The Books: “Romance Is a Wonderful Thing” (Ellen Emerson White)

Daily Book Excerpt: YA fiction:

Next book on the shelf is Romance Is a Wonderful Thing by Ellen Emerson White

Don’t let the HORRIBLE title fool you. This is another great Young Adult novel – (by the same Rhode Island author) – and when I first read it I think I was 16, 17 – and I just flipped OUT. I thought it was the most romantic book I had ever read. (Guess I hadn’t read Jane Eyre yet, huh?) This book killed me. I wanted to crawl through the pages. Uhm … it reminds me of my response when I first saw Moulin Rouge. Obviously, I haven’t outgrown certain types of behavior. Moulin Rouge cut right through the crap that had been swirling around in my head, the well-meaning advice from worried friends, the crappy books I was reading, trying to get through the darkest time … and I rented that movie, and it shot through all that crap like a laser. And for a while – that was the only movie I could watch. I wasn’t really, how you say, a WELL person at that point … but Moulin Rouge was the life force asserting itself in me again. Yup. It was that dramatic. And I knew it the SECOND I watched the film. I knew it was the “way out”. If I could just keep my eye focused on the “way out” (by watching the movie every day) – then I would have a chance of making it out of that dark time. This book by Ellen Emerson White, with the horrible title, was the same kind of catalyst. I don’t think I was overly depressed when I read it, or anything like that – but I do remember being lonely – I was lonely as a teenager. Not because I didn’t have friends (right, Bets, Mere, Beth??) It was just this undefinable YEARNING for love, for a boyfriend, for … THAT whole thing to start. I had never had it … and I felt like I would die if I didn’t experience it. I was lonely for someone I had never met. This book was like Moulin Rouge in that it filled me with hope. I felt like: Oh God, it hasn’t happened yet … but it WILL. I lived it vicariously. And you know what? I still re-read this book on occasion. It’s still a good read.

Briefly, the story (and Beth: this might be a good one to read as well on your mandatory silent period):

The heroine of our story is Trish Masters. She’s a high school senior – and she’s one of those perfect girls. Not a popular girl, necessarily – but she’s an honor student, she’s a kick-ass tennis player, she’s well-liked, she’s got a couple really good friends – she’s on the “success track”. You know those girls.

Somehow, in the first or second chapter of the book – we are introduced to a guy in her class – Colin McNamara (first of all: the name?? Okay?? You see what I’m dealing with here?) Colin is kind of notorious. It is well known that he is illiterate, it’s well known that he drinks, that he causes trouble, that he is always being sent to the principal’s office for goofing off. He never takes anything seriously – and he has a terrible reputation. There’s also a rumor that he got some girl pregnant the year before. Trish never gives him a second thought – but somehow (not remembering it now!!) the two of them have an interaction where suddenly she sees something different in him. Or – she notices how cute he is. And suddenly- without her even talking to him, or admitting she has a crush on him – she starts defending him when his name comes up in a derogatory manner. Her friends don’t get it. “Why are you defending that loser?” Etc.

There are times in the book when we go into Colin’s world as well – even though Trish is the “star”. We see his life behind the scenes – and it is not at all what you would expect. We learn some things about him. For some reason, in my memory of the book – he has no mother – but apparently he does (I just double-checked.) Mainly it’s because his father makes such an impression – he seems like the main parent. His dad is a cop. Great character. A father anyone would love to have. He knows his son has problems – but he knows that deep down, his son is a good person – and he just has to keep encouraging and nurturing that good side – as opposed to focusing only on how much the kid gets into trouble.

We also learn, surprisingly – that Colin is not only NOT illiterate – but he is secretly a huge reader. He can recite long passages from Macbeth. He has read all of Faulkner, even though he kind of disliked it. He loves Hemingway. Etc. He is pissed off that because he got a bad reputation early on everyone just assumes he’s stupid – so he decides: “Fine. If they’re gonna think I’m stupid, then I’m gonna act stupid.” So he is flunking all of his classes – and then going home at night and reading Eugene O’Neill plays by himself.

Okay … so he’s a great character, basically. It doesn’t take much to fall in love with him. Everyone loves an underdog.

Somehow – Trish offers to tutor him in the subjects he is failing (having no idea that the kid is actually really really smart – and is failing on purpose). She really thinks that he’s mentally challenged as well, and needs her help. One night she’s at the local library, doing research for a paper she’s writing and she runs into Colin. Colin McNamara? At the library? WTF???? She looks at the books he has stacked up in his arms – The Old Man and the Sea and Richard II and she’s like: okay. What the hell is going on here? Colin walks Trish home from the library and ends up asking her to go out on a date. She says yes. The two of them are INCREDIBLY AWKWARD with each other, and it is all deliciously rendered.

Trish, on some level, believes all the rumors about Colin. She thinks he does sleep around, and he did get some girl pregnant – Scandal swirls about his head, and she kind of believes it all – even though she is starting to like him. Trish has no experience with guys. She has never dated anyone. Colin, on the other hand, feels like Trish is crazy to be interested in him … and so he acts all prickly at times, like: “You’re not ashamed to be seen with me?” etc. which makes her mad.

Eventually … their romance heats up – and the entire school starts to get involved. They seem mismatched. Trish, the virginal honors student, with Colin, the retarded sex-maniac jagoff? Trish endures a lot of grief. Everyone assumes that she is sleeping with him – because of course, Colin would NEVER go out with anyone without sleeping with them – and things get kind of rough for both of them. Lots of trouble-makers. Colin’s tough friends making fun of him for dating this pure little girl – Trish’s friends basically looking at Colin as though he’s something from under a rock. Trish also feels kind of embarrassed at her lack of experience – she’s never kissed anyone, never been on a date, blah blah (she so reminded me of me at that time) – and instead of keeping it all to herself, she would say to Colin, after he kissed her for the first time, ‘Am I bad at this?” Etc. She’s intimidated by what she sees as his VAST sexual experience. (Turns out that all of that is just a nasty rumor as well – but Colin is so pissed off that everyone is so eager to think the worst of him – that he lets the rumors fly.)

Again, like I said yesterday- Ellen Emerson White is so good at dialogue – and most of this book (like the one yesterday) is back and forth dialogue. Not too much editorial interjections – we just hear these people talking. I love it – because she’s good at it. She has the different voices down, we always know who is speaking – and somehow, very early on in this book – we become so invested in BOTH of these people. We love Trish, and we love Colin. And whether or not they end up together – we want both of them to do well, to be well.

It’s a scrumpdiddlyumptious book and I freaked out like a sexmad lunatic when I first read it. I wanted to be Trish! I wanted to date Colin! I wanted a guy to come into my life and completely MESS IT UP the way Colin messed up Trish’s life. I was DYING for it!!

Ahem. Oh well. I’m not embarrassed.

Here’s an excerpt. This is from their first date. Colin and Trish have gone to a movie and now they are out to eat. They don’t know each other at all. It’s really awkward.


Excerpt from Romance Is a Wonderful Thing by Ellen Emerson White

“So.” Colin cleared his throat.

“I enjoyed the movie.”

“Me too,” he agreed. “Yeah, good movie.” Nervously, he moved his hand forward to play with the salt shaker, but knocked it over. He winced, then picked it up and tossed some salt over his shoulder.

“Superstitious?” Trish asked.

“What? Oh, guess I’m in the habit. My mother – she’s doing that stuff all the time. You know.”

“Like knocking on wood?”

“Yeah. And if you drop a knife, a man’s coming to visit.”

“Really?” Trish looked down at her silverware. “What if I dropped my fork?”

“A woman.”

“How about my spoon? There’s nothing left.”

“It means a kid’s coming. Least, that’s what my mother says. Like Dad dropped a spoon the other night and some friend of hers called after dinner and said she was pregnant. My mother got all excited – kept shouting, ‘See? See?’ all night.”

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

“No, just me.” He grinned wryly. “After I showed up, they were afraid to try again.”

“The only child. You must be spoiled.”

“They let me get away with murder,” he agreed. “Oh, thanks,” he said, as the waitress put down his sandwich.

“Thank you.” Trish echoed him as she got her salad.

“Salad, huh?” He shook his head. “You should have gotten something decent.”

“I like salad.” She picked up the little cup of dressing. “Before I do this, do you like olives?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Here.” She transferred them to his plate. “Tell me three other things about you.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, three things you like.”

“You’ve been reading Seventeen, huh?” he asked.

She flushed. “So what if I have?”

“I knew it.” He took a gulp of Coke.

“So tell me three things.”

“I don’t want to play.”

“It’s not a game,” she said. “I’m serious.”

“Okay. Big Macs. I like Big Macs. Can we quit now?”

“Boy, you’re a lot of fun.”

“Okay, I like running.”

“I already know that.” She tried to spear a cherry tomato and missed. “What’s your favorite book?”

“I don’t know how to read,” he said stiffly.

“Then, how come you were in the library?”

“I look at the pictures.”

“In Hemingway?”

He scowled, putting his sandwich down.

“Can we talk about something else?” he asked.

“No.”

“Guess your friends thought it was pretty funny, you seeing me in the library,” he scowled.

“I didn’t mention it. I thought it might embarrass you.”

“You thought right.” He gulped down most of the Coke.

“Come on, Colin. I’m not going to make fun of you or anything.”

“Okay. Farewell to Arms,” he said, scowling harder. “Now, can we shut up about it?”

She nodded silently.

“Oh, terrific.” He shoved his plate away. “Now you’re mad.”

“I’m not mad.” She kept her eyes on her salad, playing with the lettuce. “You just sort of hurt my feelings.”

“Oh, great – guilt. Now I’m supposed to apologize.”

“Do what you want, Colin.” Her voice was very quiet.

Neither spoke for a long minute.

” ‘They have tied me to a stake,’ ” he said finally. ” ‘I cannot fly. But, bearlike, I must fight the course.’ ”

She looked up. “What?”

Macbeth.” He smiled slightly. “Act Five.”

“And you’re flunking out,” she said.

“Yup.” He picked up his sandwich.

“Is it none of my business?”

“I’m flunking out because I’m stupid.”

“But you’re not.”

“Yeah, I am. Look at the classes I’m taking – shop, stupid Functional Math, Spanish One …”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Hey, don’t bother, okay?” His voice was irritated. “I know they’re stupid classes. Hey, I’m not even in a real English class. I’m in Remedial Reading. My science class is horticulture- what are you in, chemistry? Something like that? What do you mean, I’m not stupid?” His voice was rising and he glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. “You know what happens if I give an answer in one of my classes?” He spoke more calmly. “The teacher nods and says, ‘Very good, Colin. Good job.’ They even speak slowly to make sure I understand! And you say I’m not stupid.” He took a vicious bite of his sandwich.

“What are you getting in reading?”

“I don’t know, a D? Something like that.”

“Sort of fulfilling their expectations?”

“Yup.” He gulped some Coke. “They want me to be dumb, I’ll be dumb.”

Trish moved her lettuce idly in her bowl.

“You know what you are?” she asked.

“Come on, Trish, I get this all the time.”

“You’re a closet intellectual, that’s what you are.”

He laughed, the irritation slipping away.

“Is that what you think?” he asked.

“That’s exactly what I think.”

“You’re cute, you know that?” He grinned at her. “And even cuter when you blush.” He reached over, touching her hand. “Trish –”

“Kids?” the waitress asked. “I hate to do this to you, but we’re kind of closing up and –”

“Oh, sorry,” Colin took one last bite of his sandwich, fishing for his wallet. By the time he’d paid and they were outside, he’d managed to change the subject to the movie, which they talked about until they got to her house.

He glanced at his watch. “Good, it’s not too late.” He gestured toward the lights coming from the living room. “Your parents still up?”

“Looks like it,” Trish said nodding. “Thank you, I had a nice time.”

“You don’t have to be polite.”

“I’m not. I had a good time.”

“I’m sorry I lost my temper.”

“It’s okay.”

“Not really,” he said.

They were both silent.

“Well, it’s — it’s getting kind of late.” Trish backed up a step.

“Yeah, it is.” He swallowed. “Guess I’d better get going.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Yeah.” He leaned forward and his lips brushed against hers. “Uh — goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

As he went briskly down the walk, she started up the front steps.

“Colin?” she asked, turning.

He pulled his hands out of his pockets. “What?”

“You said you wished you had a dog you could walk.” She held on to the cast-iron railing, not sure if she was going too far. “If it’s nice tomorrow, do you maybe feel like walking a lazy basset hound with a lot of sexual hangups?”

His grin came so fast that she could see the sudden white of his teeth in the darkness.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sounds good.”

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7 Responses to The Books: “Romance Is a Wonderful Thing” (Ellen Emerson White)

  1. Harriet says:

    Well, looks like I’ll be reading another of her books! Trish sounds a lot like me.

  2. red says:

    Harriet – give yourself a day off before picking this book up so you can at least catch up on your sleep!! :)

  3. miker says:

    “I’m not embarrassed.”

    And I’m glad of it! Reading your reviews of these sorts of things – things that wouldn’t necessarily be held in high esteem by the snooty crowd – invariably makes me smile.

  4. Harriet says:

    Yeah, I still need to do all the homework that didn’t happen because of last night’s binge! I’ll wait until my next regularly scheduled library trip. Luckily, I read quickly.

  5. Carl V. says:

    I only got as far as Moulin Rouge and had to go read your other posts about it. I have similar feelings as you about the impact of the film. I am unapologetically a hopeless…or hopeful…romantic as my darling wife can attend to. I had the good fortune to be in plays in high school and have also, through the generosity of a best friend who lives in NYC, been able to see many Broadway musicals over the years. There is nothing in the realm of entertainment that equals the thrill of being in a charged house during an exceptional musical. Moulin Rouge had the magical ability to do just that. It is the only movie I have ever been to in which I had to hold myself down from giving it a standing ovation. I feel that way every time I see it to this day. Moulin Rouge isn’t a movie for critics…its a movie for theatre lovers. It isn’t a film so much as an experience. To love Moulin Rouge is to allow oneself to become immersed in it like diving into a refreshing pool. Every aspect of the film is done perfectly in my opinion. I wouldn’t change a thing, even the sad ending that 9 times out of 10 I refuse to watch (I stop it right after the curtain closes in order to delude myself that Christian and Satine are still together enjoying life). It is a visually stunning film with wonderful music that truly does lift the soul. I get chills every time I see it and it does something to me every time in a way that only people like yourself understand. I feel so privileged to have seen it in the theatre and if it were rereleased I would rush out and spend more money to see it there again. I really enjoyed what you had to say about the film.

  6. red says:

    Carl – I LOVE your comments on this movie! I think you’re so right – that it’s a movie for theatre lovers. I can’t even really speak about it in any way that has any DISTANCE … It’s a movie I took very personally when I first saw it – a message I needed to hear. Love is worth it. With all the heartache. Love is worth it. I couldn’t learn that on my own in my own life – I was WAY too disappointed in TOO many things … but that movie helped me hold on. I swear. I STILL feel that when I watch it today. I totally can’t be objective about it, in any way, shape or form.

    And Ewan McGregor’s performance, for me – in all its almost operatic grief and love – is the key. He plays it real.

    Thank you for your words- it’s really nice to hear other people’s perspectives on that film.

  7. Carl V. says:

    Your earlier review/thoughts caused me to throw it in the DVD player and watch several of my favorite moments so I had to come over here last night and put my 2 cents in. I’m not sure where we get the idea that we need to be objective about the books, movies, etc. that we love. Unless you’re a paid critic there really is no point. Love of movies, books etc. is so subjective mostly because certain films and books can touch us in such profound, fantastic ways that any possible faults with them have no merit anyway. The original trilogy of Stainless Steel Rat books by Harry Harrison (inspiration for the name of my blog) are not great literature. But they are fun and are the first non-Star Wars sci fi books I read as a child and they have such deep personal meaning to me that it is actually a comfort book. I picked it up again the other day and started reading it (for the umpteenth time) because I was feeling inexplicably down and just needed the comforting presence of this old friend. I don’t think I’ve ever done a big post on Moulin Rouge but I should…it was very cathartic to post that comment last night.

    I really enjoy your site and will keep reading! :)

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