Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Coming Out of the Darkness

Have you ever gone to the movies alone and gotten so caught up in the story, the setting & the characters that when you leave the theater, blinking in the daylight, you're disoriented for a while, unsure where you parked the car?

I feel that way, and I've not been to the movies like that in a while. (We went to see Up! the other day, though -- it was lovely, but it didn't transport me the way I'm talking about.) But it's not the movies that have done it to me this time -- it's a series of books. Six of `em, and I've read them in order twice over, mostly in the last ten days. Frankly, it's been tough to leave Miller's Kill, NY and get on with my life in Kingsley, PA.

The books are by Julia Spencer-Fleming:

In the Bleak Midwinter
A Fountain Filled With Blood
Out of the Deep I Cry
To Darkness and To Death
All Mortal Flesh
I Shall Not Want

There's no law that says you can't read them out of order, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Okay, so why have these books captured my heart in a way no other series has? (And, incidentally, this series has some stiff competition: the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King, the Jack Reacher thrillers by Lee Smith, the Chicago Stars series by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and several more. This isn't my first bout of "reader's OCD.") It has to be the relationship between the two protagonists, the Reverend Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ van Alstyne. Oh, I've enjoyed the mysteries, and there are some other characters I enjoy, but these two people are captivating.

[And I'm not alone -- Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books admitted she's read In the Bleak Midwinter three times, and A Fountain Full of Blood twice.
At this point, I’ve become a hyperventilating freakshow about this series. I read all six in a marathon of reading and staying up late, and I’ve passed the name of the author on to anyone who stands still long enough. I’ve read the first one three times, and am re-reading the second.
I can't tell you what a relief it was to read that! If they do cart me away to the padded cell, I'll have a fun roommate...]

Clare is a former Army helicopter pilot, Russ is (like Jack Reacher) a former Army MP, so they have that much in common. But that's about it for similarities: he's now the chief of police of a small town in upstate NY (I gather it's based on Hudson Falls, a town I'll admit I know almost nothing about, despite growing up in nearby Schenectady and Albany), and she's the new rector of St. Alban's, the Episcopal church in town. He's fourteen years older than her. She's a woman of faith, he's a nonbeliever. They don't actually discuss politics, but it wouldn't be too hard to imagine that he's a Republican and she's a Democrat. (There is a brief moment when Russ taunts Clare, "And I bet you vote for universal health care every time.")

When they meet each other, though, they are each meeting their other half, the person that completes one's soul. This is, to put it mildly, extremely awkward -- he's happily married and she's celibate as befits a single priest in a religion that doesn't approve of sex outside of a committed long-term relationship. There can be no question of an affair, and neither of them wants to destroy Russ's marriage. But life without each other is inconceivable.

There's a lot in there I can relate to. I too was happily married when Starman and I got to know each other. I was committed to that marriage; it was what I knew and what I wanted. Luckily for me, Hub 1.0 was ready to "graduate" from our marriage to his own life on his own terms. I realize it seems impossible to imagine a marriage ending without bloodshed and recriminations and some disparity in the effect on each spouse, but I'm pretty sure we pulled it off.

But I can't help thinking it might have gone very differently. If Hub 1.0 had said he wanted to stay married, or if my relationship with Starman had blossomed earlier, I'd have had precisely Russ's problem. In one book, he contemplates what life will be like if Clare leaves Miller's Kill.
He was happy before she came.
Happy like the dead in their well-loved graves. Unknowing, unseeing, unfeeling.
[T]he words were stopped in his thoat by the realization that she would be going away. In a year or less. And he would never see her again.
He would get back into his coffin. He would pull the lid down himself. He supposed, after a few years, he might even grow to like it again.
It's not that his wife is a terrible person. In fact, when she does finally show up, she's lovely. She's just not connected to him in the same way that Clare is.

I won't say how all that gets resolved, but I was reading an interview that Spencer-Fleming gave relatively recently about the challenge of balancing the mysteries (murder-misdirection-detection-logic-solution) with the development of the relationship. She said that when she starts writing the dialogue between Clare and Russ she can hum along quite happily, having them trade sassy comebacks, but it's not getting the crime solved. And my thought was, I want to read those discarded scenes! Write a book that's just about Clare and Russ! Of course it doesn't work that way, but it's what I wanted.

What's been so shocking has been the sheer emotional power these books have for me. It's not the depiction of the Episcopal church; I was baptised and confirmed in that faith, but I never went to church (just how the family situation worked out, I guess) and I don't think I was ever touched with any sense of the divine while I was in church -- mostly just interested in the architecture, music, and congregants' hats. Of course, if the local Episcopal church (I say local, the nearest one must be 30 miles away at least) had Clare Fergusson as its rector, I'd be lining up at the door; she's remarkable palatable to nonbelievers like me and Russ!

Then I remembered something. Back in January 1998 I was reading a Susan Elizabeth Phillips romance (don't remember which one, sorry) when something in it, some internal dialogue by the heroine, made me suddenly sit up and think, "So that's how I feel about him!" I'd just come back from England, where I'd met up with Hub 1.0 again after several years. Until that moment, until I read that particular passage in that particular book, I had not consciously acknowledged that I'd fallen back in love with H. (For those who don't know, we'd had a summer together in 1980, and thereafter he was the "what if" guy -- you know, "what if we met again? what if he suddenly showed up after all these years?" -- that guy.) How is it I didn't know my own feelings until I saw them on the printed page?

And another time, back when I was dating a guy from college. We'd broken up in the summer after college and before grad school. I was on the bus back home, and I knew I was supposed to be all heartbroken and so forth, but I just wasn't feeling it. I had to put some sad music on my tape player (remember them, with the headphones?) just to muster up some tears.

It's a symptom of dissociation. I'll know what's going on in my life, but I don't have immediate access to the emotions. Then I'll hear some music, or see a sad movie, or read some book, and I'll be flooded with emotions -- all rather floaty and detached from the situation. It's a survival mechanism left over from my childhood, but honestly until this week I hadn't put it all together: the long drives to Maine back when I was single when I would listen to various tapes and cry the entire way up, despite my genuine pleasure at visiting my parents; seeing particularly powerful movies multiple times because of the disconnected emotions they exorcised; rereading some books over and over and over.

With the Spencer-Fleming books, it's a powerful template of my feelings for both Hub 1.0 and Starman. Oh, everyone's happy now, but I'd forgotten how it felt back in 2006 when that was no a foregone conclusion. I had a bad moment early on that year. Starman and I were just getting to know each other on the phone (after he had satisfied himself I wasn't an axe murderer because, you know, strange American women calling one on the phone were mostly likely axe murderers) and I had that vertigo you get standing on the edge: you're not falling but you could be and you can feel it, the ground rushing up to meet you. I was reading something -- I have no idea now what it was -- and I just started to sob. I cried for hours (I'm not exaggerating this) but I really wasn't sure why.

But Clare and Russ knew, and if I'd had the first few books to read then, I might have seen it in myself. You haven't a care in the world, your marriage is happy, you have no complaints, and then you meet someone who opens an entire dimension you'd not known was there. But you can't have both the safe marriage and the powerful new connection, so you cry. And then you just get on with the day to day.

It worked out well for me; three years later I'm so solidly on terra firma, I can't recreate the vertigo. But those emotions aren't gone, and releasing them as I read and reread and rereread Clare and Russ's story -- well, it's disorienting in a heady way. And blatantly addictive.

Spencer-Fleming has said that she only intended to write five novels with Clare and Russ. The number's up to seven (due out in October; don't expect me to answer the phone after I get my copy) and she's said she's thought of a basis for number eight. Good thing. I don't believe I would be alone in complaining if Miller's Kill disappeared off the Upstate NY map.


  1. Okay...just ordered all of them except A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD. Why is that the only one *not* available for the Kindle? (That's a rhetorical question...I don't expect you to have the answer.::grin::) But now I can't read them until I get that one!

  2. Great post! Julia Spencer-Fleming is a wonderful writer and deserving of more recognition. I've loved all of her books so far and I'm very much looking forward to 'One Was a Soldier'.