Wendy: In the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde suggested that art’s aim should be to reveal the art while concealing the artist. What filter should then be between a writer and her story? What then, is on the page: the person or the product? In the case of fiction that features an author as the protagonist the lines are hopelessly blurred, obliterated even. The fourth wall is removed and it becomes impossible to see the work as separate from the work’s creator. Instead of being enveloped by the world set on the page, the image of the writer at work overwhelms and the precious cocoon fiction creates is lost.
J.J. Murray’s Original Love is just such a work. The number of fictional writers that populate novels might lead the causal observer to conclude that the rarest of writers—multi-published authors on the best seller lists with fans clamoring for more—and the rarest form of celebrity—the celebrity author—are in fact common place. The celebration that writers receive in fiction is of questionable merit. Writing is a lonely and solitary practice. It is not performance art. The performance is the product, not the process.
Original Love attempts to elevate the process to entertainment. Through protagonist Peter Underhill, Murray shows the writer at work. What spices are in Peter’s heroine’s cupboard? A quick trip into the kitchen and Peter’s research is done. What books with river in the title would the heroine have read? A click over to Amazon.com and his protagonist has a bookshelf. It is boring at best and myopic at worst.
Peter is a successful novelist under the pen name Desiree Holland. Desiree’s books feature African-American heroines, each told in what Peter remembers as the voice of Ebony, the love of his life. His publisher, who believed the white male behind the books wouldn’t be accepted, created Desiree. For Peter a monster was born via the anonymity. After his divorce from Edie—Ebony’s antithesis, an upper class rich white woman—Peter wants to write his history as literary nonfiction, under his own name. His publisher wants another Desiree Holland book, with a sassy, sexed up heroine. Peter decides to write the Desiree book the publisher is willing to pay him for and another book, a Peter Underhill book. Murray then further burdens an author as the protagonist story by excerpting both books as Peter writes them. The Desiree book—an interracial romantic comedy—does not advance the plot of Original Love and its purpose and inclusion are questionable beyond Murray’s self congratulatory juxtaposition of popular fiction with something—the Peter Underhill book—that tries and fails to be literary.
At its core, Original Love is a credible and compelling love story as well as the journey of a man who comes to understand his father only in the soft focus of memory. As Peter writes the second book— his life’s story, the non-Desiree book, the book to unlock him from obscurity—the story of his first and only love, Ebony Mills, is revealed. Peter’s literary work is told in third person—versus the first person narration of the Desiree book and the umbrella book Original Love—and it’s distant, with the writer Peter failing to connect with the twelve year old version of himself he writes of. But, Peter and Ebony’s young love is poignant and their youth well captured, even if it’s clear the adult Peter remembers Ebony through rose-colored glasses. With the second book under way, Peter attempts to find Ebony, the girl he left behind, the woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Once he finds Ebony—though in truth, she was never lost, he was—the story is able to move forward without the persistent interruptions of the books within the books. Until, Ebony herself begins to write hers and Peter’s story from her perspective. And that makes three excerpted works within Original Love…if, of course, you’re not counting the two poems as well.
The problem with the novel-within-a-novel conceit (or, as it is here, three novels, though two stories, within a novel) is that it not only stretches disbelief – it is one thing to imagine a fictional character, another thing entirely to imagine a fictional character’s fictional character, an existential nightmare if ever there was one – but it stretches the talent of the author not up to the task. When done successfully, like Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin or John Irving’s The World According To Garp, the second novel is as compelling a tale as the one it exists in, the writing as strong, the story as driven. But when it fails, as it does here, it fails because the stories themselves are purposeless and without motivation. While Peter Underhill’s novel serves the purpose of filling in back story, there’s simply no reason for that portion of the story to exist as anything other than back story, never mind that the conceit itself comes off as self-conscious. In a book like Atwood’s or Irving’s, the other book or story is more than just the folly of the writer in the story, rather, they are the story. With Original Love however, they are a stumbling block that allows the story to be lost in the telling.
HelenKay: Original Love combines three stories in one. The first is the story of Peter Underhill and Ebony Mills and a love that blossomed twenty years before on the playground but never died. The second is the book Peter is writing based on his love decades-long love for Ebony. The third is the sexy romance novel Peter’s editor is expecting from Peter using his pen name Desiree Holland. With three plots and three sets of characters, at least one story should hold together, deliver conflict and grab the reader’s attention – should, but doesn’t.
Forty-year-old Peter has spent his writing life hiding behind his pen name. When his financial position hits an all-time low and he’s left living on his deceased father’s boat, he contacts his editor Henry begging for an advance and another book contract. Peter wants to shed his pseudonym and stop pretending to be a sassy black woman to the book buying world. He’s ready to hit the shelves as the boring divorced white guy writer he is. Peter’s editor Henry has another idea. He wants a third Desiree Holland novel. More of the same. Peter is tired of the same old stuff. He wants to write something real. And he wants Ebony back.
Peter and Ebony met years before during a game of street hockey and spent their formative teen years learning about each other and exploring their sexuality. Ebony’s mother discovers the relationship and grows to accept Peter. Peter’s father, the Captain, isn’t so understanding. The Captain has definite feelings on the idea of dating people from other racial groups – you don’t do it and if your son does, you knock him to the floor. Repeatedly. Here, nothing kills teenage lust like a family move (Ebony, or so Peter thinks) and a father’s wrath.
Peter regrets losing touch with Ebony. He blames his father’s racism for driving them apart. He also has the usual, and not very original, romance novel problem: He wrote to Ebony for years, but she never wrote back. In an explanation that is overdone, possibly even trite, it turns out Ebony’s mother intercepted the letters and never delivered them to Ebony. Peter wrote, professed his love, gave up when he never heard from his beloved and moved on, only to find eternal sadness without her. Sure, as he got older, Peter could have gone to Ebony’s front door and knocked. He did, she wasn’t there and he assumed they moved. In a plot twist that lacks any real twist, they didn’t move but Ebony had a secret that made her hide from Peter. Why hide exactly? That’s not clear. But, she hid and that hiding and a few other incidents that feel more like pseudo-conflict than true conflict kept them apart.
While the idea of writing this tale from the viewpoint of these interlocking stories is a clever one, the execution falters. The constant switching between Peter’s current life and the book he is writing about his life and love for Ebony is jarring and interrupts the flow of both stories. Once the reader is invested in one – usually the story version of Peter’s life – she is pulled back out and sent in a different direction.
The story Peter writes about his life is the most compelling. This portion allows Peter’s past with his father and with Ebony to unfold in a realistic manner, all while told through the eyes of a growing boy. The writing is the cleanest here as are the feelings and mood conveyed by the characters. By contrast, Peter’s modern-day story as the protaganist writing the two books is not as strong. The writing in this portion, at times, gets dragged down in attempts at literary ramblings that seem both forced and out of place in comparison to the rest of the book. The third story aspect, the Desiree Holland novel, feels extra and unnecessary. The tone and voice of the writing as Desiree lack warmth. This change in style from one of Peter’s book to the other likely was intentional by Murray and meant to show Peter’s strength as a writer when dealing with the story of his life versus the story he doesn’t want to write by Desiree.
While Ebony’s family is a refreshing change to the other characters in the book, some of the secondary characters fail to add much to the tale. Henry is one-dimensional to the point of being irrelevant. There is a side story where Henry, who is gay, wants Peter to impregnate Henry’s girlfriend. This piece of the plot does not fit with anything that goes before or after it, and leaves the reader feeling lost.
One of the biggest problems with the book is the general sense that nothing much is happening. Despite the numerous characters and stories intersecting here, the book lacks direction and conflict sufficient to keep it moving from beginning to end. In many ways – in almost every way – what little conflict exists here actually resolves itself with about 80 pages left to the book. The result is a slow petering out, despite the neatly wrapped up happy endings to all of the plotlines.
HelenKay’s Question: There is a big debate in romance circles about segregating "white" romance novels from "black" romance novels, as if the ethnic and racial background of the author matters to the reader. Original Love explores a romance between a white man and an African American woman. Were you able to connect to Ebony’s life and experience as set out by a white male writer?
Wendy’s Answer: I had a bit of a disconnect with Ebony. It had nothing to due with a white male writing about a black woman and everything to do with a man writing—what I saw as—an idealized woman. Peter remembers Ebony as a fantasy girl—a pretty tomboy with boobs, maybe wise beyond her years, willing to make the first step, willing to make the first move, understanding and patient of his sexual inexperience. That rose colored memory is fine and appropriate; it’s a natural human response for the perception to replace reality. I had a very difficult time with the present day Ebony, and for that matter her daughter Destiny, believing she’d welcome Peter back after twenty years with so little anger. He left, or abandoned her according to Ebony’s way of thinking, and eventually married someone else. She mourned, pined away for him, didn’t date, and bought the house they dreamed of together. Yet, when he shows up again, the very first thing Ebony does is initiate sex with Peter. I think the chick thing to do in that situation is yell, scream, cry, burn his clothes in the front yard—refuse to see him even—but not welcome him home on her back an in between her legs before they’ve had even one conversation. There were simply too many times where I questioned whether a woman would act as Murray portrays his female characters.
Wendy’s Final Thought: Original Love is lost in the execution.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: One of those times when a lot is going on but nothing much happens. The result is a promising premise that never comes to fruition.