Review by Allison T.
“A yardman!” says the Lady Russell character in Debra White Smith’s Possibilities to her hapless niece. “You’re wanting to marry a yardman!” Her thin eyebrows arched. Her blue eyes couldn’t have been wider—or more disdainful. Thus begins (more or less) Debra White Smith’s Possibilities, the sixth in her Austen Series of modern Christian romances.
Poor Allie Elton. [Elton? ELTON?!?!?–Ed.] Despite her master’s degree in horticulture, she doesn’t stand a chance against such a formidable force as she (unlike her predecessor Anne Elliot) attempts to marry not just across the barriers of wealth but of class.
Frederick Wently is a competent yard-man with muscles that even Auntie says “would knock the socks off a saint,” who has “some college” and aspires to join the Air Force, but in Auntie’s words: “He’s got dirt undah his finger-nails.” And Allie is the daughter of the Richard Elton, “the Peach King of the South!” Clearly an impossible alliance!
Needless to say, the marriage is aborted; Frederick goes off to perform heroic feats abroad and Allie withers into a pale, dried-up shadow of herself, until, ten years later her father announces that he will have to rent out the family mansion in order to cover eldest daughter Evelyn’s retail-therapy debts. Long years have passed, yet Allie, who would like to teach horticulture at a community college, has put her life on hold and remains a familial door-mat. Now she must move out of the family mansion in order to make way for Frederick’s sister and her husband, who have rented the place.
But, wait! There’s more.
Youngest Elton sister Macy, determined to do the exact opposite of what her father wanted, has already declined college in order to marry “the son of a germ-ridden family.”
–Um. What? Germ-ridden?
–Ahem. Well, the [Mus]Groves own a national septic system chain that services millions of households and makes them independently wealthy; however, Richard Elton can’t imagine “a peach queen married to a septic king. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what he got, right along with two septic-peachy grandsons….”—
–Whoa, gotta stop here for a minute to think about septic-peachy children.…maybe Rosemary’s baby could take a leaf (snort!) out of their book….
–Right. Well, Richard Elton and his eldest daughter Evelyn decide to go to Atlantic Beach for their, er, retrenchment, sending Allie off to do garden work and take care of Macy’s kids. Yet Fate hovers in the wings….Playboy Brent Everson, formerly married to a cousin of Allie’s, is now after Allie and her trust fund, and hopes that her tiresome Christian prudery will not prove too much of a drag on his free-and-easy life-style. Left a widower since his rich wife died from an attack of killer bees—
–What?!! Did you say KILLER BEES? Are you KIDDING me?
–I never joke about Jane Austen sequels, your Reviewer replied austerely. Nor do I have sufficient imagination to make this stuff up on my own, which is why I write reviews for free instead of raking in the doubloons writing my own Jane Austen sequel. When I said killer bees, I meant killer bees. See page 242. It was dreadful—she just swelled up and died. To continue: Brent has run through several fortunes feeding his gambling habit and supporting his mistress, Penny, who is the Mrs. Clay character scheming to marry Mr. Elton (Brent and Penny don’t know about the Eltons’ financial reverses, needless to say.)
Hoping for one last chance with Allie, the Cinderella-like Frederick (poor boy turned American war hero, throwing himself in front of his men to shield them from a land mine in Afghanistan although it has just occurred to me to wonder how and why, since he was in the Air Force, not the Marines, and there aren’t that many land mines in the sky), visits Macon, Georgia, where Allie has gone to visit her youngest sister, Macy. He is picked up as the boyfriend “catch of the day” by the preternaturally perky Louisa Grove, who proceeds to throw herself at him, hip-huggers, cropped tees and all. (Alas! Allie is a size twelve! And the hip-huggers wouldn’t suit her at all—Smith’s heroines are almost always identifiable as generously shapely.) Frederick’s clinically depressed friend, Jim, whose fiancée died of a sudden brain aneurism—“he kissed her goodnight on Tuesday and she was dead on Wednesday” which is enough to depress even the most optimistic reader—accompanies him for a portion of his visit to the area. Allie is frequently jealous of Louisa’s obvious play for Frederick, and thinks that he is a Womanizer—but then he really, really likes Christian instrumental music, and this Good Side of him confuses her. Could she be misjudging such a faithful churchgoer? Meanwhile, Brent, having stalked Anne for a few weeks, engineers a meeting with her at church, making Frederick jealous: while he thinks of church as a good place to meet a future spouse, he considers Brent a professional Church Wolf (that’s his phrase, not mine), just out for a cheap date.
Time passes, Allie begins to relent, and, one fateful day, they all go to the airfield to take a ride in Frederick’s plane when Louisa, jealous of Frederick and Allie’s increasingly obvious attraction to each other, demands to sit with her (as she claims) future husband in the front seat. Frederick refuses, says that they are not an item, and adds she can go tap dance on the wing of the aircraft and break her neck for all he cares: she can’t force him into marrying her.
Whereupon, of course, Louisa climbs up through the roof access hatch, does a little soft-shoe on top of the plane, then falls and breaks her neck—
–(Plaintively) You’re kidding again, aren’t you?
–leaving her an apparent paraplegic. (Didn’t I already tell you that I don’t make this stuff up?) In the ICU, Louisa recovers consciousness only long enough to force Frederick to agree to marry her….
I think I’ll stop with the plot recapitulation at this exciting point (though you know how it will end, don’t you?). But that brings me to an overwhelming feature of this book and, indeed the series. How can one put it delicately?…..Um, one cannot, so one will plunge in….These stories are what a friend calls NOCD (“Not Our Class, Dear”). If one aspect of the original novels (and, perhaps even more so the movies) that many JA fans admire is the portrait of a genteel, English country house style of life, then these books will come as a shock: they are firmly planted in lower-middle-class rural America.
Here the hero swills down ice-cold Cokes, repeatedly relishing its tangy burn against the back of his throat (he compares drinking Sprite with drinking muddy water—you can see that we’re on a whole different level of consumerism here; we’re not talking Hermès and Birkin and fine wines, and, actually, since only villains drink alcohol in Smith’s world, it wouldn’t matter if we were sipping rot-gut or the finest burgundy). In this world, the Mrs. Musgrove character waddles around in a “moo-moo” (what copy editor let that one slip by?), Frederick’s sister “wreaks” of Giorgio perfume and Allie doesn’t just put on makeup, she puts on Mary Kay. “All hail Mary Kay!” cries Frederick enthusiastically (p. 128), when he catches sight of the newly Made-Over Allie (her girlfriend has dragged her to a Mary Kay party) looking like an Easter egg in raspberry red lipstick, grape-colored eye-shadow and pink blusher. (The real miracle is that Allie doesn’t whap him upside the head for the remark.)
“Exactamundo!” cries Frederick (p. 309), when Allie agrees to fly to Vegas to get married. Nothing is stopping this happy Christian pair, whose favorite song is the ‘70s hit: “I Honestly Love You,” and here your faithful Reviewer would like to say that she didn’t like that song back then and is rather bitter that it is now stuck in her head, playing over and over and over again as she types.
It is easy to pull a Mary Crawford and make fun of the conservative Christianity of this series, and I rather think that Austen, who lived and died a devout, practicing Christian, would have done so: she was not fond of the evangelicals who were beginning to come in fashion towards the end of her life. Perhaps she would be more annoyed that Possibilities shows none of the delicate nuances of Persuasion: Allie and Frederick are separated only by Big Misunderstandings and Jealousy.
Still, Debra White Smith’s stories—Possibilities is the sixth and presumably the last in her Austen series—have a certain sweet appeal, and the world that she creates is consistent in its detail, whether or not one would care to live in it. Not every ardent Janeite will like these tales, but they may well bring new Converts to the Fold, so to speak, if one of her readers decides to try out the real thing. Certainly if you are a semi-professional Jane Austen Sequel reader like me, you should read at least one in Smith’s Austen series, as it will provide a good contrast to the throbs and moans of a very different kind of Austen sequel: the bodice-ripper.