Please Remember This
This was a difficult review to write because I want so much to express my respect and admiration for this author’s body of work, but I’m confined to a review of perhaps her weakest book in a decade. Kathleen Gilles Seidel is one of my two or three favorite romance writers, a name that I think deserves to come up whenever people are discussing the truly superlative authors of the genre. My favorite Seidel books (among them Summer’s End, Again, and Don’t Forget to Smile) are some of my most cherished re-reads. It’s been a long time since Seidel’s last book, and I wish I could recommend Please Remember This more highly. Although it’s definitely readable, it pales in comparison to her best work.
The fault doesn’t lie in the premise. Tess Lanier is the daughter of Nina Lane, a sort of Sylvia Plath/JRR Tolkien hybrid who killed herself when Tess was three months old. Tess was raised by her grandparents to be an obedient, undemanding child, the opposite of her exhausting, manic-depressive mother. Following her grandparents’ deaths, Tess’s life appears to be set stolidly on an unfulfilling course until a reluctant visit to a Nina Lane festival triggers events which lead Tess suddenly into a fortune of long-denied royalties and the financial wherewithal to control her own destiny. The windfall spurs Tess to move to Fleur-de-lis, Kansas, her ancestral homeland and the mythologized setting of her mother’s unfinished manuscript, where she encounters remnants of her family’s history.
Many of those remnants are being dug up – literally – by Ned Ravenal, a historian whose family roots also sink deep into Fleur-de-lis soil. In 1857, the steamboat Western Settler sank into the Missouri River. The river shifted, and now the steamboat is buried under a cornfield which historian Ned will dig up while his brother Phil tries to turn it into a tourist attraction big enough to save the struggling small town.
Given my druthers, there would be more Western Settler and antique textiles, and less Nina Lane. Tess’s passion for restoring antique linens is an unusual one, and I would like to have learned more about it. Ned’s excavation, modeled on a real-life dig, is an interesting process and even the most mundane artifacts seem fascinating, as do Phil’s civic promotions. Tess and Ned both had ancestors on the boat, which gives them a strong connection to the past. Their present-day connection to each other is weaker. Romance is not a driving force in this book; even two-thirds of the way through Tess and Ned are still so exhausted by their labors that they’ve scarcely noticed each other.
Seidel’s greatest strength as an author lies in her command of details; I’m not aware of another writer better able to convey a character through a hundred subtleties, shaded together like a pointillist painting. Because of this I was surprised by how many details of the Nina Lane subplot either didn’t add up or didn’t pay off. Seidel often manufactures pop culture for her stories – soap operas, epic screenplays, a dozen styles of music commentary – but Nina and her creations never emerge. There are no direct quotes from Nina’s writing and only very one-sided reports of her personality. Every opinion of Nina is either ferociously negative, or it’s deluded and wrong. And yet this horrible person is supposed to have been so charismatic that a commune blossomed around her, so insightful that she finished an epic fantasy (at age 19) that tapped into the collective unconscious. There is simply not enough proof that she was capable of any of it. Even minor details ring false: I can’t imagine an SF festival where there’s more emphasis on dressing up as the author than on her characters. You don’t see hundreds of little JK Rowlings (or even Sylvias and Zeldas) on the news.
And yet…as lukewarm as this recommendation is, it is still a recommendation. If you haven’t read Seidel before, Please Remember This should profit from the Jayne Anne Krentz effect: even if this is a pale reflection of earlier, better work, that pale reflection is still superior to 80% of what’s out there. Seidel has been funnier, more acute, more alive to the complexities of family interactions before, but this book is still funny, acute, and alive. If you’re a historical fan who doesn’t usually like contemporaries, this could be an excellent bridge book. If you like this book, you’re going to love the backlist. I didn’t love this book as much as I wanted to, but I still have high hopes and great expectations for Seidel’s books in the future.