Signet, $6.50, ISBN 0-451-20036-5
Historical Romance, 2000
The Grand Hotel has two masterpieces. And worse, the works by Carla Kelly and Elisabeth Fairchild, both startlingly emotional and satisfying, open the anthology. Therefore, the ones by Allison Lane, Barbara Metzger, and Anne Barbour – with all their stereotypical glory – don’t have a chance at all to make their mark on my memory. In fact, my expectations and exhilaration, raised especially by Carla Kelly’s The Background Man, takes a plummet the moment Elisabeth Fairchild’s story ends. What happens next isn’t a pretty sight, but suffice to say, I am mad enough in my disappointment to chew on iron bolts.
Carla Kelly’s gem tells the story of Charles Mortimer, the deputy manager of the Grand Hotel. He has trained himself so well to be the perfect background man, one who solves problems of the guests efficiently yet manages to remain in the background enough to be forgotten soon enough by the people. Then one day he sees an ordinary-looking female guest, but to his eyes, she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. The perfect background man has finally come to life.
Now this story is a masterpiece. The Background Man is utterly charming in its descriptions of Charles’s coming to life and into the foreground, all written in graceful, elegant prose enhanced by gentle and warm humor. There are many little moments that make me hold my breath in delight; tiny moments that resonate in romantic tension, yet perfect in their simplicity and elegance.
Such as Charles’s voice breaking into a falsetto as he forgets the reception book, the pen, and definitely hotel staff rules as he gazes at the face of Miss Millicent Carrington. Even then, he hopes she isn’t married, because it would be a darned nuisance to be called out by enraged hubbies. Charles isn’t a ladies man, and his one experience in war, in India, has taught him to appreciate his life. But with Millie, well, his common sense has taken flight.
So you are rising thirty, he thought as he watched her go. Thirty never looked so good to me. Are blondes still in fashion? How should I know? I love brown hair. And freckles? Miss Carrington, I love those too.
The Background Man restores my faith that yes, somewhere out there there are authors that still write about people falling in love, and write it they do in simple, elegant prose devoid of irritating stereotypical characters and heroines who just cannot do anything without stumbling in their guilt and insecurities. Millie is a fine woman with wit and intelligence, a great match for Charles. But Charles, oh funny and practical and wistful Charles whose sense of humor is just a delight? I think I’m in love.
Elisabeth Fairchild follows that with Love Will Find the Way, a touching story of second time love. During the war, James Forrester fell in love. He fell in love with his best friend’s wife, whom he has never seen or met until now. He fell for her from his best friend Archie’s stories about Annabelle Grant, and more so when he had to write Archie’s letters for him after the man was blinded. Annabelle’s letters and her fidelity, constancy, and strength captivated him.
Now, Archie has died a war hero, and James meet his friend’s widow for the first time in Grand Hotel. He tries to muster up courage to propose to her, but she is still haunted by memories.
Love Will Find the Way is extraordinary in that it manages to drive home the poignancy of rediscovering love second time around (on Annabelle’s part) while driving home the fact that, in war, everyone loses a part of himself, be he the victor or loser. Annabelle is a sympathetic and very well-fleshed character, and best of all, she and Archie truly love each other. There is no last moment cop-out like an “Oh, I just remembered that Archie is a no-good adulterous wife-beater, so good riddance!” Even as she kisses James tenderly in her new happy ending, there is always Archie, dear Archie who always love challenges, whom Annabelle knew would be glad to know that she has moved on. In fact, nothing about this story is convenient – the emotional turbulence rings real and there is no easy resolution unless the main characters look into their souls and forgive themselves and let go of their past.
Then come the other three stories. All those insecure, overly-unbending-virtuous-to-the-point-of-stupidity heroines in their quest for a sex life. Barbara Metzger’s The Management Requests is charming in its humor and painful in its trite use of all those stereotypical characters (the rake, the ninny, the sex-mad foreigner, etc etc etc). But more painful is the double-combo Lil’ Broke Orphan Ninny Heroine Finding New Family (and Lots of $$$) and New Boyfriend thingies from Allison Lane (Promises to Keep) and Anne Barbour (The Castaway). Lots of heroines in stuffed shirts wringing their hands in their mission to Stick to Promises and Be A Good Martyr. Anne Barbour’s one has a heroine trying to fleece her way into moneydom by masquerading as a long-lost heiress of a rich family. The story is predictable – eventually she chickens out out of guilt but hey ho, turns out she is the heiress. Yawn. And Promises to Keep is standard Lil’ Poor Annie Hall finds Rich Family crap complete with sex-mad villains and all.
Memo to authors submitting stories to anthologies: if you’re going to send in trite, cliché-ridden stories with stereotypical characters, may I suggest checking to make sure that your colleague isn’t submitting a delightful, original piece? It will make your work stand out like sore thumb as a dud.