Book Meme 2012 Week 4: Best Love Story

Yeesh, I have to answer this again? I already proffered answers twice, no, thrice before, the last of them in this very meme. So perhaps I’ll just elaborate a little more on that one.

Patricia McKillip’s The Bell at Sealey Head is one of the more recent books I’ve read, but the romance of Judd Cauley and Gwyneth Blair instantly became one of my favorites. It develops out of deep friendship and suitability, the cheerful, grateful companionship of kindred spirits. They proceed carefully, not wanting to ruin an excellent friendship with misunderstandings and bruised emotions, but upon discovering their love for each other, they are modest, humble, and exceedingly delighted. They manage to be practical about it without losing the romance, the sweetness, and the poetry of their feelings. Oh of course they are in love, deeply so, but they don’t go mooning over each other like Daria and Raven Sproule do towards Mr. Dow and Lady Eglantyne, respectively

He didn’t answer. She looked into his eyes, saw moonlight reflected in them. She swallowed suddenly, hearing the air between them speak, the night itself, the running tide.
“Miss Blair,” Judd said finally, huskily.
“Please call me Gwyneth.” Her voice sounded strange, oddly breathless. “You used to. When we were children.”
She felt the sound of it run through her. “Yes. That’s better. What did you ask me?”
He put down his ale mug in a patch of wild iris. “To come for a walk with me along the cliff to look at the waves.”
“Yes,” she answered softly. “That’s what I thought I heard.”
They came back sometime later, windblown and damp and hungry.

Well, most of them time they don’t. But look even at that passage above. For all that they are suddenly caught up in each others’ eyes (which is quite natural, mind you), they remain direct and honest, addressing each other as equals. They’re still nervous, of course. As well as they know each other, and as reasonably confident as Judd is that Gwyneth probably returns his affections, it still takes some courage for him to ask her for a walk along oversea cliffs. (An excellent idea for a date, by the way.)

Also, I love the way McKillip leaves the details of their moonlit walk to our imaginations. What words they said, what thoughts they had, are beautiful secrets for them only. The reader is not permitted to be a voyeur, and he doesn’t need to be. We know this young man and young woman well enough to guess, and well enough to be certain that all was good.

They both have a gratifying sense of humor. The modest yet witty kind that smiles through the eyes at the other person. The playful way they deliver their jokes often escapes those around them, making their wit a kind of code between them. They court each other in plain sight for some time without very many people really taking notice. And they’re perfectly fine with that. They don’t need attention. They don’t want a fuss. They just want to delight in each others’ warm, intelligent, approachable company.

Judd came finally, laden with plates, forks, napkins.
“How clever of you to find us chairs, Miss Blair!”
“Wasn’t it? And how brave of you, Mr. Cauley, to battle the mob to forage for us.”
“That,” Judd said, “is to make you admire me so much that you might even dance with me.”

I’m a clumsy dancer at best, when I have the good fortune (and courage) to dance at all, but when the time comes that I beg the future lady of my heart for the Dance of Serious Intent, I hope I’ll have a line like that on hand.

Book Meme 2012: Literary Love/Book Crush

Topic: What female character(s) have I had crushes on?

Hm. Tricky topic. I can admit to, in junior high especially, feeling pangs of longing for certain girls in the books I was reading, but these didn’t really last beyond the pages of the book. It was less that I thought they would be a great girlfriend for me in real life and more that I thought they were paired well with the book’s hero, and I wanted the romantic couple to be together at story’s end. Still, this was often because there were real qualities I liked in the girl, and I suppose that when my young self imagined what my perfect future girlfriend would be, some of the qualities of these literary girls may have found their way in to that image.

So I reflect now and try to think of the ones who attracted me most, and who I was most loathe to leave upon reaching the book’s end. One in particular stands out from the reading of my youth. I was surprised, because I often forget about this character. She’s not Eilonwy, from The Chronicles of Prydain, who, though possessing the inestimably attractive qualities of being a cute redhead, passionately affectionate, and stubbornly loyal, is nonetheless a bit too flighty and prone to too drastic mood swings for me. Nor is she a lofty Lúthien, too beautiful and ethereal a creature to ever notice a common boy like me.

But she is a princess. In her wisdom, wit, conscientiousness, and utter, wild beauty of spirit, she is as dazzling a princess and as firm a friend as any boy in any realm, real or imaginative, could hope for. To my fifth grade self, she was something akin to The Perfect Girl.

She was Leslie Burke, from Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson.

[SPOILERS for Bridge to Terabithia follow.]

Leslie is an Adventure Companion, one of the best a boy can hope for, especially a lonely, introverted boy. It is she who sees Jesse for who he is and determines to befriend him. It is she who pulls him into Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom of monsters and people to protect from monsters, that is both an escape from the troubles of the world and a training ground for how to deal with them. Even though she takes the lead in most of their adventures, she doesn’t lord over Jesse or boss him around. She encourages his artistic talent and is delighted to combine his drawing skills with her storytelling ability.

This is a girl who can do just about anything as good as a boy, and often better, but never brags, never lords it over him, never humiliates. She has her head in the clouds, but her eyes squarely on the people around her; as immersed as she is in Terabithia, the world of her imagination, she never forgets them. She loves justice, and justice means helping people in need.

Oh, and she loves The Chronicles of Narnia.

I only read this special book once, but I can remember the sickening feeling in my gut when I realized, slowly, and along with Jesse that Leslie had really died in that accident. It was hard to accept. When Jesse went into denial, I was right there with him—she had to come back, right? She was just too wonderful to be gone for good! But not this time. Jesse and I had to accept this, and move on. And we are able to, because of the strength Leslie gave us.

Just imperfect enough to be obtainable and relatable, just perfect enough to be absolutely wonderful, Leslie Burke was a girl who would stick with a boy and have the best adventures with him, and would be his perfectly-matched companion as they both mature into adulthood.

So that’s my childhood crush. The tragedy, of course, is that Leslie never gets to live into adulthood. So, thinking of a literary girl I might have a crush on now, if she were real, I set quickly upon a very recent acquaintance: Gwyneth from The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip.

Gwyneth is a reader and a writer, and she instinctively comes to these activities with a passion and thoughtfulness that immediately kindled in me the recognition of a kindred spirit. She is sensitive, kind, creative and yet practical, elegant in spirit yet still very down-to-earth, and she likes humble and chivalrous men. She also is strong and mature enough not to let her aunt and friends’ silly class obsession be a real obstacle to her love for Judd. If I couldn’t be in love with her, I’d at least want her as a close friend.

Book Review: “The Bell at Sealey Head” by Patricia McKillip

Title: The Bell at Sealey Head
Series: No.
Author: Patricia McKillip
Pages: 227
Published: 2008 by ACE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Sealey Head is a small coastal town home to a mysterious phenomenon: the sound of a bell tolling at every sunset, with no bell to make it. For centuries the citizens have ignored and accepted it as part of everyday life – most just tune it out. But some know more secrets than they tell others…
Reason for Beginning: It comes highly recommended by some of my friends. Plus the premise and the cover both are beautiful.
Reason for Finishing: A very sweet, lovely book, modest in tone but just about perfect for what it is. It’s also an easy, pleasant read, with characters you would want to meet in real life.
Story Re-readability: Reasonably strong, I think. Not so much for the plot, which is nice but not urgent, but for the characters, who are so likable and real they begin to feel like real friends. I felt comfortable and happy in their presence, and I’ll want to hang out with them again.
Author Re-readability: Very much so! In some ways McKillip’s writing in this book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s. It’s deceptively simple, appearing almost unadorned, yet she chooses just the right expressions and images to evoke her world and characters. The story is neither rushed nor too slow, and the tension never so taut as to drastically disrupt the sense of comfortableness nor so lax as to seem boring. It’s a page-turner, but not in the conventional sense of a cliffhanger at every chapter break. Rather, I felt compelled to keep reading and reading, long after I told myself I’d stop for the day, simply because I wanted to be in Sealey Head, spending time with these people.
Recommendation: Yes! It would feel strange to call this book a classic, in the way that I can so easily name The Last Unicorn or Lilith one, not because it is lesser than they but because I think the book would blush and apologize for attracting so much attention to itself. Like its main characters Judd, Gwyneth, Emma, and Ridley, The Bell at Sealey Head has a charming modesty that belies its intelligent and poetic soul. It’s fantasy, with splashings of fairy story and myth, but really is more about the characters, their loves, and their society – parts of it feel inspired by Jane Austen.

Key Thoughts

There is a moment in this book where the hairs on the back of a character’s neck prickle at a story being told to her, and I felt my own neck hairs prickling as well. The humming of the refrigerator in the bank’s break room faded away, and I was fully immersed in the goings on in a small room in a humble house in the coastal town of Sealey Head. It wasn’t just the events of the plot that drew me in, although they did their part. It was that I could so easily locate myself in that character’s mind, see things through her eyes, and follow her thoughts as they mirrored my own. That’s the special gift of McKillip’s book: characters who feel like friends I know, like people I want to be like, who love what I love, and who are probably smarter and surer than me in everyday situations. I can hardly think of any flaws in the main characters, yet they all feel natural and real to me.

We first meet Judd Cauley, son of a local innkeeper by a seaside cliff at Sealey Head. He’s quiet, modest, hardworking, responsible, easy-going, and a voracious reader. I dare you not to like him. In fact, I dare you not to like Gwyneth, and Emma, and Ridley Dow. (The other characters are more…subjective in this regard.) I deeply suspect that just as writers love to write about writers, so do readers love characters who read as they do. Gwyneth has the distinction of being both, and a short story that she is working on ends up being important to the mood and gradual revelations of the plot. Her struggles in finding the right way to develop her story are easy for me to relate to. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the book’s primary romance is between her and Judd – the instant we discover that they both are readers, we know they are meant for each other. (Would that it were so easy in real life!)

Of course there are a few complications: Gwyneth is being aggressively courted by a richer young man, the brother of one of Gwyneth’s good friends, whom Gwyneth’s aunt (her mother having passed away) arrogantly assumes she will marry. This rich young man, Raven Sproule, is a nice fellow, surely, but far and away no lifelong match for her. The chief pleasure of Gwyneth’s romance with Judd is that, although they have this obstacle and maybe one or two others between them, they otherwise have a pretty easy time of it. Meaning, they don’t have to deal with those contrived misunderstandings and irritating catastrophes that show up in so many so-called “romantic comedies.” Each of them loves and trust the other – they just proceed carefully because they are unsure if their feelings are requited. Their sweetness is honest, understated, and warm. They say what they mean and recognize honesty and delight in each other. And when this becomes clear—when they realize that they do indeed love each other—the other obstacles immediately lose their threat, despite the desperate natterings of Gwyneth’s aunt.

Ah, but this is merely one part of the book, out of many! See how easily I speak at length about the characters I love the most, in a book that is ostensibly about a haunting phenomenon and portals between worlds? The above relationship is what sticks most in my mind, but the fantastic mystery itself is also plenty interesting. Every day, as the sun hits the line of water on the horizon, a bell tolls across the headland. Yet there is no bell in Sealey Head! Gwyneth writes stories about what she thinks it might be, but Ridley Dow comes to town to discover the truth. A somewhat absent-minded scholar, modest yet obviously wealthy, respectful yet impulsive, speaking in hushed tones of strange things and suddenly disappearing into the night for secret investigations or heroic actions, he is likable and fascinating all at once. We don’t get into his head as we do with Judd and Gwyneth, but he’s a great character for them to interact with. In fact, I could almost see a series based on his adventures…

But no matter. The secret of the bell at Sealey Head I will leave you to discover on your own, as there is no point in discussing it here. I am satisfied with it, although a little more explanation on the how and why would have been appreciated. It’s poetic, and a bit unexpected in the right way.

Patricia McKillip has managed the difficult job of stumbling upon an excellent premise and then refusing to let it dominate the plot entirely, focusing instead on natural, immensely likable characters who in return enrich all the story around them.

P.S. You have no idea how many times I almost typed “Ridley Scott” instead of Ridley Dow!