Monday, January 10, 2011

Crossed Wires

Last week I read what struck me as a mildly entertaining romance novel, Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton. It's fairly recent, published in 2008, but it reads like something out of the 1970s, with a character getting indignant about racism and the person being discriminated against keeping a stiff upper lip about it.

Part of the interest of the novel, for me at least, is that it's very, very British, and an American reader is left to imagine what kind of prejudices the male protagonist, a professor at Cambridge, has about the people in Sheffield, where the female protagonist lives, and vice-versa. When the female protagonist, Mina, thinks about the male protagonist, Peter, she "didn't suppose [he] had to spend his coffee breaks listening to people wittering about shoes. Although she found it hard to imagine what people in universities did talk about...."

The author, quite obviously of the professorial class herself, is at her best when describing the hysterics of a graduate student who has just handed in her thesis and is now discovering mistakes that she hadn't seen before. The scene reminded me vividly of a conversation I had years ago in a shared graduate student office with an older woman who told me that I had just veered over the line to what she described as "baroque worry."

Peter has a friend named Jeremy who livens things up every time the author allows him to make an appearance. As soon as he's introduced we learn that he has a partner named Martin and that "'Partner' was Jeremy's own word; when in company, he liked to follow it with the explanatory gloss 'partners in crime' and a lascivious leer." Peter suspects him of selecting packages of cookies "especially with innuendo in mind" on at least one occasion, when he is offered a "Viennese chocolate sandwich."

The novel ends predictably, with even the children of the couple falling immediately in love with each other. I feel a bit churlish about my lukewarm reaction, since The Zen Leaf and Moored at Sea had such nice things to say about it.


Amanda said...

Just more proof that you and I don't get along with the same books!

Jeanne said...

Amanda, I do feel churlish, as I said. Your reply to my comment about Mrs. Craddock makes me believe that at least part of it is the age difference, which is an interesting insight for anyone who has spent most of her career teaching 18-year-olds!

FreshHell said...

I tend to have problems with novels that take place in university settings and revolve around the "problems" faculty members have because I start to snort and think, "You think you've got it bad..." and start to reflect on the rest of humanity and it's much more pressing problems. Sigh. But, that's just my personal prejudice.

Or, in a similar way, books about authors suffering writers block or being haunted by their characters a la Stephen Kings most recent decade of books (with a few exceptions). Oh, you poor wealthy author you! I weep.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, the emphasis in this novel is on Mina's problems; I get the impression that being from Sheffield is kind of like being from southwest D.C.

Jodie said...

I think if I remember rightly the author grew up in Sheffield, but works at a prestigious uni now (at least I know a blogger who works at Cambridge uni who knows her and I assumed they'd first met professionally).

Sounds like the 1970s? I dunno thinking about it Peter reminds me of a more genuinely well meaning version of the parents group in Lorrie Moore's 'Gate at the Stairs'.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, is Sheffield like SW Washington DC for people who live in the suburbs, or like West Virginia for people who live in Ohio, or Mississippi for people who live in Arkansas--that is, a place where folks are perceived to be poor and stupid?

I didn't react to Peter like I did to the parents group. He'd have been more interesting if I had; he seems too good to be true.

I'll be reading a second novel by this author--she's so gracious that when she saw this lukewarm review, she offered to send me her newer one. Can you believe that?

Jodie said...

Not quite the same I don't think (but don't quote me as I'm not sure I could point to the place on an unlabelled map). The run down and economically poor aspects of the north of England are often emphasised, but I think the stereotype of Sheffield is that it's full of the hard working, frustrated poor, being messed about by the poor economy. It's where the Full Monty was filmed if that helps and that give a typical flavour for how people outside see the area I think (a once proud steel town brought low). I think that bit about the shoes is more reflective of the stereotype of other people working in a call centre anywhere in the UK.

I liked the newest one because it managed to do the foreigner abroad narrative without making it all about the hardships of being a foreigner abroad if you know what I mean. That 'Oh the locals, they do not care to know me and nothing works like it does in England' vibe missing and when the main character does feel isolated it's handled in a much more sensible way (at least I think so). She does seem like a very nice person - looking forward to my third book by her which is all set in a female run university.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, oh I get it--Sheffield is kind of like Detroit or Flint, Michigan.

Glad to hear you liked the newer one!

Trapunto said...

I just had a session of baroque worry about a stupid mistake on a *blog comment* (not on your blog, though I'm sure I've made a fool of myself without knowing it here and everywhere). Great expression!

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, it is a great expression. I'm particularly good at baroque worry but have never again reached the peak of it that graduate school inspired.

I'm always very glad to see your forays into comment land. I think sometimes we worry about comments we make because it's the only way that person knows us--it's hard to get tone of voice, history of reaction, even subsequent sorrow into a comment. That's one reason I tend to be concise--I feel like I do less damage that way.

But I really can't imagine you doing too much damage; you're too thoughtful, as a rule.