Jilly: I Didn’t See That Coming

I Didn't See That Coming

The Only Guarantee

I’m not a big fan of ‘true story’ dramas. I often find it difficult to lose myself in them because I’m busy wondering which parts are hard fact, which are poetic licence, and what evidence the writers might have excluded because it didn’t fit their narrative.

There’s a minor scene near the beginning of Philomena, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, which I’m pretty sure must have been poetic licence on the part of the writers, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. The movie is based on the true story of Philomena Lee’s search for the son she bore as an unmarried teenage mother in an Irish convent and who was sold by the nuns to a wealthy family in the US. It’s an unlikely ‘buddy’ story that pairs up unsophisticated Philomena with Oxford-educated current affairs journalist Martin Sixsmith.

In the scene, the writers define the educational and social gulf between Philomena and Martin by their choice of reading matter. Martin, who thinks he’s demeaning himself by working on Philomena’s ‘human interest’ story, is reading ‘a weighty tome about Tsar Nicholas’. Philomena has just finished a romantic novel entitled The Slipper And The Horseshoe, which she has very much enjoyed. She insists on giving a blow-by-blow account of the plot, which is made to sound utterly formulaic. Eventually she reaches the inevitable HEA, saying “Well, I didn’t see that coming, Martin, not in a million years.”

The script is pretty even-handed, having a good swipe at Martin’s intellectual snobbery as well as Philomena’s simple enjoyment of genre fiction, and that line got one of the biggest laughs of the night, but for me it was the moment the writers went for a cheap win and switched my expectations from ‘enhanced documentary’ to ‘entertaining tear-jerker constructed around a few solid facts.’ The only non-negotiable in a romance is the ending, so unless Philomena has never read a historical before, this bit of dialogue is a howler, right up there with Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood disembarking at Dover and riding to Nottingham in an afternoon.

That said, it did get me thinking about what makes a good romance.

I think The Slipper And The Horseshoe must be the creation of Coogan and Pope (I googled it and got no other results). The hero is a self-made son of a doctor who has to decide between marrying  a Duchess who doesn’t love him and a penniless stable girl who does. Huh. See what I mean about ‘I didn’t see that one coming?’

In the movie this book sounds like a stinker, and in the wrong hands it would be, but in the right ones I’d give it a go. Story is character in conflict. Character is choice under pressure. Lots of good stuff to play with in this set-up.

It has a male protagonist, which is a relatively recent phenomenon and one I like a lot. He’s the self-made son of a doctor, which in a historical is a lot more interesting than making him a Duke. He sounds a bit like somebody Courtney Milan might write about – a product of brains, hard work, and a changing social climate. With the right world and back-story he could be fascinating. I wonder why he wants to marry the Duchess?  I bet it’s not just because he wants to be Lord of the Manor.

Similarly with the Duchess, who we’re told is marrying the hero to spite the man she really wants. Even in a world of changing expectations I’m guessing it would be pretty scandalous for a Duchess to marry one of the new middle-class sorts, so this Duchess sounds interesting. Has she chosen the hero to shock society, or is there some other issue that makes the hero extra-infuriating to the man she really wants?

I’m curious about the stable-girl too. My history isn’t especially strong, but I thought girls in domestic service would normally be in the house, not the stables. So the heroine also has an unusual skill-set and back-story. Maybe she’s even a girl pretending to be a boy, because she’s a genius with horses and terrible with a feather duster. She may be broke, but she’s clearly not stupid, helpless or waiting for a man to rescue her. I like her.

So in making a joke about genre romance, the writers of Philomena missed the point. The ending is a given, but the journey is everything, and in the hands of an intelligent writer it’s pure joy to read. It’s about committing to the characters, and enjoying the way they behave under pressure. Get talking to any romance reader and they’ll probably talk about the characters they love – Darcy and Elizabeth, Barrons and Mac, Davy and Tilda, Vidal and Mary.

Do you have a favorite book? Do you know why you love it?

Oh – and romance carping aside, I really enjoyed Philomena. Check out the script here. Or go see the movie. 

14 thoughts on “Jilly: I Didn’t See That Coming

  1. That cheap laugh about a romance novel—“Well, I didn’t see that coming, Martin, not in a million years”—that’s the kind of thing that makes me hate a movie. That and killing the puppy to make you cry, or putting the kid in danger to create tension. Those are cheap tricks to generate emotion when the writers are too [fill in the blank] to earn it. Grrrr.

    • I agree, Kay, it’s lazy and also maybe not smart. I’d guess the demographic for a movie about a Irish nurse searching for the son she lost over 50 years ago would likely include a lot of traditional romance readers, though the writers clearly aren’t. I saw the movie at the London Film Festival so I’d think the audience at the screening I went to (who enjoyed the joke) was probably not representative.

  2. Well, to be perfectly fair, if Philomena lost her son in the 1980s, there were an awful lot of dire historicals out there. And, if you look at some of the Kindle offerings, there are some stinkers out there, too, even today. How would Philomena’s characterization change if she was reading a really, really good historical? (And we know they are out there — she could have been reading a Georgette Heyer.)

    And continuing in the fairness theme, it’s obvious, the writers don’t have a clue about the breadth of romance novels. And probably not a lot of clues about a “weighty tome about Tsar Nicholas,” either, LOL. Sounds like a real potboiler to me!

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said on a TED talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html

    (-: I do think that story in your hands would be quite a good adventure!

    (And I can’t help wondering how hackneyed a blow-by-blow of the Tsar Nicholas book might be. In the right hands, of course, it’s a real rip-roaring tale. If a Communist got to be the protagonist. Come to think of it, we’re talking about the time Fiddler on the Roof was set, I think.)

    • You’re right, Michaeline, Philomena could very well have been reading a clunker, and I might even have bought her blow-by-blow account of the plot, if they hadn’t had her say ‘I didn’t see that coming.’ That made her seem really stupid and practically instructed the audience to laugh at her – and since the real Philomena was a guest at the showing I went to, I found it extra cringe-worthy. Probably in the context of the whole story she didn’t even notice.

      Thanks for the TED talk link, that’s a good one. And I love the idea of the Tsar Nicholas rip-roarer – I’d read that 🙂

        • Yes, she was there and she got a wonderfully warm reception from the audience. I suppose making a human interest story out of her life was the only way she could get the help and resources she needed to find out what happened to her son, so maybe she thought it was a small price to pay.

          The script also has some interesting things to say about the need to package Philomena’s search into a story – happy or tragic, but nothing in between. The book focuses much more on her son’s life and what actually happened to him, but I guess they thought her search for him would make a better movie.

  3. But speaking to your point (sort of) about reimagining the plot of the romance Philomena was reading, some TV Guide-type synopses are so short that you’d never guess they were describing a masterpiece if you didn’t know the work. Like “Civil War epic about a woman who loses it all” for Gone with the Wind, or “Couple marries after family troubles resolve” for Pride and Prejudice. I can see easily how you can reimagine Philomena’s book to be terrific.

    • I suppose it’s possible to write a fascinating synopsis, but I can’t remember ever reading one. I can see that it’s a useful tool when used to support a query – see if you like the writing, and then figure out whether the writer can put a plot together – but as you point out, Kay, even great stories can sound lame when you reduce them to the bare bones.

  4. To answer your “favorite book” question, I’d say “Captives of the Night” by Loretta Chase is the one for me. I’ve read it multiple times and several things keep me going back. The biggest pull is the characters. I usually have time visualizing characters, but in this book I can not only see them but I can hear them as well. The way Chase has drawn them, they completely come alive for me and all, even the minor characters feel fully drawn. The other pull is the story itself. There is a bit of mystery to be uncovered and they way the investigating unfolds and way the the clues are revealed keeps me completely engaged, despite the fact that I know what happens next.

    • That’s very interesting, Elizabeth. I love Loretta Chase, but I’ve only read Captives of the Night once, and I can’t remember now why it didn’t grab me. I’ve re-read Lord of Scoundrels countless times, and The Last Hellion, and the Carsington books. It’s been a while so I’m going to read it again and see if I get hooked this time.

  5. (-: Oh, yeah! Forgot the funnest part of a fun post! My favorite book is *A Civil Campaign* by Lois McMaster Bujold (it edges out *Bet Me* by Jennifer Crusie by a smidge because *Bet Me* isn’t set in outer space). I love it for the sheer, wild breadth of it. There are at least three romances, and Bujold talks about how romances are impacted by all sorts of outside influences — past relationships, money, status, kindness, communication, old habits of behavior . . . . And yet, with all that information, it’s not a complete mess. It’s very well organized, easy to follow, wonderful highs and lows, and just a wild ride. And almost everyone is happy in the end (except the count who has to pay 120+ dowries for his cloned daughters, and the would-be count who has been plaguing our hero throughout the book).

    Both books are not first books, I’ll note. It took a lot of practice to get all of that information into a thrilling, yet readable, format.

    • I started A Civil Campaign a few years ago without having read any other Bujold, probably because somebody told me it was a fantastic romance. I didn’t get in to it, I think because there was so much back-story I was missing. Last year you recommended I should try Cordelia’s Honor, and I really enjoyed that – and now at least I have a clue about the Vorkosigan world and about Miles. Do you think I need to read the other twelve (?) books in between to get the most of A Civil Campaign, or do you think it would work as a standalone?

      I love Bet Me. From memory, I think Jenny said it was a book she wrote quite early on but sold much later – and she pretty much re-wrote it at that stage. I like to think that’s what makes it such a perfect mixture of romance and technique.

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