7.05.2010

Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts and writing about professions

Bed of Roses, by Nora RobertsI'm taking Rachel from Common Places' advice and just getting my thoughts out. I apologize if this review sounds a little rushed — because it is. The book was due back at the library three days ago. Whoops.

Bed of Roses, by Nora Roberts, is Book Two in the Bride Quartet, but I'm a rebel and haven't yet read Book One.

This is one of those contemporary romance novels I was talking about that exists in a decadently upper-upper-upper-middle-class American fantasy setting. It's bearable, though, because (a) the characters all work, HARD, for a living and (b) the protagonist's mother was, improbably, a Mexican-nanny-turned-wife.

In fact, as I read any novel, I often like to pretend I'm the film director setting up how I would shoot the book as a screenplay. If I did for Bed of Roses, I'd start with the story of Emma's parents meeting after her father was widowed (instead of that boring sleepover that's supposed to set the scene of the four friends but just kept confusing me as to who was who and which one was going to be the protagonist — maybe I shouldn't have skipped Book One after all). The flashback in the film would be grainy, sepia-toned, and wordless with a dreamy narration, and the romance would be palpable. It would break from there to Emma's face, daydreaming about them — setting up her inability to settle for anything less than pure romance.

Just to sum up my reactions to the novel: I liked it, but I didn't fall head-over-heels with it. Nora Roberts knows how to write, and she's got a varied collection of interesting women in this Bride Quartet.

I find contemporary romances a little harder to swallow than historical, I think because the authors always try so hard to make the heroes manly-men. In historicals, I guess I sort of buy it and figure they might be more nuanced if they lived nowadays. But when people act all macho in a contemporary novel, I just think, "I wouldn't want to know that d-bag." Which is not to say the hero was obnoxious; it's just a general tone I get from most contemporaries, and I didn't feel like this one broke that alpha-male mold.

On the flip side, current contemporaries (contemporary contemporaries?) often try so hard to make sure the female protagonist meets the feminist checklist of being sure of herself, a driven career woman, sexually sophisticated, etc. Which is fine. But often it feels a little bland in itself, like it's compensating for something — like, if we make it really, really clear that the woman is obsessed with her work, then it will be OK she needs sentimentality on the side. Again, just a tad stereotypical. If the macho hero doesn't feel like the type of man I would (did) marry, then that type of heroine doesn't feel like the type of woman I am.

I thought the romantic-plot setup of man-who-can't-commit vs. woman-who-craves-romance was a little … meh. You know, done before.

I don't know. I guess what I'm saying is I didn't particularly connect with either character, but I didn't dislike them, either. They were fine. The book was fine.

But I do want to talk a little about Nora Roberts' skill as a writer, in bringing an interesting profession into the series and doing a skillful job both of researching and writing the details of the business life. The women of the Bride Quartet jointly run the business of Vows, a full-service wedding planning company. Each woman in the quartet is responsible for a different aspect of the business, and Emma is the florist of the bunch (get it?).

Whenever an author needs to do a heap of research for a profession, there's a chance of either of two things going wrong:
  • cramming so many details in there that the readers get bored — it's a story, not a manual
  • being so bare bones that readers don't get a true sense of what the profession is like, or getting an inaccurate (or stereotyped) sense

I think Roberts spins it just right in Bed of Roses. Emma as a florist is utterly convincing (to me, as a non-florist) and the glimpse into a florist's life is fascinating (also, to me, as a non-florist).

There are little details that bring her world to life, like the fact her hands are always scratched from thorns and stems, despite working with something so seemingly delicate as flowers, and Roberts describes Emma using Neosporin the way other women use hand cream.

When the Vows ladies are discussing their business plans, Emma puts in a plug for an additional cooler — which I assume is some sort of cold storage to keep flowers from wilting. I don't even really care what it is exactly; I just appreciated hearing new vocabulary. It's like sitting in on a conversation with people from the circus. Isn't it fun to hear the nitty-gritty behind what from the outside seems like such a magical profession?

I think the choice of a wedding planning company was a master stroke, too, because there are so many ways to exploit that in terms of romance plot. But it's also a great way to bring interest to a novel through varied professions and a business in which women can be feminine while being savvy.

This is probably the shallowest part of this book review, but I thought the actual printing of the paperback was very nice. The size is a trade paperback, so larger than average, and the cover isn't glossy like most paperbacks but has that elegant muted sheen. What really stood out — at least as I was trying unsuccessfully to flip through the novel while writing this review — was that the edges of the pages are deckled. It's classy — the sort of detail a wedding planner, or a bride, might have chosen.

No, here's shallower: I was annoyed that it took so long into the novel before I could be sure Emma's hair was dark. Shouldn't that be upfront? I hate imagining characters wrong, or incompletely. I've read two books lately where hair color isn't confirmed till halfway through. And covers are no help in that regard, because (a) in both cases, the color is somewhat hard to see, and (b) I never trust cover artists to have read the book; I've been burned one too many times in the past. That was my overly dramatic way to say that covers often don't reflect the details of the characters' appearances as laid out in the text. Agreed?

What's the most interesting profession you've ever read or written about? What profession would you most like to research, assuming you would get to hang around the practitioners on the job? Come on, wouldn't the circus be awesome?
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