The Wedding Ring Quest
You know what I like about Carla Kelly’s books? They have real people. I don’t just mean that she doesn’t pull out the marquesses and dukes, although she has eschewed the nobility in the last decade. I mean her characters act and speak like actual complex human beings. They don’t just shriek and sigh and stutter and stew, and generally act like exaggerated versions of their stereotypes (a double offence, if anything). They just…are, according to their characters, and very pleasantly I might add.
Mary Rennie and Captain Ross Rennie are perfect examples. Mary is a poor relation vaguely longing for a fresh chance in America, but she doesn’t do anything about it. Ross is a weary naval captain who doesn’t know how burnt out he is until the book’s events take over, and he does have a wee temper. But really, they’re good sorts. They’re normal people with normal problems, and they make mistakes and try to overcome them. That’s about as simple as it gets. Ross doesn’t get a promotion and end up an admiral, or have a long-lost aristocratic uncle die and leave him with a dukedom; Mary doesn’t magically come into an inheritance, or access her dormant entrepreneurial skills and become the best baker in Edinburgh. Throughout the course of the book Ross realizes how much trouble he’s in, psychologically, and takes steps towards reparation, while Mary finds her initiative to start the journey towards independence. But there’s nothing here beyond small changes that make a difference, and a journey that proves the catalyst. Take them as they are, or leave them.
The journey is the eponymous quest, which, cheesy as the title is, is rather apt. Mary is indeed on a wedding ring quest — her petulant cousin Dina is getting married but finds her fiancé’s Christmas gift of a trinket so pitiful that she impulsively dumps it into the cook’s fruitcake batter. Bad choice. The trinket is actually her fiancé’s grandmother’s ring, and he wants to see her wear it at Christmas in three weeks. But Mrs. Morison has already sent the four fruitcakes on to friends and relatives, so who should be sent to retrieve and pillage through the fruitcakes? Mary, of course.
Three down, one to go: En route to the last fruitcake in York Mary stops at a coaching inn and encounters Captain Rennie and his son, who are on their way to spend Christmas with his sister in Dumfries. Mary and Ross quickly discover a great-grandsomething in common and cast discreet eyes at each other, but their acquaintance is further prolonged when Mary hits it off with ten-year-old Nathan. So in the morning Ross proposes — no, insists — that instead of sending his cousin off in a stagecoach, they delay their journey north and escort Mary south to find the last fruitcake.
Ross is on a journey of his own; he stopped at the coaching inn because it has amazing four-foot long sausages, part of a gastronomic travel list recommended to him by former crew members and compiled over many nights of yearning for their homes. Some of his crew he managed to visit; some are long gone. It is one such member, Tom Preston and Skowcroft’s lemon curd pudding, that sparks a change in Ross’ journey.
Because it’s not just about the food, is it? Mary realizes this quickly, partially because she’s naturally perceptive and partially because she’s quickly becoming very attuned to this weathered, beaten, younger-than-he-looks sea captain. Ross is a ticking time bomb, and he needs not just to taste the lemon curd pudding, but also visit Skowcroft’s vicar and his wife, the parents of 15-year-old Tom who died in the Pacific more than ten years ago. The fruitcake trip becomes Ross’ catharsis. As for Mary, in helping Ross she discovers the will to make changes in her life.
For all the book’s “normalcy”, as I trumpeted earlier, it is also a story of extremes, with moments in quick succession that made me laugh, cry, frown, and want to hit Ross. I find this completely appropriate to Ms. Kelly’s style and the realities of life; I may not be a 24-year-old supermodel governess who pedagogicizes her way into a duke’s heart, but damn it, I have feelings too. And we feel them as keenly Almack’s glamour pusses. And after all, our characters — and particularly Ross and Nathan — live lives of extremes. Ross has seen birth, love, happiness, death, war, tragedy, and separation process through his life in a revolving door, and while Nathan relies on the resiliency of childhood to guide him through his parent’s departures they are still wrenching.
However, I would have liked more time to explore these vicissitudes, and I wonder if this story would have fared better in a longer length. In particular, towards the end Ross does something that chases Mary away for good (or at least, for a few months), and it took me by surprise because I hadn’t felt the coiled spring of his temper until that moment. Ms. Kelly also leaves a few threads unfinished regarding Mary’s relationship with the cook — touches that, admittedly, fit in with life’s often unfinished moments, but that come off as rushed in 288 pages.
Nevertheless, I have to recommend The Wedding Ring Quest. While not Ms. Kelly’s best book there is more than enough here to take you away for a while with sympathetic, relatable characters whom I’d recognize on the street, and dare to approach. How wonderful.