The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing

Chris Szego
Posted May 14, 2009

tinypiece.JPGOprah’s Book Club had a massive impact on the literary landscape, and I mean that in a good, non-dinosaur-killing way. The huge surge in the trade paperback market owes much to Oprah. I was working for Chapters when it went nova, and the number of times
we were asked for “y’ know, that book Oprah was talking about” was mind-boggling. The only question asked nearly as often was “Why does she always choose such $#!@*& depressing books?”

Oprah likes tales of misery, of tragedy and despair:  I won’t presume
to guess why.  She was asked once why she never chose something positive for her book club, like a romance novel. She responded, somewhat scornfully, that no one reads them. Her audience immediately corrected her. Surprised, she put the question up on her website, asking readers to name the genres of books they read most.
Romance outnumbered every other category combined. Which wasn’t a surprise to anyone who works in the publishing industry, but after that, some other kinds of books began to make their way into Oprah’s club. Of course since that brought Dr. Phil to prominence, maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

But Dr. Phil, smarm-master that he is, isn’t the point. The point is that Oprah never felt that there was enough misery in romance novels. She could not equate them in her mind with the stories of desperate struggle that spoke to her most profoundly. She didn’t believe they could encompass tragedy and a happy ending.

Which leads me to believe she hasn’t read Barbara Samuel.

Barbara Samuel is one of those rare people who wanted to be a writer all her life, and who actually succeeded at that aim. She put herself through university on writing scholarships, and afterwards wrote non-fiction to support herself as she made a name for herself in fiction. Although at least to start, it wasn’t her own name. When
she first began to work with Harlequin, the publisher kept the rights to the author’s name. So she wrote her complex and engaging category novels under the pseudonym Ruth Wind. Later, as she branched out in to longer works, first historicals, then contemporaries, she used her own name, Barbara Samuel.

Under those names, and her newest, Barbara O’Neal, she has published almost 30 books. Those books have collected between them a remarkable number of awards, including five RITAs. Her success is due largely to the nuanced richness of her characters, but also to the complexity of the worlds they inhabit. When she writes
historical fiction set in England, the religious bigotry of the time is not glossed over. If she writes a contemporary set in the United States, racial tensions are acknowledged – as is the realization that ‘black’ and ‘white’ are not the only races. In fact, her books often featured inter-racial relationships before those became a subcategory of their own.

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If there’s once thing Samuel understands, it’s that no interesting life is free from catastrophe. And sometimes, those disasters are of our own making. Her 2003 title, A Piece of Heaven, is an excellent example. It’s the story of Luna McGraw and Thomas Coyote, who meet when she helps his grandmother out of a burning house (it’s less melodramatic than it sounds). Both of them have been through some terrible times. Luna began to drink when her marriage collapsed, and ended by wrecking several cars, her career, and losing custody of her eight year old daughter. That daughter, now sixteen, is coming to stay for a year, and Luna, who has done the very hard work of putting herself back together, doesn’t have room in her life for any distractions. Enter Thomas, whose desire for a family was doubly blighted when he found out he was sterile, and his wife left him for his brother. He is man whose door is open to strays, human and otherwise, but whose heart is heavily guarded. Neither of them is looking to get involved. But once they meet, all their earlier plans are thrown into colourful disarray.

There are other characters of course, all of whom are reeling under some kind of damage. From the teenage neighbor trying to cope with the death of her father, to a woman coping with the loss of the husband who abandoned her years ago, to a man trying to end a toxic relationship with his wife. As a former social worker, I usually have zero patience for addictions or abuse in my fiction, often because they bear no resemblance to the reality. A
Piece of Heaven
has both, and I couldn’t put it down. Because Samuel not only did it right, she made it matter.

Samuel knows that tragedy doesn’t have to be enormous. It can be devastatingly personal. Which makes sense: while we empathize with grand scale disasters, we connect best with personal tragedies. The kind that make you catch your breath because they’re so immediate and comprehensible. Her characters are all of them survivors, of loss, of pain, of heartbreak. And they manage to move past those hurts. Not forget, or ‘get over’: move past. They earn the grace of their happy ending.

Which, more than anything else, is what Samuel wants to do. “I’m very interested in survivors, both male and female, and how people undergo really terrible traumas and manage to go on to lead full, powerful,
joyful lives.

The trauma is always going to be there: the joy can be there too. Maybe
someone should tell Oprah.

~~~

Chris Szego wishes Oprah had never picked, The Secret.  Sigh.

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