky that she could pursue a career in archeology; lucky that she loves and is loved by Clive Rounsley, celebrity archeologist, with his Viking good looks and charisma to burn. Lucky above all that she is always aware of how lucky she is, grateful for it, and eager to share affection, acceptance, and happiness with everyone who lacked it, from injured animals to lost souls.

If Polly at this point sounds rather saccharine and soppy, that’s because she is. She’s redeemed, though, by her self-awareness, and her ability to laugh at herself; as a result, she comes across as one of those rare but memorable people who is authentically nice; and I can’t help liking her.

It doesn’t hurt that you give her something interesting to do. Clive invites her as pottery specialist for his excavation of potential Viking ruins on a remote Scottish island, and most of the story involves the day-to-day operations on the dig. I don’t know how many readers would be enthralled by the gritty (and muddy) details, the tidbits of history, science, and folklore you include; but I was fascinated as a nerdy kid, and after participating in real-life fieldwork, it’s both realistic and entertaining. The gender balance on the excavation team, both specialists and students, is gratifying, and I enjoyed both their camaraderie and the tensions between two scientists with very different styles.

Because, even though Clive is director and star, funding depends on renowned geologist Piers Hargreaves.

Piers is no standard issue Alpha romance hero. He isn’t ripped or handsome (in fact, he’s repeatedly described as “skinny” and “ugly”), he’s anything but charming or magnetic. Okay, he’s rich, but nobody seems to care. What is emphasized over and over is his brains; and bless you, Ms Donnelly, you don’t just tell us that, you show Piers being brilliant: effortlessly calling up rarified information, exploring offbeat possibilities, making obscure connections, and achieving amazing results. Not to mention his eidetic memory, which inspires this cute banter when Piers admits to Polly that he can’t cook:

So there is something you’re not an expert on,” she smiled.

“Any number of things,” he said.

“Although you could always read a cookery book. You’d never forget a recipe.”

“I could read a book on the bicycle, but I’d still fall off a bike, and I doubt if a book on Casanova would turn me into a great lover.” [84]

If it isn’t obvious, Piers is the eponymous “man outside”. For all his academic prowess, Piers is socially… not even withdrawn, but entirely disconnected. If this had been written today, he probably would be described as somewhere on the autism spectrum; but forty years ago it had to be explained with an Angsty Background. Whatever the result, he doesn’t interact socially with other people; he doesn’t know how, and he hasn’t the slightest interest in learning.

Polly, with her instinctive affinity for strays and outcasts, is determined to befriend him. Clive makes a joking bet that she’ll have no luck at it; and thus the plot is set in motion.

Most of that plot is delightfully quotidian: Polly works on the site, cuddles with Clive, hangs out with her colleagues, gets to know the (stereotypically eccentric) islanders. By sheer persistence she gradually wears Piers into accepting her company; and as the two slowly get to know each other, they start to become friends.

Friendship, for Piers, is an earth-shattering revelation. He finds himself telling Polly things he’d told no one else. He concerns himself with her happiness. And, through caring about Polly, he starts to care about other people.

When he arranges for Polly to go home for a quick visit, he exerts himself to be agreeable:

Clive would have been flabbergasted to know that Doreen was impressed, but then Piers Hargreaves had never tried to impress anyone before. That day people were impressed. They were Polly’s friends he met, and because of that they were not cardboard cut-outs; he wanted their approval. He made himself pay attention to them, and he found the exercise rewarding. [120]

It’s at this point that a sweet friendship story turns into a romance; and things, predictably, get Complicated. But when I came back to this book after so many years of romance reading, I was impressed at how many predictable “complications” are subtly subverted.

Yes, there is a beautiful Other Woman who tries to make mischief—but everyone sees through her games and pities her; the person who actually sows discord does so out of love and misplaced concern. Yes, as designated Romantic Rivals, Piers has to triumph over Clive—but this victory is quite literally academic; and while Clive is revealed to be shallow and vain, he is never the villain, and the reader ends up feeling sorrier for him than he does for himself.

And yes, there is classic Big Misunderstanding at the root of the conflict—but it isn’t really a misunderstanding; Polly absolutely did exactly what she is accused of, for the motives ascribed. It isn’t a mistake, or an injustice, or a failure to communicate. The real issue is whether Piers (and Polly!) can come to terms with what she did … and with her being the kind of person who would do it again.

That, ultimately, is why THE MAN OUTSIDE has a permanent place on my keeper shelf. Piers’ character arc is certainly more dramatic and traditionally “romantic”. But it’s Polly’s emotional growth that brings me back. She begins as a sweet uncomplicated girl, joyful and kind because she is “lucky” in all that she does. Then her luck turns sour; acting on her deepest, most generous instincts, she hurts—hurts horribly—someone who matters to her. Through her actions, because of her very nature, she seems to lose what she loves most.

Yet Polly never crumbles. She suffers, and she grieves. She fights for what she wants: not by demands nor by manipulation, but by taking responsibility and returning honesty. She offers her self, all of her self, but ONLY her self; she doesn’t try to become someone else in hopes of “winning” anyone’s love. She remains a daughter, a friend, a professional; she accepts a pain that feels like it will kill her and lives. She grows beyond a “lucky girl”, and becomes a woman of grace.

I must admit that anyone who decides to hunt down a used copy of this book may well decide I’ve pulled too many ponderous implications from the shallow well of simple formulaic “escapist” fare. I don’t want to make out your story to be more awesome than it is. It is a category romance, with many of the faults of the genre: the prose can be flat, far too often telling rather than showing, with a dreadful weakness for head-hopping and confusing flashbacks. The brevity imposed by the format dramatically shortchanges the ending: the impact of astonishing archaeological discoveries are summarized in a few paragraphs, and the final romantic reconciliation happens with startling abruptness (if with a completely satisfactory thoroughness).

Nonetheless, like a baby duckling mistakenly hatched by a chicken, I’ve completely imprinted on THE MAN OUTSIDE. When reading romance, I want to identify with heroines as honest, as intelligent, as unself-consciously generous as Polly. I yearn for a hero as geeky, as self-deprecating, as completely uninterested in alpha games as Piers. I am bored by romantic conflicts driven by external dangers, by stupid errors, by childish self-pity. I am thrilled by narratives that develop naturally from the personalities of the protagonists and those around them.

More than anything, I want to watch a love that grows not from lust, but from genuine liking. While I have nothing against sexual acrobatics, even the hottest encounters do nothing for me if they don’t express the intimacy of the emotional connection. I’ve never read an erotic scene that, for me, has anything like the charge of this chaste exchange:

”You’d better stay by me, I need your eyes to see Mr. Quinton as he probably is.”

She turned smiling eyes with their fringe of dark lashes on him. “My eyes?” she said.

“You,” he said. “I need you.”[121]

Sigh…

And now I want to read it again.

Grade: How can I be fair? A- for the characters and the emotional intensity; probably a C for mechanics and craft; average it out to a respectable B-.

Sincerely,

hapax

 

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REVIEW:  A Deeper Dimension by Amanda Carpenter

REVIEW: A Deeper Dimension by Amanda Carpenter

Dear Ms. Carpenter:

It’s always interesting to see romance authors reinvent themselves in a new genre or subgenre. I had just finished a “Thea Harrison” paranormal romance, so was primed to compare it to this much older work originally published as Amanda Carpenter. There is a similarity in the focus on external plotlines concerning the larger world — here, it’s the steel industry, rather than Fae politics. Other than that… well, this a category romance published 30 years ago, with all that implies.

deeperYou could tell A Deeper Dimension was an older Harlequin just from that lovely title. Alliterative, euphonious — even relevant to the plot, by golly! The “deeper dimension” is what Alex tries to convince Diana that she’s missing from life, in her refusal to become emotionally involved with people.

Diana begins her job as Alexander Mason’s executive assistant with some apprehension. She’s straight out of graduate school, and it’s still a male dominated field. But she quickly makes a place for herself by taking charge during an industry crisis, and grows increasingly close to her intense, energetic boss. Her attraction to him is unnerving however, “a threat to her strength of personality.” An abandoned baby who was bought up in the foster care system, the aptly named Diana is proud of her self-sufficiency, and afraid of human closeness:

She had never had any warmth or affection shown to her and she didn’t know how to take it… In Alex, she glimpsed a world alien to that which she had always known.

The story is told almost entirely from Diana’s point of view, but Alex’s warm feelings for her come through in his teasing, and his consideration for her well-being. (As well as occasional friendly kisses, which apparently was so appropriate between a boss and his assistant in 1983 that even Diana isn’t freaked out by them.) But Diana tenses when he tries to get closer to her:

“I think you’re right to count on yourself to pull you through a crisis. But there is a better way of life than that, Diana. You did fine when you had to survive, but that’s all you know how to do, survive. I’ve seen too many examples of another way of life, a better and deeper…”

“We had a pleasant day, didn’t we?” she interrupted. He fell silent as she continued, walking away. “I think you’d better leave it at that.”

After that the story goes in a pretty typical direction, with accusations of coldness, forced kisses, and even Alex shaking Diana. (Speaking as someone who’s read many old categories, it could be a lot worse.) The resolution of their conflict comes about in a startlingly melodramatic way, which feels out of place with the more low-key, realistic tone of the rest of the book.

As in many workplace romances, casual sexism and sexual harassment runs rampant in this story. At their first meeting, Alex jokingly tells Diana, “And don’t you ever call me ‘sir’ in that tone of voice, my girl, or I’ll turn you over my knee — yes, all six feet of you, and whack you over the bottom.” Although she could use some consciousness raising, Diana does often stand up for herself, asserting at one point, “I will not be taken for granted, nor will I be railroaded into something as if my wishes don’t matter! I mean more to me that that!” Since Alex is not an unmitigated jerk, the asshole:doormat ratio is actually surprisingly good.

A Deeper Dimension has very positive reviews amongst the Harlequin lovers at GoodReads, which makes me suspect I’m not the best audience for it — especially since I have a severe allergy to most lighthearted banter, which is how much of the courtship happens. My guess is that it’s also not likely to appeal to most “Thea Harrison” readers, unless they’re already fond of old categories and workplace romances, and aren’t disappointed with a “kisses only” story. For me, it was an okay read. C.

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