How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life
Mameve Medwed’s How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life gives a fresh spin to the Chick Lit genre, trading in high-end fashion shops and corporate offices for the flea markets of New England. I learned plenty about the antique world – more than I thought I would want to – and had a good time doing so.
Abby Randolph is a Harvard educated (never graduated, though) thirty-something, trying to make a go of a fledgling antique business in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her partner in A&C Eclectibles flew the coup for another woman shortly before the start of our story. Abby misses his presence more than the actual man, but it does hurt considering what a jerky way he went about dumping her. So now Abby spends her days in her stall at an antiques mall and her nights lonely in her needs-work apartment. That is until she takes a certain old chamber pot on Antiques Roadshow and finds out it once belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Abby experiences a certain amount of celebrity status amongst the antique set after her episode airs. Life is looking up until she finds out that her old friend, Lavinia declares that the chamber pot is hers and threatens to take Abby to court if she doesn’t hand it over. Lavinia was Abby’s neighbor and best friend growing up. Their mothers decided, late in life, that they were in love and ran off to travel the world together. It was while sorting through their mothers’ possessions after their deaths that Abby took the pot. While Abby wants to keep it for sentimental reasons, Lavinia wants the money it can bring in.
And then there’s Lavinia’s brother Ned. Ned was Abby’s first crush, first love, and first serious relationship. They were utterly perfect together until Ned went and did something incredibly stupid (don’t worry, nothing to do with cheating) and broke Abby’s trust. Ever since then she’s had a huge chip on her shoulder and, no matter what she says, is hardly over him. This fight over the chamber pot will dredge up too many memories that Abby would rather forget and possibly force her to face Ned again.
Problem is, Abby lacks a spine. She knows it. So does everyone else. It’s her acknowledgement and attempts to grow that spine back, that make her endearing. She’s not always successful in her attempts, but at least she tries.
A large part of the page count is back story. This can often be a novels’ downfall, but here it’s a strength. While the main story revolves around the chamber pot, it’s Abby’s life to date that is of real interest. Her connections with her lovely mother and Harvard professor father, the relationships she’s had over the years and her dealings with the singular Lavinia are told to us in a finely crafted first-person narrative. Instead of listening to the ongoing ravings of a 25-year-old and her struggles with finding just the right pair of shoes, it feels more like you’re sitting down and having a cup of coffee with Abby as she pours out her heart.
I would have liked Abby to stand up for herself a little sooner, but even more, I’d like to have a little more ink devoted to Ned in the present. I’m a huge sucker for childhood romance and fated soul mates and this romance was definitely heart-wrenching, but most references to Ned are past tense. As the present action moves forward, we barely see or hear from him, until the end. I wanted a little more time with him to get to know who he is after the incident with Abby in the past. Still, it’s a very satisfying ending.
Fashion is out in Ms. Medwed’s version of Chick Lit. The names of famous authors and poets sprinkle the text instead of various clothing designers – for once, I didn’t feel lost amongst Gucci, Prada, and Chanel. Fashion was never my thing, but start quoting Browning, Woolf, and Cummings and I melt like butter.
There are some problems here: A spineless heroine, an epiphanic moment that comes a little too late, and a whole lot of back story. But the bottom line is that I liked Abigail Randolph a great deal despite all her problems. And I really liked Mameve Medwed’s writing style – even if her name keeps tripping up my spell check. I enjoyed her tale about a famous poet’s necessary more than I thought I would. With that, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is a worthy read.