Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
As anticipated, my first two books of 2020 were Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. They could hardly be more different, but of their kinds, they are both, I think, excellent.
Love Lettering has many of the same qualities that have made Clayborn’s previous books–the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ trilogy–my favorite contemporary romance series. Interestingly (to me, anyway!), these are qualities that actually dulled the books’ impact at first. Clayborn gives her characters a lot of specificity, both in their personalities and in their activities. This means a lot of backstory and also a lot of neepery (which, as I’ve figured out, is one of my favorite things). In Beginner’s Luck, for instance, one of the protagonists, Kit, is a lab technician, which I suppose might sound a bit dry, but Clayborn does a good job conveying the interest and satisfaction she finds in her job, as well as explaining the scientific work she is also involved in. In the same novel, the other lead character, Ben, helps out at his father’s salvage business–again, maybe not the first thing you’d think of as a romantic setting, but I really enjoy the details about the bits and pieces of lights and fixtures and furniture and their restoration. All this stuff isn’t just background, though: Clayborn is really deft at assembling elements that both further her story and work symbolically within it. In Beginner’s Luck, Ben is puttering away at re-assembling an elaborate chandelier: by the end of the novel it’s clear that putting things back together is what both he and Kit are struggling to do, in their different ways.
The first time I read Beginner’s Luck I felt that there was so much going on that it got a bit distracting. Maybe this has something to do with my expectations for romance: though there is a lot of emotional intensity in Clayborn’s novels, the central relationship is embedded in a lot of what seemed like padding. It turns out, though, that for me anyway this is exactly what makes her books fun to reread, as more of the novels’ patterns–the connections between their parts–become clearer over time. At the same time, it’s the emotional intensity that means I give a pass to what might otherwise bother me about them, which is that the love story relies (more so in the second and third books in the trilogy than the first) on an initial set-up that seems, if you think about it hard at all, pretty contrived or unlikely. This is especially true of Luck of the Draw, which has nonetheless turned out to be my favorite of the trilogy.
It is also definitely true of Love Lettering, where the relationship between the main characters, Meg and Reid, depends on his implausibly accepting an invitation that I can’t quite imagine anyone actually extending to a virtual stranger. However! Once they get started, their slow-growing friendship plays out in a beautifully nuanced way, their uneasy unfamiliarity teetering bit by bit into trust, pleasure, and of course, ultimately, love. Here too there’s a lot going on in context and character development, especially around Meg’s work doing hand lettering. Clayborn gives us a lot of detail about that work, but it never feels like she’s doing the dreaded “info-dump”: instead, Meg’s interest, her vocation, permeates her first-person narration. She sees lettering everywhere, both literally and when people talk to her–or when she and Reid kiss for the first time:
He shifts, lets his lips rest softly against my cheekbone, and instead of pressing them there, he rubs them back and forth once, as light as a strand of my own hair in the wind, and I see that word, too, drawn in the same pink that’s the color of my natural blush, the pink I turn when I’m warm or embarrassed or aroused. The t, the w, the o, all of them a heavily sloped italic. All of them on the way to somewhere.
It’s a kind of sensual synesthesia that is also elicited for her in a more aesthetic and intellectual way by her relationship with New York–which the novel is also a love letter to, as Meg and Reid’s romance unfolds as they explore the streets in search of inspiration in its billboards, awnings, and facades. Love Lettering turns out to be a novel all about reading signs, literal but also metaphorical and personal; this concept ties together its various subplots, as does the characters’ related struggle to express themselves clearly–to signal their own meaning. My only complaint about the novel is that the ending, which includes a long-deferred revelation about Reid, seemed both a bit rushed and a bit out of sync with the mood or style of the rest of the book. That revelation is also the reason we don’t get the alternating points of view Clayborn used in all three of her previous books. I liked Meg a lot, but it felt a bit odd for a romance to be so completely one-sided. Now that I know everything, however, I will be able to infer a lot more about what is really going on with Reid when I reread it, which I am bound to do before long.
The Witch Elm has been written about a lot elsewhere; of the reviews I’ve read, I think Laura Miller’s in Slate comes closest to what I thought about it. I know some people have found it too long or too purposeless, for its first half at least, and so not particularly gripping. Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post concludes her actually fairly positive review a bit crushingly: “I’d say that without any “bang, bang” for hundreds of pages, “The Witch Elm” becomes “boring, boring.” I definitely did not find it boring! Toby’s voice worked for me from the start, though having read Tana French before I knew better than to take him completely at face value. I liked the patient progress of the story through the initial harrowing attack on Toby to the muted Gothic atmosphere of the Ivy House. Once the skull turned up I had (unusually, for me!) lots of theories about how it got there and who was implicated–and French teased me with plenty of hints and possibilities that fit and then contradicted each of them. Toby’s wavering sense of self brought layers to the novel, both philosophical and psychological. “They’re unsettled and they’re frightened,” Uncle Hugo says about the people who hire him to research their genealogies after unexpected DNA results; “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way.” That’s Toby’s situation too, eventually, trying to figure out the truth about himself when other people’s accounts of him don’t square with his own. For him too, the result may not be reassuring–but what French conveys so well is that his very craving for stability, for confirmation, for certainty about his own identity, is itself a potent destructive force.
My only quibble with The Witch Elm is that the story about the skull in the tree eventually comes out in a really dull way (narratively speaking – the facts are plenty shocking): Toby just gets told it all in a long and inadequately motivated ‘reveal’ scene. I expected the case to be ‘solved’ in some more subtle and artful way. I realize that the novel is not, really, centered on that whodunit aspect but is actually about Toby–who he is, what he has done or not done, what has enabled him to live and think and ignore and forget the way he has. Still, that bit fell flat for me. Things took another dramatic turn soon after, though, and the novel’s denouement overall was very satisfactory.
So there we are: two new books for the new year, both good ones. What’s next? Well, for one, Pride and Prejudice, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class on Friday.