Showing posts with label Gone With The Wind. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gone With The Wind. Show all posts

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gone With The Wind - Musings

What Is Romance?
Whenever I take a poll or fill out a questionnaire or a profile that asks about my favorite book, I always answer: Gone With The Wind. It's also one of my favorite movies, mostly because it adheres so closely to the book. AND it's my favorite romance.

Even though it's not exactly a romance. If it were written today, it would not be sold as a genre romance. It's too long; it doesn't have a happy ending, and I'd be surprised if Scarlett's many marriages survived the editor's pen. Maybe the first one to Charles (but she'd somehow still be a virgin when he died). Scarlett's infatuation with Ashley would also be an unusual element in a modern historical.

Nevertheless, Gone With The Wind started me off on a lifetime love affair with romance and it set a high standard. I have often boiled down my criteria for a truly transcendent romance as this: "Do I believe the hero and heroine are absolutely MADE for each other?"

GWTW is a book I've re-read many, many times. Through most of my teenage years and early twenties, it was my summer vacation book. I re-read it every summer. One year, I also read biographies of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Somehow in my head I was trying to make the story true.

I first fell in love with Scarlett. I identified with her daddy's-girl issues; with her first-born impatience with younger sisters and deeply pragmatic streak of do-what-must-be-done. I coveted that green sprigged dress and her ability to make boys notice her. I loved how she went after and got what she wanted; how she bucked convention and did wtf she wanted to, what any fool could see that she needed to do to survive. How she understood that the old pre-war conventions could not survive.

I liked Rhett because he was worthy of her. He let her have fun when no one else would. He loved her for all the things that her social circle frowned on, things that made her what she was. And he was a fun hero; a swashbuckling privateer; handsome; utterly un-intimidate-able.

I can't pinpoint exactly when it was that my perception of the characters started to change. Sometime in my 20's, it hit me really hard that Scarlett was only sixteen when the book opens, which wasn't so crazy, but that she was not even twenty when the war ended, and perhaps 26 at the end of the book. She was so young to go through everything she went through.

And then I started looking at Rhett's character, and how he always stood back and "gave Scarlett her head," as they used to say a lot in historicals; how he let her pretty much do and be exactly what she needed to. I noticed his tender side, that he showed to Melanie and Belle Watling and Mammy, but never to Scarlett, lest she plant it squarely with a delicate green morocco leather slipper. He knew her, understood her in ways that both helped and hurt his case as a lover. He waited for her to grow up. And waited.

Scarlett never treated Rhett like a lover or a suitor - he didn't fall into step with her plans. He was really almost more of a father figure; someone she could turn to for help, to lean on when everyone around her was leaning on her. In fact, she treated him pretty shabbily, reacting to what she saw as him being "mean" to her -- ie, not groveling at her feet.

Her infatuation with Ashley, and along with it, her emotional maturity, was stunted by the war and never played itself out as an adolescent crush normally would. Rhett knew better than to set himself up as competition to a phantom, but waiting it out took longer than anyone could have imagined. Part of Mitchell's genius is that as readers, none of us want Ashley and Scarlett together. We know, as Rhett and Melanie both know, that Ashley would never make her happy.

This bit here, where she accepts Rhett's proposal, I think sums up the push-pull tension between them perfectly:

"And you are the only man I ever saw who could stand the truth from a woman, and it would be nice having a husband who didn't think me a silly fool and expect me to tell lies-- and-- well, I am fond of you."

"Fond of me?"

"Well," she said fretfully, "if I said I was madly in love with you I'd be lying and what's more, you'd know it."

"Sometimes I think you carry your truth telling too far, my pet. Don't you think, even if it was a lie, that it would be appropriate for you to say 'I love you, Rhett,' even if you didn't mean it?"

What was he driving at, she wondered, becoming more confused. He looked so queer, eager, hurt, mocking. He took his hands from her and shoved them deep in his trouser pockets and she saw him ball his fists.

"If it costs me a husband, I'll tell the truth," she thought grimly, her blood up as always when he baited her.

"Rhett, it would be a lie, and why should we go through all that foolishness? I'm fond of you, like I said. you know how it is. You told me once that you didn't love me but that we had a lot in common. Both rascals, was the way you--"

"Oh, God!" he whispered rapidly, turning his head away. "To be taken in my own trap!"

"What did you say?"

"Nothing," and he looked at her and laughed, but it was not a pleasant laugh. "Name the day, my dear," and he laughed again and bent and kissed her hands. She was relieved to see his mood pass and good humor apparently return, so she smiled too."

She's not spiteful, she's genuinely clueless.

The theme in the book that totally fascinates me is the polarization of "earthy love," or sex, and what they used to call "courtly love" in Eleanor of Aquitaine's time. You see the dichotomy everywhere in the book-- in the first paragraph:
In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father."

And on the same page:
But for all the modesty of her spreading skirts, the demureness of hair netted smoothly into a chignon and the quietness of small white hands folded in her lap, her true self was poorly concealed. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous appearance.

While Ashley is the man she thinks she should love, with his intellectual ideals and angelic looks, Rhett is the one she wants with her heart and body-- and she rejects that desire because she aspires to her mother's unattainable ideals, and associates her desire for Rhett with her father's lower-class influence. Ashley sees Melanie as his courtly ideal, but is tempted by Scarlett's earthiness-- and when Scarlett realizes this, she's mortified.

Anyway, that's a tangent I can wax on about for way longer than that -- it's everywhere in the book and constantly leads Scarlett astray as she tries to resolve the two incompatible needs. (I also like discussing how Melanie represents the grace and weakness of the past while Scarlett is the youthful, strong, but crass and sometimes ugly progress of the future, but that doesn't have much to do with the romance question).

Happily Ever After
I really do want -- nay, demand, the HEA with my modern genre romance. I still remember the one I read in the 80's by Danielle Steele that killed off the hero. WTF, Danielle Steele? YOU CAN'T DO THAT. But let's remember, the "rules" of genre romance developed quite a bit after 1939. There's a certain perception that sadness is worthier than happiness; that tragedy is more intellectually satisfying that comedy. That making someone cry is deep but making them smile is shallow.

I think that perception persists today; you'll find it wherever literary snobs who've never looked further than the Fabio cover of a romance declare the entire genre unworthy. I mean, we know better.

But let's not go too far the other way. Just because there isn't a happy ending doesn't mean the story isn't romantic. That the love story isn't amazing and emotionally wrenching. Kristie writes that without that HEA, it's just not a romance. I will agree that a tragic ending means that the story doesn't really provide what I am usually looking for in a genre romance. But the sad ending doesn't negate the romance of the emotional journey.

There's a bit here at the end of the story that just give me chills, it makes me ache so hard for Scarlett:
She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever really understood anyone in the world.

Who among us cannot relate to that feeling? If you can't, consider yourself very, very fortunate.

And the end is not unambiguously tragic. It's true that Rhett's dumping of Scarlett has all the hallmarks of utter finality, as even she comprehends it. But still...
There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.

"I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."

I wouldn't underestimate her.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Author Profile: Judith McNaught

Rhett and Scarlett. Jamie and Claire. Heathcliff and Cathy. Bogie and Bacall.

And Clayton and Whitney. And Julie and Zachary. And Ian and Elizabeth.

Don’t ask me why I haven’t read Whitney, My Love until now. Maybe I thought I’d already read it. Maybe McNaught needs a new blurb-writer (because based on the blurb I’d totally have passed). Maybe I’ve been avoiding McNaught thinking she was someone else. And sometimes I get all perverse and contrary and avoid something just because everyone else is telling me how great it is.

I make mistakes sometimes. It happens. Can you forgive me?

Whitney My Love is a bit of a slow starter, especially if you’re used to more contemporary pacing. Even worse, the plotting revolves around repeated “Big Misunderstandings,” which almost always puts a book into my dud category.

However, what not merely redeems WML but elevates it into the all-time favorite category, is McNaught’s ability to convince me that the hero and heroine are made for each other. Not just as in: “oh, he’s just perfect for her,” but as in: “these two people are soul mates, they complete each other, they could never be as happy, as fulfilled, with anyone else.” These couples are not pots and lids, they’re yin and yang, two halves a whole, incomplete without each other.

In a typical romance, the character meet each other, and in the course of facing some adversity, they fall in love, overcome the obstacles, and live happily ever after. If I can identify a pattern after only three books (I have a backlog to go through, hurray!), McNaught’s characters fall immediately in love, with a coup de foudre, even… but are then separated, by circumstance or their own folly or both.

To be completely honest, I would like to see a slightly more complex plot. But McNaught takes her time and builds layered, nuanced characters who are so appealing that you want them to behave perfectly. You expect them to do exactly the right thing. But then they do exactly the wrong thing. Really big, wrong things. You’ll be reading along and saying, “OMG, no, don’t do that!! Anything but that!!” even while you see that they really have no other choice.

McNaught is a master at setting up her character's dilemma such that choosing the fatal “X” is the only possible thing they can do if they are to remain true to themselves and to remain the person that their partner fell in love with. How they find their way back to each other, and learn to forgive each other and themselves, constitutes the meat of the story.

It’s very easy to do this badly—it goes something like this: Hero is an absolute paragon except for one fatal flaw: he is set up to hate, absolutely cannot abide, trait X. I mean, no X, no way, no how! Then Hero and Heroine fall in love, but of course, at some point, Hero learns, or is led to believe, that Heroine is an Xer. Or commits X in some way. With a flounce and a fight or what have you, drama ensues. But after some really good, possibly angry sex, he decides to forgive the Xness because he really really really really really really loves her. Wallbanger.

And if she isn’t really X, there was just some Big Misunderstanding about X and she isn’t really an Xer but was afraid to tell him about the apparent Xness and why it wasn’t really X… well, that would be a double-wallbanger. Note that the gender could easily be reversed here.

What keeps McNaught’s books from falling into this trap is the development of the characters to the point where they can forgive each other. It isn’t an out-of-character, false-ringing 180-degree turn for the sake of the HEA; it’s a progression, a dawning acceptance that happens in emotionally gripping stages. WML and Perfect just might be the ultimate character-driven novels. The choices the characters make, the things they do, seem almost inexorable as a result of who they are, and of McNaught’s ability to create such depth of character. In many ways, her books are not about falling in love so much as staying in love.

I was hoping to add something more recent to my selection of her books but I got too impatient to share my thoughts about the three I’ve read so far. So I can’t specifically vouch for everything she’s written, but Whitney, My Love, Almost Heaven, and Perfect are absolutely a gold standard. I might be the last romance fan to figure this out, but if you have somehow missed them too, don’t wait any longer.

And finally, if you’ll forgive a sappy reference:

These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They're the very things - we kill I guess
Pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us
You know it doesn't keep me warm
I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you, baby
And the more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I'd figured out
I have to learn again
I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But everything changes
And my friends seem to scatter
But I think its about forgiveness

Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”

Friday, December 7, 2007

Rhett Butler’s People , by Donald McCaig

OK, quick show of hands: Who thought this book would focus a *little* bit on Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship?

Yeah, me too. It doesn’t, though. So I’m trying to decide if that’s a bad thing.

It started off very promisingly. Although it’s been quite a few years since the last time I read GWTW, when I think about Rhett’s character, I think about a man who is waiting for his true love to grow up and understand what’s right in front of her. A man who never shows weakness and hides his fears and hurts behind sarcasm and wisecracks. A man who loves the beauty of the antebellum Southern aristocracy but sees its darknesses without illusion. But Mitchell never shows us what’s going on inside Rhett’s head except by way of what he says and does in front of her point-of-view characters, mainly (if not exclusively) Scarlett.

So a chance to understand the making of this man, if you will, this iconic Alpha Hero-- well, what lover of romance could resist? Rhett Butler’s People started off, not surprisingly, with the story of his youth, his family, his father, sister, and school friends. Belle Watling plays a surprisingly central and complex role. The book is structured roughly the same way as GWTW: Antebellum, The War, and The Reconstruction. So once we hit his first meeting with Scarlett at Twelve Oaks, I rather expected the story to twine more closely with hers and the original.

Instead, there was a bulk of material about Rhett’s sister Rosemary and a handful of other characters. Details about the blockade-running that Rhett was famous for, scenes from soldiers’ points of view and so on were interesting and well done. Well, OK, the title is not “Rhett Butler;” it’s “Rhett Butler’s People.” So I tried to keep an open mind. I bought the damn hardback; maybe I will read it again and try to think of Rosemary as the main character and not Rhett.

But try as I might, I couldn’t stop wanting this story to be a retelling of the 20th century’s greatest fictional romance from an alternate point of view. Sometimes it seemed like it was trying to be. Most of the time it didn’t. It suffers a lack of focus for the switching around between Rosemary, Rhett, Charlotte, Belle, Belle’s son, Melanie, and various others. Frequent point of view switches to minor characters further confused and diluted the power of this story. More unforgiveably, the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is reduced to platitudes and a superficiality measured in microns. A snip from the scene where he first sees her:

Rhett’s eyes fell on a very young woman in a green dancing frock and his heart surged. “Dear God,” he whispered.

She wasn’t a great beauty: her chin was pointed and her jaw had too much strength. She was fashionably pale—ladies never exposed their skin to the brutal sun—and unusually animated. As Rhett watched, she touched a young buck’s arm both intimately and carelessly.

When the girl felt Rhett’s gaze she looked up. For one scorching second, her puzzled green eyes met his black eyes before she tossed her head dismissively and resumed her flirtation.

Forgotten the looming War. Forgotten the devastation he expected. Hope welled up in Rhett Butler like a healing spring. “My God.” Rhett moistened dry lips. “She’s just like me!”

Yuck. And totally out of character for both Micthell's Rhett and this one, I thought.

Did you believe Rhett when he said, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” ? Did you want to know what happens “tomorrow, at Tara”? I did. I do.

In this version of events, I will say that I liked the way Ashley’s story resolved. I liked the way Belle’s story resolved. I liked the story around Belle’s son, Taz, and I wouldn’t mind reading his story next.

Scarlett and Rhett though, got short shrift, IMO. The final section, a scant 4 or 5 chapters after Scarlett returns to Tara, contains a disappointingly artificial Big Final Conflict with one of Rhett’s old enemies and an almost entirely out-of-character Scarlett, leading to a wholly unbelievable ending (I’m dying to spoiler this but I’m restraining myself).

Overall, a story with good potential but ultimately disappointing. GWTW is an awfully tough act to follow though, so I give Donald McCaig kudos for the attempt, and for building Rhett’s biography.


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