The Gentleman Caller
“A gentleman caller” evokes a myriad of subtle undertones and hidden meanings, but mainly it brings to mind one of the old rites of passage for a well-bred Southern lady. Not only that, it brings to mind all sorts of pleasant connotations of the good ol’ South; magnolia trees, antebellum mansions, delicate ladies who are as prone to swoons as they are to demonstrate their equally steel-like spines, a la Scarlett O’Hara. Thus it was with gusto that I picked this book up and began to read.
It begins in June 1856 in New Orleans. Corinne and Rosalie Lafon are daughters of one of the town’s most highly placed Creole gentlemen, wealthy banker Garland Lafon. Rosalie, whose tends cholera-ridden invalids and mothers her father, wants desperately to be a nun although her father is adamant she is not suited to the life and is equally desperate to talk his favourite daughter out of it. Corinne, though blessed with a stunning beauty that Rosalie is not, envies the close bond between her perfect sister and aging father. She is a troubled young lady who gets herself into trouble and delights in male attention, while really just wanting her father’s high esteem. These ladies are delicate flowers who never seem quite able to finish a meal or get a decent night’s sleep or raise their voices above a whisper when in male company.
Jack Waters is a desperate man. After an act of youthful stupidity he’s spent three years in prison; now his own family have ruthlessly turned their backs on him and want nothing more to do with him. Somehow, he meets with his uncle’s business partner, none other than Garland Lafon, who promises that he will inherit his entire fortune if he can but court and marry his most prized possession, his daughter Rosalie, and rescue her from a life of chastity. When they first meet, Jack is surprised that Rosalie doesn’t turn her well-bred Creole nose up at him, garbed in ragged clothing and smelling of sweat as he is. However, he finds nothing of merit about her demeanour and is discouraged by her lack of charm and her obsession with religion. In his own words she was “a society spinster who spent every spare moment martyring herself to good works and religion.” Indeed, when I read of Rosalie’s desire to “feel the kiss” of Christ and her rhapsodising about being joined forever with Him, I couldn’t help but feel she was repressing something. Once she learns of her father’s plans for her she immediately pulls out all the stops to rid herself of this unwanted beau even though she’s already agreed to her father’s face that she will go through with his plans (to which I thought Hah! Finally, she sins!).
Meanwhile Corinne, having just lost another unsuitable beau to her father’s everlasting ire, is immediately attracted to Jack, who is instantly enraptured by her beauty and kicks himself for being lumbered with the wrong sister. The author lays his inner conflict on thick by overusing the motif of scent – jasmine when he thinks of Rosalie and roses when he thinks of Corinne. Corinne lets it be known she is available for his pleasure, her mission being to find a daddy for the baby whose presence she finds out about through her maid Paulette, the resident voodoo expert invariably present in stories of Creole society. With Paulette’s aid she attempts through hocus pocus and outright seduction to win her man. Despite this, we are told that she bears no resentment or ill will towards her angelic sister, even going so far as to check with Rosalie if her pursuit of her sister’s fiancée is okay by her. The purported relationship between Rosalie and Jack, with its inauspicious beginning, becomes convoluted by this strange subplot.
Rosalie and Jack don’t really spend any quality time together during the novel. Occasionally they encounter each other and Jack invariably manages to scare her off about two seconds later. Her fears are linked to her troubled adolescence; she fell for her cousin Gaston only to have daddy dearest put the kibosh on her hopeful dreams. Since then she has so completely repressed herself that it’s not until the end of the book that the couple even begin to come together, although at least, touchingly, they have learned to trust each other to some degree by this point. Unfortunately, even this limited glimpse of their relationship is marred by the tragedy of what happens to Rosalie’s sister, who goes altogether too far in her mission to win her father’s love.
This is a novel discredited by implausible plot points. Sometimes a story can overcome these sorts of things by a hero and heroine with amazing chemistry, but unfortunately The Gentleman Caller doesn’t have this to fall back on. For example, there’s a bunch of horse doody early on about Jack’s huge sacrifice in being affianced to Rosalie – which is obviously rubbish since his main, acknowledged motivation in the story is Garland’s fortune. Garland himself knows that Jack’s reason is money and to gain back his social status, yet we are fed a lot of rubbish about Jack’s nobility, something that is highly questionable considering he can so easily be bought. When the two men have a falling out toward the end of the book Garland accuses Jack of being a fortune hunter – but surely this was already fact! I could name a few dozen other holes but I can’t bear to torture myself by reliving them. Also, Jack spends much of the novel fantasising about and lusting after the nubile Corinne and regretting being stuck with the ugly sister – not exactly what one expects from a hero and heroine who are constantly implied as being meant to be for each other.
In addition to the unbelievable plot points and lack of chemistry there’s simply the matter of Rosalie, that rosary-saying, invalid-tending, pleasure-hating pain in the posterior. Not once does she or Jack ever get to have fun and it bogs the whole story down with a depressive fugue that never lifts. Sometimes an author can create a really enjoyable heroine who is also a good or virtuous heroine, but here we have the clichéd repressed, hysterical, melodramatic spinster who uses her good works as a shield against real life. When I read that her feelings for Jack suddenly changed because ‘God told her to save him’ I wanted to send the author the dentist’s bill for my poor ground-down teeth. Corinne, the only character who shows some joy in life and some backbone, is suggested as being half crazed for her father’s affection, which rather ruins her attraction as a character.
In the end, there was nothing much to save this book from itself. Its own conclusion was facile and unconvincingly drawn, with previously hardhearted relatives suddenly going soft on the young’uns and people throwing formerly iron-clad convictions off left, right and center. I couldn’t wait to finish it so I could forget about it and start something else, and I sincerely hope that the next time I get my hands on a book about the South it manages to be a little less grim.