Authors: Marilyn French
Tags: #General Fiction
For Barbara Greenberg with love
HEN GEORGE SAID: “THE
reason I don’t want to get involved with you, Hermione, is that I don’t want to end up a character in one of your novels.”
My mind, or maybe my heart, stopped. We were in a cab heading crosstown to the theater. I’d gotten tickets to the off-Broadway production of
The Good Times Are Killing Me.
I was already anxious. I wanted to expose him to some northern culture but I wanted him to enjoy it—yet not be miserable myself. I knew I would enjoy this play because I’d already seen it. I wasn’t sure he would. It was about a friendship across color lines. I feared his politics might be liberal in the way of other southerners I’d known, who thought they were liberal because they disagreed with their neighbors who supported caning juveniles, chopping off the hands of thieves, and burning people at the stake. On the other hand, some of the truest radicals I knew had originated in the South. I wasn’t sure about George.
I wasn’t sure about him because he specialized in double signals. For instance, at the very moment he was saying he didn’t want to get involved with me, he was sitting half-assed on the taxi seat, facing and leaning toward me. Although this position must have been uncomfortable for him, for me it was most appealing: if the cab had stopped short, as cabs so often do, he would have been hurled right into me.
When my heart resumed beating, my mind tried to deal with his complexities. My mental wheels spun, but in different directions, leading to engine lock. I briefly considered questioning him to probe what he was
telling me, but I was terrified of discovering that he really meant
—he did and did not want to get involved with me. This conclusion I backed off from. After all, if he really meant both, we were trapped on opposite ends of a seesaw balanced in midair, unable to rise or descend. If he meant both, I should stop the cab right now, get out, and hand the tickets to the first pair of bored-looking tourists I passed.
I wondered if he was in the least bit pleased to be with me. I dredged up some jokes, blandishments, or gestures to amuse him, but discarded them all. The hell with it: if he didn’t want to be with me, he didn’t. Nothing I could do about it. I sat back and resigned myself. He sat back too, a smile of victory on his face. He had silenced me. From then on, the evening went well.
So it wasn’t until late that night, in the quiet comfort of my lonely bed, that I considered what he had actually
I sat straight up, realizing suddenly that he had lied when he said he was a fan of my work: if he had ever read even one book of mine, he would know that I couldn’t possibly use him as a character.
I’ve written eighty-seven novels, which averages out to a little over two a year. This was because forty years ago, I had to write three or four a year just to pay the rent; whereas for the last twenty-five or so years, one a year has been enough to keep me in the highest tax bracket. Eighty-seven books may seem an inordinate number to you, but it is not uncommon for a romance writer. My publishers sometimes advertise me as the queen of romance, but the
queen of romance, Barbara Cartland, has published over six hundred novels. Of course, she’s ninety, but even if I live that long, I won’t equal her. Now that I’ve slowed down—indeed, taxes make it financially disadvantageous to be more productive—I’ll be lucky to top a hundred.
But however many I may write, all my books are the same. My readers depend upon that. I have always modeled myself on Barbara Cartland. I repeat my plots and I stick to my myth, as she does. She’s a champion of “real love.” So am I, in my books at least. Cartland is even published in Russia and China, because her books are romantic but contain no sex.
All my books have three major characters; George couldn’t possibly be any of them. There’s the heroine, gorgeous, relatively innocent, and under thirty. I did try to stretch that a teensy bit in my twenty-sixth—no, twenty-seventh—novel,
Blood on the Sand.
(I refer to my novels by number rather than title, because it’s hard to remember the titles, they are all so similar. But I remember that one because it required a lovely vacation in Morocco.) Anyway, in number twenty-seven,
Blood on the Sand,
I made the heroine thirty-three years old, and for some reason, it didn’t sell as well as number twenty-five or -six. One can never be sure why these things happen, but to be on the safe side, after that I was careful to keep her under thirty. I often make her twenty-nine, a good age for a character or a real person, reusable for any number of years.
The other two characters are the hero and the villain. They are between thirty and forty-five and are almost impossible to tell apart. The difficulty of telling them apart
the plot, after all: the heroine shows her mettle by detecting which is the villain and which the hero. Both men are fantastically gorgeous, sexually adept, utterly in control, and full of daring, with a dangerous edge. No rational person could ever confuse my male characters with real human men. And George is eminently human-all-too-human. So how could he be one of my male characters?
The heroine of course benefits from the men’s amorous expertise, but she never recognizes that, because she starts out a virgin and never becomes sexually sophisticated. To help or hinder her in her search for true love, I create minor characters: a wicked-stepmother type; a benevolent older man, an uncle or a guardian, or perhaps a threatening sexy father figure; a retainer, an old cook or gardener or housekeeper or neighbor, who is a simple uneducated person utterly loyal to the heroine. Sometimes, for a little frisson, I give the retainer a deceptive edge, making her or him apparently loyal but actually treacherous, or apparently treacherous but actually loyal. There are any number of changes a resourceful novelist can ring on this arrangement. In a few novels—numbers fifty-four and fifty-five, I think (written during a period when I was trying subtly to persuade my daughter not to marry the man she later divorced)—I created a wise kindly older woman: a grandmother, a teacher. My readers liked this figure; I got tons of mail from them, happily recalling wonderful grannies and aunties and teachers. But I didn’t use her again. She made things too hard for me. After all, if a young woman took advice from a wise older woman, she wouldn’t have the problems romance heroines have in the first place. A wise and benevolent older woman subverts the very fabric of the myth.
And I don’t like to depart from the myth, which is the cutting edge. After all, the reason I’m the most successful romance writer in this country is that I understand the myth so well. The girl has to be alone. She has to face these men alone, to be as isolated with them as if she were on a desert island. She can’t even have a good, reliable friend. She can have a friend who is true and loyal but utterly powerless and not very bright, or a strong, intelligent friend who proves false. She has to be on her own, helpless. Everything—the heroine’s very survival—depends on whether she can tell the men apart, and since the beneficent older woman always can—otherwise, she isn’t wise, is she?—her presence saps tension from the novel. You have to create all kinds of hard-to-believe plot ruses to explain why the older woman just can’t tell her young friend the truth. Of course, in real life, older women do tell younger women the truth and are not believed. But it would undermine a fictional heroine to present her as being as stubborn and blind as real young women invariably are. Showing her as stubbornly blind introduces a note of realism that subverts the reader’s reverie. Romance readers know they are in an illusory world, and that’s where they want to remain.
Anyway, George didn’t fit into any of my categories. So if he had read my books, he was lying about his reasons for not wanting to get involved with me. If he hadn’t read my books, he was falsely claiming he had. In either case, why?
I met George the first Sunday in June 1991, at a party at the Altshulers’. They have a house in Connecticut, right on the Sound, a splendid Victorian mansion with terraced gardens leading down to the water. It’s a magnificent house—they’ve let me use it a few times when
wanted to take my photograph. I try to suit my image to my work, so I pose for photographs in a hoop-skirted white dress, very low cut (the body has held up despite the years: the face has needed help), with a diamond necklace echoing the V neckline of the dress. Emulating Barbara Cartland, I wear a diamond tiara on my red hair (still red, with help), and I stand atop or below one of the Altshulers’ glorious staircases, or lean gracefully on one of the terraces, flowering shrubs and trees rising beneath me. The Altshulers are flattered that I choose their house, and I’m pleased because the house makes me look like the queen I’m supposed to be—the Queen of Hearts, I’m called in the industry.
The Altshulers are rich but a little bored with each other and their lives, so they entertain a lot. They hate to be described as high society, which they associate with the old WASP world that would certainly not have embraced their Jewish selves. Rather, they think of themselves as cultured, a tinge bohemian: they do collect art, after all. So they invite mainly writers, poets, and artists to their parties. Years ago, this was easy: you could get all the poets, artists, and writers you wanted just by providing free booze. But nowadays, nobody drinks. They can guarantee an artist’s presence by buying his (or her) work: they’ve begun collecting women, partly under my influence, I’m pleased to say. But they have to work for writers, who are not a very sociable lot. So they appreciate me, since I’m quite famous and sociable but not highly esteemed, so I threaten no one.
The Altshulers are old friends of mine. Janice Altshuler believes that I am
expert on relations between the sexes and confides to me all her problems and unhappiness with Leo. Leo believes I am an all-understanding, all-forgiving woman who instinctively understands men and their inchoate longing and sorrow. Leo doesn’t confide in me; he just assumes I am his soul mate. And in fact, I do sympathize with Janice’s complaints: I am endlessly interested in the small problems of a marriage, which are, after all, grist for my mill. My books are aimed at women like Janice, who never move to end a problem but suffer continually, year after year. And in fact I do sympathize with men like Leo, locked in their lifelong isolation cells, unable to articulate their own feelings or to understand anyone else’s. I have had no difficulty remaining their friend because I have been careful not to get between them when they are quarreling. On the rare occasion when a quarrel breaks out while I’m visiting, I see to it that an emergency telegram or telephone call arrives from an old friend dying of cancer or on the verge of a divorce, demanding my presence in Arizona or Hydra. And for all these years, the Altshulers have been most rewarding friends: they offer regular invitations to weekends in Connecticut and parties at their Manhattan penthouse, and you don’t have to return the invitations more than once a year or so.
The weekend I met George was a crowded one. Janice and Leo had just bought a Krakauer, and Justin Krakauer himself was going to be there. This news was a magnet for hard-to-get guests: at least a hundred people accepted for the Sunday party, and over a dozen were coming for the weekend: Justin and his lover, Mark Mahaffey, the beautiful young dancer; the writer Anita Heller and her lover, Elaine Kovatch, the theater producer; the journalist Ellis Porter with his wife, Marie; and the Moscones, a rich retired couple who were close to the Altshulers. The rest were single, like me—two painters, David Hoon and Mitch deWald, a sculptor, Willy Schlag, a society real estate saleswoman, Lillian Amato, and a banker, Margie Dent.
I enjoy watching people. It was a delight to see the famous, wealthy, arrogant, sophisticated Justin Krakauer twist himself into contortions trying to please sullen young Mark, and to watch Anita and Elaine spar continuously and viciously, with the venom only love generates. Marie Porter had long since been crushed into a nonentity by Ellis, who looked around in boredom for another woman to do sexual battle with and, in disappointment, found only me. The Moscones, on the other hand, really liked each other, and like the Altshulers, had long since accepted their differences. This made them peaceful and pleasant to spend time with. The voluptuous blond realtor Lillian and the banker Margie, a slim lovely woman in her forties, were also good company, and very discreet as they slid into an intimacy that was not consummated that weekend but I suspected would be in the not-too-distant future. I listened in delighted malice to two of the painters one-upping each other. David Hoon appeared to be trying to drive Mitch deWald crazy by disparaging all art before the late twentieth century; Mitch took on the task of defending the old masters.