Rambly Rambly Book Gush
I am going to go straight out and say that Deeanne Gist hasn’t always been a favourite read of mine. Not her writing ability, so much as her heroines and the conventional wrap-up and message of her stories. But,I read them all. I guess because I saw some spark I knew might be one day fully realized.
I followed her from her Bethany House days to Howard and found that I enjoyed the Fair books more than I had her previous books. We are, thought I, on the right track. Maybe because she had moved away from ( there's nothing wrong with this ) a more conservative inspirational publisher and had a little more wiggle room.
Then, Tiffany Girl came along. And this is the book that, I think, Gist was meant to write and it makes the statements I wish she had made throughout her entire fictional career. You see, Gist’s previous romances hedged on the happy ending. As was part and parcel of the demographic she was writing for and the convention she was writing in ( again, nothing wrong with this) but both present an odd paradox for a romantically inclined feminist. I often find myself at a bit of a complicated odds in my reading life: for while I love romance, I am a bit of a complex contradiction, sad often that the heroine’s life really STARTS when she weds and the independence and spirit that saw her to that eventuality sometimes gets tucked under a carpet of domesticity. Of course---and slightly tangential here---we have series like Thoene’s Zion Covenant where Elisa and Murphy are just as exciting to watch after marriage as before. Raybourn's City of Jasmine is another example of this trope working well. The same with the Scarlet Pimpernel, where the marriage off-sets a romance more dazzling than before.
But, for the most part, the happily ever after sealed the deal with Gist’s heroines and I found myself thinking a bit of them had died. The prose and story waltzed around the eventuality of marriage. Rightly so, as this was the focal point of so many women’s stories in historical periods. But, I digress....
Here, Gist decides to invert the trope that she so long fictionally subscribed to and, in what I find a brilliant tongue-in-cheek colouring outside the lines ( brilliantly paired, here, with the artistry motif) she writes a treatise on the very thing that made her career: the romance ending in marriage.
Flossie is not your ordinary girl. Instead, she is believably complex. Like so many women she is torn between her desire for her husband and children as well as her passion for her art. When she is offered the chance to be a Tiffany Girl: to work the stained glass for the grand exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, she grabs it at the reins. (Note: this is brilliant because while so much fiction in the CBA market focuses on the actual fair, this is in the periphery ---art meant to be displayed there that gives us a bustling New York backdrop). Despite the reservations of her parents, who have supported her interest in art and her artistic schooling to this point in hopes she would give it up for a husband and babies, she moves out to become a New Woman and takes up residence in a boarding house.
For the first half or so of the novel what we see realized is one of my favourite types of story: an almost bildungsroman of a woman trying to fit into a mould that she is not meant for. Flossie is certain that her intrinsic ideals are well-matched with the New Woman archetype and yet she is not a character who can be fit into a type. She immediately falls back on cordial hospitality: befriending the boarders and setting up little dinner parties and games.
Reeve Wilder ( note: by far Gist’s best hero and one of my favs of the year) is not under Flossie’s spell. He thinks New Women are like to undermine and overhaul all that is sacred about motherhood, home life and family. His dark and lonely past help realistically inform his distrust of this new model of women and he speaks out quite plainly against Flossie. Yet, they are neighbours, and while he cannot advocate for her lifestyle, he is intrigued by the light that surrounds her, her artistic sensibility and the warmth that imbues every single person in the boarding house.
There are charming scenes where Flossie pricks away at Reeve’s icy exterior just as there are scenes involving Reeve and an elderly widow --- where we get to see the true treasure behind the New Woman rant and spiels.
Both characters are --as I feel so often as a reader/ woman ---contradictions. Brilliant, befuddling contradictions as so many of us! Real, fleshy human beings with hopes and flaws. Do they grow? Absolutely.
When Reeve begins writing a fictionalized serial about a New Woman, modeled on Flossie, of course, the book's ideologies slowly start to shift and its stern yet subtly woven statement begins to emerge.
Everyone wants a happy ending for the fictional heroine. And a happy ending for fictional serialized girl means giving up her photography business ( for what married woman can work!) and falling into marital bliss. The editor basically tells Reeve he has set the story up for this moment. This trapping is the only seeming resolution for two characters of 1890s New York. Of course, the readers expect the same. But something has changed. Reeve has begun to understand why women want to make their own money, why women want to pursue their passions and leave their indelible marks outside of the expectations and industry of men. Reeve has begun to see why Flossie wants what she wants.
The desire is not to overthrow him, the desire is for her to be herself—have her own passion and dreams.
In ingenious parallel, meta-fictional and fictional worlds collide and intertwine.
There is some confusion, some dancing, some spats, some cute moments and a few kisses ( much hotter, with innuendo-ed language that far outweighs any further descriptive) and the metaphor of doors being open and closed.
There are ups and downs as Flossie learns that her passion for her art and her natural skills are at odds with each other. She recognizes that she is average. Quite remarkable for a woman in a historical fiction novel, where we pride ourselves on women who break boundaries and excel. She does these things, yes, but on a small scale.
And Reeve....well Reeve.... learns what it is to let his guard down. And he writes some more and she finds herself in his words – and not in words crafted around her caricature, where her flaws and contradictions are paraded, but in soft, dulcet tones.
And romance ensues.
Real, toe-tingly romance.
And we whirl and twirl and Blue Danube our way into a pattern that is so familiar and that is exhumed so expertly into marital and domestic certainty…..and yet….
This book may have lost me if it had not been able to maintain its equilibrium between the two characters. This book is romantic feminism at its best when it works with the often explored theme of shared marital finances.
Reeve and Flossie are not of a time period where they can shake the world to such extent it turns on its ear. Reeve and Flossie are not of a time where women can work and still be married. But, Gist is brilliant enough to assuage convention by carefully threading what true independence and collaboration mean. And, for her, and for her characters, this is deftly interwoven in terms of money, earnings and how married couples divide property. There are limitations, but these are not the days of pin money and rescinded property.
So she makes her statement and it is better still because it is historically plausible. We know that Reeve and Flossie are part of a chugging motion that will echo into the future and bring us to the point where we are at today: a point where women with independent passions and means outside of familial life are advocated for as much as those who choose marriage and families.
I suppose ( and I thought of this continually while writing) , part of the reason I always read Gist’s books is because the historical accuracy and research is resplendent. From basketball to trolley assaults, she outdoes herself here.
I also want to make note of the inspirational content. Gist was indeed an inspirational author. This is very much a general market book. There is nothing christian about this story. Save in its subtle themes ( i.e., Reeve pays Flossie’s debt at one point, anonymously and without wanting payment). However, she keeps all *ahem* action behind closed doors. That doesn’t detract from the sexual tension, though. It is palpable. (okay, so there’s this hot scene where Flossie arrives in the middle of the night chilled to the bone from wandering in a blizzard and boarding house mate Reeve has waited up for her and he rubs her feet so they don’t get frostbite. And this is, like, the sexiest thing since Willoughby helped Marianne Dashwood with a sprained ankle or since Dick Dewy and Fancy Day washed their hands together in Under the Greenwood Tree)
"Instead, he found her mouth again and wrapped his arms clear around her. "Open your mouth, magpie."
He kissed her, really kissed her. She made mewling sounds. She raked her fingers through his hair. She twisted against him. Bracketing his ears, she pushed his mouth away. "I thought I was going to die during the photos!"
"That's the whole point of being a New Woman. They don't want to be reduced to housewifery. They feel it would take away everything that is special about them."
"Well, now she really was a New Woman and also in love. Neither looked even remotely like her fantasies."