Tag Archives: Relationships

Maid to Match, by Deeanne Gist

via goodreads.com

My mum handed me Maid to Match (Bethany House Publishers, 2010) back in early February, right around the time I started this blog. I was working on other darker things at the time, so the fluffy romance got pushed to the back burner. I know romance novels (and their authors) often get a lot of grief for being what they are, but I’m firmly rooted in the camp that they have their place and purpose and are just as important as anything you’d find on the literary fiction shelf. For me, TRNs (trashy romance novels) are equivalent to dessert or a piece of Vosges Haut-Chocolate in the middle of a stressful work day. Sometimes I like picking up a book with strong female leads and sexy men and knowing that everything is going to turn out alright! (Though I have to amend right off the bat that Gist and Bethany House take the T out of the TRN!)

After finishing a dark, disturbing young adult novel, Maid to Match was exactly what I needed. Set in stunning North Carolina, on the Biltmore Estate in 1898, the story begins with the introduction of Tillie Reese, our immediately likable heroine. Tillie, the head parlormaid, is on the brink of becoming a lady’s maid to the Mrs. Vanderbilt. She craves the elite position and everything that goes with it; books, baths, fashionable dresses, travel and better pay (“so she could help her family and others in the community who were in need”). Tillie’s big heart and level head make her a shoe-in for the position, not to mention that Tillie’s over-bearing mama has been grooming Tillie for the position all her life.

Enter Mack Danvers, the rugged mountain man with a heart of gold. His handsome countenance, plus the fact that his twin is currently a Vanderbilt-employed footman, kick him right onto the fast track of servitude. After all, anyone in the upper echelon of turn-of-the-century society can employ a handsome footman, but think of the prestige that would come with employing a matching set.

via biltmore.com

The heavy responsibility of de-mountain-manning Mack somehow falls on sweet Tilly and of course, sparks (squeaky clean sparks) fly. Tillie does her best to avoid Mack’s advances because one does not engage in inter-service romance, especially if she wants to be come lady’s maid. However, the more time our hero and heroine are forced to spend together, the more Tillie learns about the real reason Mack has emerged from his mountain home and the more her heart softens toward him.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that it introduced me to a setting and time in American history that, in retrospect, seems to be overlooked in the romance genre in general. Gist’s well-researched storyline waltzes the reader through the lush Biltmore Estate with its modern swimming pool and bowling alley, shady orphanages run by dodgy characters, and the beautiful Carolina mountains and their clans. Gist outlines in her author’s note just what was historically accurate and what she stretched for the sake of the story, which I thought was pretty cool.

Let’s talk about S-E-X for a sec. Bethany House is a publisher of Christian fiction and romance, and when I started Maid to Match, I wasn’t aware of the fact. Being much more accustomed to the bodice-rippers of Stephanie Laurens and others like her, I felt a little, well, frustrated that all that sexual tension between Tillie and Mack never had an outlet, or rather, that the outlet was merely alluded to. It makes more sense upon my discovery that the book came from a Christian publisher, but was odd and, er, anti-climactic at the time.

Bottom line: If you are looking for a light-hearted romance with a sweet, likable heroine and some fascinating American history lore, Maid to Match is a good one to pick up. Just be aware that this is no titillating TRN!

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The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

 

via Random House

Sometimes a book, let’s say a seemingly innocent young adult novel, comes along and sucks you in. It enchants you with real, faulted characters and beautiful descriptions. It chews you up, peppering the story with loss and grief, and soothes your wounds with stories of friendship, acceptance and love. Ultimately it spits you out, tears sliding down your cheeks, and you realize that the standard to which you hold literary fiction has been irrevocably raised.

The Book Thief’s back cover sets it up as the story of a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany. The danger comes when her foster parents decide to hide a Jew in their basement. The simplicity of the blurb is deceptive, and you realize this right off the bat when the story is introduced and told by none other than Death himself.

 

As is only appropriate when the narrator is Death, the style of storytelling is a bit unorthodox. Surprises in the plot are leaked before they actually happen, but I was surprised to find that those leaks, while shocking, just drove me on in my reading, rather than spoiling the story. Things within the text are described in a way that is wholly unfamiliar. Zusak had a tendency to turn words into objects; “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel’s feet…” Death gave life to things as ordinary as the sky; “The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.”

All of these things added to the beauty and complexity of the story, and I haven’t even told you about the plot yet. The story of Liesel Meminger begins on a train. Death has just taken her younger brother en route to their new foster parents. In the first 30 pages of the book, Liesel loses her mother and brother, is thrust into the arms of a strange new family (the Hubermanns), and steals her first book, though she can’t yet read.

As the story progresses, tentative bonds are formed and strengthened, friends are found, and Liesel begins to grow more confident in her new life. The story is full of darkness but its redemption lies in the strength of its characters. Liesel and her friend Rudy could have been kids in my neighborhood growing up. They resonate a believable familiarity that keeps the book relatable in the  midst of incredible events.

A Jew, Max Vandenburg, shows up at Liesel’s house in the middle of the night. The reason, we learn, has everything to do with Hans Hubermann’s stint in WWI, his friendship with a Jewish soldier, and a promise made to that soldier’s widow upon Hans’ return to Germany. Max is the son of that Jewish soldier, and he is now in need of the help promised to his mother so many years ago, and so the Hubermans take him in, hide him in the basement, and Liesel’s education begins in ernest.

Liesel learns more important lessons in the basement of her foster parents’ house than she does at school. It is where she learns to write, it is where she begins to identify with a Jew while his brethren are being marched through town on their way to Dachau, and it is where words ultimately save her life.

Bottom line: In spite of The Book Thief‘s technical categorization of Young Adult, I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a book full of beauty and struggle. I will warn you: I read the end of the book through a blur of tears, but it was definitely worth it.

Listen to Markus Zusak talking about the book here:


Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sarah’s Key was an enjoyable, albeit slightly depressing read.

The story begins in Paris, July 1942, from the perspective of a little girl. The girl, whose name isn’t actually acknowledged until much later in the book (I’m not sure I understand why) and her family are being rounded up by the French police with other Jewish families for eventual deportation to Auschwitz.

Fast forward sixty years and we meet the main narrator of the book, Julia Jarmond, an American ex-pat living in Paris with her French husband and daughter. Julia is a journalist covering the 60th anniversary of the roundup and, as the back of the book says, “stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah…”

The two stories are well-woven into easy, digestible sections, each story doing its job to pull you further in to the separate story lines until they collide in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.

The story, besides being some well-written historical fiction, draws in a lot of themes, some I could identify with better than others. For example, Julia deals with a lot of things that, being single and childless, aren’t things I worry about. An unstable marriage, pregnancy problems and uneasy relations with the in-laws are issues that my married friends and family members can probably better sympathize with and I’m guessing feel closer to the narrator because of it.

In a nutshell: I enjoyed reading the book. It was informative about events in the past that I was unfamiliar with, and I liked that it was written by a French author and much of the story centered around contemporary France’s attitude about the events of the past. There were a lot of unhappy events in the story, so while it was a good story and interesting to read, it was a bit of a downer. The end, which I won’t give away, does end on a hopeful note though.

And: This book (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) includes a brief interview with the author about the book, recommended further reading titles and a list of discussion questions. The book raises a lot of good discussion points and I would definitely recommend it for a book club/reading group.