Something Shady, by Pamela Morsi

>> Thursday, July 05, 2007

TITLE: Something Shady
AUTHOR: Pamela Morsi

PAGES: 326

SETTING: Venice, Missouri, in 1915
TYPE: Americana romance
SERIES: I don't think so

REASON FOR READING: Reread. I'm rearranging books and I keep finding great stuff shelved on the second row (yeah, I have so many books I have to shelve two-deep) and going "ahhhhhhh, this one was soooo lovely".

Gertrude Barkley, unmarried and unapologetic, had already caused a lot of talk in Venice, Missouri, with her independent ways and her book-writing career. But when she bobbed her waist-length hair, the town gossips had a field day...

Mikolai Stefanski didn't know what all the fuss was about. In fact, he rather liked Gertrude's daring new look. A proud Polish immigrant, who had managed to become Venice's most successful businessman, Mikolai had always admired Gertrude's rebellious spunk--if only from afar. After all, he believed in doing things his own way, too--though he wasn't quite as flamboyant about it.

They had lived in the same sleepy town for a long time. But it would take a scandalous discovery--and a wild misunderstanding--to make them appreciate each other in a whole new way...
THE PLOT: Gertrude Barkley is the town eccentric of Venice, Missouri. The shocking books she writes are scandalous enough, but not content with that, she keeps behaving in strange ways... cutting her hair short, for example, which makes her brother, with whom she lives, practically die with shame.

Mikolai Stefanski's the town's foremost citizen, owner of the brickyard that keeps it alive, but that wasn't always the case. Almost 15 years earlier Mikolai was a newly arrived Polish immigrant with nothing but a bit of broken English, a little motherless child and some big ideas.

There was always a simmering attraction between these two, but it isn't until Gertrude's niece Claire discovers an old diary of her aunt's that anything happens between them. See, that diary tells of a doomed love affair between Gertrude and Mikolai, one that ended in Gertrude giving birth to a child at around the time Claire herself was born. What is she to think? With the help of her best friend Teddy, who happens to be Mikolai's son, Claire will do her best to reunite the two people she now believes are her parents.

MY THOUGHTS: Lovely, just lovely. Yep, this book has the dreaded matchmaking kid, but I swear, it's funny, rather than painful. Claire's machinations were positively machiavellan and her very, very teenage conviction that of course the two boring people she's always thought were her parents can't possibly be so, because could never have produced such a special girl... well, that was terrifyingly believable. I didn't completely buy the thing about the diary, mind, because sure, an aspiring author might fantasize about her life in writing, but would she leave it lying around for her niece to find? Hmmm.... Reminds me of Mrs. Giggles' newest peeve about heroines who take secret sex diaries and naughty sex toys to job interviews *g*

But ok, I was quite fine with this setup. I think it works so well because Gertrude and Mikolai don't really need much of a push to move from merely thinking "He (she) is wonderful and attractive, but I'm past the age of romance" to actually doing something about it. It's clear they've been unconsciously waiting for something to make the idea of an affair between them conceivable. And for those who assume Americana is always Kisses-only... you obviously haven't read Morsi yet. Gertrude and Mikolai's relationship is nicely spicy.

It's also one in which it's clear that the physical attraction is only a small part of what's between the characters. Each very obviously likes and respects the other, and they treat each other accordingly. They are both grown-ups, and this is clear as well.

Each was also interesting in their own right. I loved seeing the growth in Gertrude. At first, this is someone who believes her life is pretty much done and that these are the circumstances that will be hers until she dies. The only excitement in her life is destined to be watching her niece and nephew make their own lives. She'll just watch as other people live, maybe enlivening things a bit with harmlessly shocking actions, such as cutting her hair. It was wonderful to see her realize she can still make a life for herself with Mikolai.

And Mikolai was even more fascinating to me. I was very interested in the glimpse into the immigrant experience that we got through him. A lot of his attitudes and experiences are obviously shaped by the first half of his life, which he spent in Poland, but he's embraced his new country completely. He doesn't consider himself Polish, but American, even though he's aware that many of his new countrymen and women don't consider him so. He doesn't even much care, actually, because he knows his son will be seen as fully American and will have the same opportunities as anyone else, and that's what he endured so much for.

This all rang very true to me. He could have been my great-grandfather, except that great-grandpa took the ship to South America instead of the next one, which was going to North America, and that he started from Southern Italy, not Poland. But he assimilated completely, as well, and worked his butt off to make a success of himself in this place where he actually had the chance to improve his life.

Ahem, anyway. Moving on. This is going to sound weird coming from me, because obviously, my picture of America is not a real one, but one constructed from books and movies and the internet and talking to people, not real-life experience, so I might be talking out of my ass here. But I think the setting of this one might be close to what many Americans think is the old-fashioned quintessential America. The Mom, the flag and apple-pie, Main Street, USA kind of thing. It's interesting, and a just-rosy-enough picture. Morsi isn't so in love with this that she doesn't see the flaws. The flaws are clear, but her love for it all does shine through. And while I thought things like "I would hate living among that bunch of hypocritical, judgemental gossip-mongers", I understood that the good things about it would compensate for the problems, at least for the people Morsi had established Gertrude and Mikolai to be.

And speaking of the setting, given that I was reading Maisie Dobbs at the same time as this one, something that stuck me was how completely unconnected the people of Venice, Missouri were from what was going on in Europe. 1915, that's the middle of World War I! What was strangest was that Mikolai was Polish and still had a lot of family living there, and yet he devoted no thought whatsoever to what might have been happening in their lives. And a lot probably was, because from what I can tell from a cursory google search, there was a lot of fighting and destruction going on there. Not something that jarred me out of the story, or anything, but I did wonder.

All in all, a wonderfully charming book, with an especially good ending. I dare anyone not to go "awww" at Mikolai's chicken pox comment! And honestly, I can promise you that after a while, the fact that the heroine's name was Gertrude didn't bother me in the least!



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