Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book Review: Cotillion [1953]

I am an avid consumer of well-written historical romances, and Georgette Heyer is universally acknowledged as the queen of the Georgian/Regency period. I've read several of her books here and there, and recently had the opportunity to read Cotillion on a borrowed Nook e-reader. This is the first time I've actually used a real e-reader (rather than my tiny ipod touch) to read a book, and I found the experience similar to reading the paper version . . . which I also checked out from my library. I alternated between the two, and found it very easy to use the Nook, although I still prefer my books without batteries.

Cotillion is set in 1816 and takes place largely in London. However, the action begins at Arnside, an estate to which all the young, unmarried male relations of a crotchety (but wealthy) old man have been summoned. The man is Matthew Penicuik, and he wishes to provide his great-nephews with the opportunity to offer for his ward Kitty Charing's hand in marriage, and thereby inherit his entire fortune. Miss Charing herself is not particularly fond of this plan, although she has been in love with one of the intended targets, Jack Westruther, since she was young. Fortunately or unfortunately, Jack does not appear to make an offer, and Kitty concocts a scheme to become "engaged" to his cousin, Freddy Standen, in order to get to London and secure Jack's attention.

Freddy, whose judgment "in all matters of Fashion, was extremely nice" and who has an excellent grasp on proper behavior among the ton, is also acknowledged by himself and his family members to be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to practical matters. His genial good nature leads him to acquiesce to Kitty's spur-of-the moment plan, although the idea of ultimately breaking their engagement goes strongly against his sense of propriety. Kitty feels guilty about the deception, then awed as she is brought into the Standen family fold and introduced to the wonders and pitfalls of glamorous society. Kitty's impulsive, friendly behavior gets her involved in several situations that she and Freddy work together to resolve as a pair of rather unlikely cupids, even as she begins to realize that Jack may not be the man she thought she loved. Cotillion is a seamlessly woven and gently humorous novel that is sure to appeal to any Regency fan.

Grade: A

Although the false engagement plot is very well-worn at this point, it was refreshing to have both a hero and heroine neither laboring under the harsh yoke of secrets from the past nor outcast from society in any way by their poor behavior. Definitely no rake in need of reformation, Freddy is a very engaging hero, and it is refreshing to have the main male character be a dandy with no hidden reserves of physical strength or intelligence. Rather, he is kind and tolerant, muddling through when other people's scrapes are thrust in his lap. There are a few issues I could take with the book--Kitty's month in London seems to stretch forever and the resolution of her relationship with Freddy happens quite suddenly--but nothing that dissuaded me from finding the book completely charming.

The author of more than fifty books, including detective novels, Heyer's masterful grasp of setting and the rhythm of language shines most brilliantly in her Regencies. The wry, understated humor in Cotillion had my lips twitching on any number of occasions:
The Chevalier's fingers, writhing amongst his glossy brown locks, were fast ruining what had been an admirable example of the Brutus, made fashionable by Mr Brummell. Freddy watched this with pained disapproval. It did not seem to him to serve any useful purpose; it was, in fact, a work of quite wanton destruction.
For a book that was published more than fifty years ago, Cotillion holds up incredibly well, and feels much more authentic and well-formed than most of what's published today in the same genre. If anyone reading this loves Regency romances and hasn't read something by Heyer, I would be truly sorry to hear it.

ETA: While she was dying, my mother embarked on a project to re-read (or read for the first time) all the Heyers she could get her hands on, which meant that I spent a lot of time getting books from several Salt Lake City libraries and creating a master list so we could track what she had read.

Additional reading:  
The Private World of Georgette Heyer, by Jane Aiken Hodge
Georgette Heyer's Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester

Book Review Index
Dead mother: Yes

Thursday, June 2, 2011

TV Review: Cougar Town Season One [2009]

I confess that I watched Cougar Town entirely because Tara and Joe wouldn't stop talking about it on the Extra Hot Great podcast. If anyone said to me that Cougar Town has television's worst show name, I would agree emphatically. Not only is it based on an offensive stereotype about older women of voracious sexual appetites who "chase" younger men, it doesn't actually have a lot to do with the show at this point, so it's both lame and irrelevant. Instead of judging the show by its title, which is admittedly difficult, it's key to understand that it was created by Bill Lawrence, the creative mind behind Scrubs. If you liked Scrubs, the chances are good that you're also going to enjoy Cougar Town. I've only watched about five Friends episodes from start to finish, so I'm not a huge Courteney Cox fan, but I did watch and enjoy Scrubs for several years before I got tired of it retreading the same territory. I enjoyed watching Cougar Town for many of the same reasons: it features quirky characters, absurd humor, and surprising heart. 

Cougar Town is a half-hour comedy on ABC set in southern Florida. Jules Cobb, the main character, is a recently-divorced realtor played by Courteney Cox. After splitting with her cheating ex-husband, Bobby, Jules tries partying and no-strings-attached dating as a way to make up for the seventeen years she spent working and raising their son. And yes, some of her early dates are significantly younger men. Jules's two best friends are her next door neighbor, Ellie Torres (played by Christa Miller, aka Jordan on Scrubs), and her younger employee, Laurie Keller (the hilarious Busy Phillips). Ellie and Laurie have nothing in common aside from their relationship with Jules, who functions as the show's neurotic, interfering caretaker.

On the male side of the equation are redneck Bobby, who lives on a boat stranded in a parking lot, his slavishly devoted best friend Andy Torres (married to Ellie), and Grayson Ellis, a recently divorced man in his 40s who lives across the street from Jules and is often seen bringing home college-aged women for one-night stands. Jules and Bobby's son, Travis, also appears in most episodes; he and Jules have a relationship that pushes the boundary of too close, something that is true of many of the pairings on Cougar Town. From week to week, the show shuffles its seven main characters in different combinations around a loose theme. The best moments come from unexpected pairings and the surprising sweetness they can generate, as well as from the accumulated small, comfortable moments around things like Penny Can (a game featured in several episodes) or the gang's fondness for wine.

Let's not pretend in any way that Cougar Town is a hugely groundbreaking show. It's a formulaic sitcom. The worst things about it are its lack of diversity (both racial and sexual, although I suppose Andy counts as a token); the fact that most of its female characters--especially Jules--have issues with food; and its tendency to essentialize men and women and their interactions with each other as if they could be universally applied. Despite its flaws, however, Cougar Town ends up on the "charming" side of the scale, rising above these issues by virtue of its quirky tone.

There are several things that Cougar Town gets right, although it took some time for it to find its footing in the first season. I appreciated that by the end of the season, the show had moved far from "cougar" territory to portraying Jules in a healthy relationship with someone her age and transferred the entirety of the Predatory Woman stereotype to bit character Barb. Barb makes me giggle every time she shows up, especially at Travis's graduation, where she explains that she's there to preview talent for the fantasy draft of younger men that will soon be on the market. I think the showrunners made another smart move by making the show more about the "Cul-de-Sac Crew" as a group than about Jules and her struggle to re-enter the single life.

Grade: B-