A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.
That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read-–and to get two packages of chocolate-chocolate chip cookies next time. . .
This month’s story was “The Baron’s Gloves, or Amy’s Romance,’ by Louisa May Alcott, of Little Women fame.
Seventeen-year old Amy and her older cousin Helen are taking a tour of Europe with their uncle. They are staying in a hotel in Germany when a pair of men’s gloves falls onto their balcony from the room above. They puzzle out that the gloves belong to a baron who has just arrived and they try to find out more about him by sending their uncle to return the gloves and report back on their owner. Their uncle misses the baron but returns with Hoffman, a guide and facilitator, to help them move through the country. On their travels, they meet a young, wounded Polish soldier who captures Amy’s heart, despite the unsuitability of the match. There are some other troubles, including a train accident, and Hoffman’s cool handling of every problem earns Helen’s admiration. But Helen, unlike her cousin, is a practical girl, and there are serious impediments to a happy ending–including her feeling that Hoffman and the soldier aren’t who they claim to be.
This is the synopsis I gave to the group when I handed it out last month, and I was told this morning that it was misleading—the entire group agreed that there were no serious impediments to the happy endings that every character enjoyed, including the doting uncle. It wouldn’t have been allowed.
This piece, while being the longest story we’ve ever read since I’ve been the moderator, is also the story with the least depth. Barring a train wreck, in which no one was killed and only a few were maimed—so Helen could demonstrate her bravery and womanly caretaking skills (cue synchronized eye rolls)—nothing serious happened. At all.
The whole story was in the way of a practical joke played by several men on two young ladies who had wished, in an innocent, bored, moment, for some excitement.
But that, we decided, was okay.
It was also okay to laugh at the characters—we felt that Miss Alcott wanted it that way. Any author that has a character saying indignantly, “I was only engaged [to be married] a little,” is most likely snickering, too, or so we hoped.
We weren’t sure, however, how seriously we were supposed to take all the hand-wringing drama, which became somewhat thick and a tad soggy after a while, before evaporating without a trace once all was revealed. And it was all revealed at once, as though the author had a page limit and decided to wrap it all up, ala Gilbert & Sullivan—or Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, but with more giggling—in one whopping narrative scene that had previously unmentioned childhood betrothals, family connections, a mistaken sister, and noble titles on hand, just in case anyone asked any awkward questions about odd character behavior.
As it was, we didn’t ask many, though maybe that was because by the end we weren’t expecting much. One reader did say, “Mentioning that Helen is an orphan at the end is a bit much. She just had to go for that extra tear, didn’t she?”
Another stated, “I liked this story. And if I was fourteen, I’d have loved it.” Which pretty much says it all.
I suppose the lessons here are that anything goes as long as it’s entertaining and pink angsty fluff can, under certain circumstances, stand the test of time.
I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or not . . .