The Secret Dreams of Emily Porter
The Secret Dreams of Emily Porter is Judith Raxten’s debut novel. Though competently written and easy to read, it left me dissatisfied. The author tells an interesting story, but her style of telling about events and characters shortchanged both, and her character development lacked refinement.
The novel begins with a prologue. Emily, on the eve of her son’s graduation, takes a last look at the beach house she is selling. She reminiscences about the past, because it is here that she lived with her small son Sam after the death of his father, Ethan, and where she met her present husband, Josh. Don’t blame me for spoilers, it’s all in the prologue. So very obviously this novel is not at all about what happens, but how.
Some 25 years ago, Emily Porter left California for Maine after an abusive marriage. Her experiences have left her quite a mess, and to keep her mother happy, she invents a string of imaginary dates, the latest of whom is a former Hollywood actor turned photographer whose latest book happens to be lying on her coffee table. Emily and her mother attend a school play at which Ethan Douglas, the photographer, is also present. Mom recognizes him from the picture in the book, and Emily in desperation accosts him and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend. Ethan is amused and plays along, going so far as to invite both women to dinner in a restaurant.
Ethan finds himself instantly charmed with Emily. Because Emily lost all self-confidence and sense of self-worth during her first marriage, she is very prickly and not open for a new relationship at first, but Ethan woos her with patience and understanding. (My compliments here to Judith Raxten for making their first sex truly awful. It improves quickly, of course.) Slowly Emily comes to trust and love Ethan. The age difference of his 48 years to her 31 does not matter at all. Soon she lives with Ethan in his seaside cottage, they are blissfully happy and get married on a trip to Nova Scotia.
And this takes readers up to about page 100. Now we know from the prologue the general outline of what will occur, so I am not giving away too much when I tell you that Ethan dies tragically and unexpectedly. The rest of the novel covers the way Emily copes with this devastating loss, how her son Sam is born, and how she meets her third husband, Josh Lundgren.
Judith Raxten writes in a pleasant style. I especially liked the way she describes places: Emily’s flat, the beach, Ethan’s cottage. I saw them in my inner eye, and the places are employed well to carry the mood of the characters. For her handling of mood and place alone I consider Judith Raxton a promising author well worth watching.
On the other hand, the novel is seriously flawed in two important aspects. First, the author engages in far too much telling and not enough showing. The prologue and epilogue aside, the novel covers roughly five years, so some developments must be summarized. However, Judith Raxten goes further than this and gives summaries of the protagonists’ characters – including elements she should rather have shown.
Secondly, Emily as a character is far too imperfect. Judith Raxton tries to make her a very ordinary kind of woman, but she goes over the top with it. Emily is short, dumpy, has no dress sense whatsoever, can’t cook (much is made of her not even being able to cook coffee, for goodness sake), never has anything in the fridge to offer to guests, doesn’t tidy her clothes or do dishes, has no apparent personal charm, has no self-confidence, is so prickly that she tries to scare away her suitors, and consistently lies about her feelings. You get the picture. I was fine with that during her first courtship with Ethan – hey, she’s been through a horrible marriage, and he’s an exceptional guy – but when Josh turns up and the same pattern repeats itself, It pulled me right out of the story.
One wonderful man falling in love with Emily and wooing her against everything she puts up is miraculous enough, but two? What do they fall in love with? I understand that romance is all about wish-fulfillment. But a romance heroine, to be believable, must be at least have some redeeming grace. And Emily doesn’t. So I stopped liking her in the middle of the novel. If Emily is too imperfect, both Ethan and Josh are too perfect. They always know how to react to Emily’s insecurities, they cook and clean, they never watch baseball and want to have sex every single night. Nice, but too much.
All in all I can’t recommend quite The Secret Dreams of Emily Porter. It is not bad by a long shot, but its flaws distracted me while reading the book. Still, it will be interesting to see what Judith Raxten writes next.