Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Report: Crossroads by Belva Plain

Novelist Belva Plain is known for two things: family sagas and cautionary tales about greed. Crossroads (not to be confused with that Brittany Spears movie) is no different. It's the story of two young women: privileged, naive, plain Jane Gwen Wright, and working class, manipulative, beautiful Jewel Fairchild. Gwen hates Jewel because she's beautiful, and Jewel hates Gwen because she's rich. Then Jewel tells Gwen an awful secret about her seemingly unblemished upper-crust family, ratcheting up the jealousy factor on both sides. The years go by (as they will in Plain soap operas). Gwen gives up an Ivy League education to marry Stan, an electrician of modest means, and Jewel escapes shop girl hell by bagging Jeff, a filthy rich CEO. Gwen's marriage begins precariously as she adjusts to cramped apartment living, a meager bank account, and a miscarriage; by comparison, Jewel travels the world with her husband, buying everything her heart desires. Plain is careful this way, gently exposing the class disparities between Gwen and Stan that threaten their love match instead of going for the quick and easy "love conquers all." By the same token, she shows how a charmer like Jewel is a social asset to her businessman husband instead of immediately pointing out that unions based solely on social gain inevitably crumble. She takes her time to illustrate just why Gwen and Stan are right for each other despite their different backgrounds - as well as why Jewel and Jeff are not. Although Stan is poor, he is a person of character who truly loves his wife. Jewel, on the other hand, is not, and Jeff, the son of a college professor, eventually begins to tire of her mindless chatter. Yet that's not to say that Jeff is of strong moral fiber. His questionable business practices coupled with his infatuation with a married woman suggest that he is even more reprehensible than his gold-digging wife, who is, despite her many faults, at least faithful to her husband.

Crossroads is entertaining. Jealousy, wealth, and romance can be depended upon to hook fiction readers, and Plain manages to weave all three in such a way that they don't come off as cheesy. The only thing that annoyed me about the book - and this is more of a criticism of Plain's novels in general than of this one in particular - is the way the "good" character (in this case Gwen) is nondescript and unassuming and completely uninterested in shopping, whereas the "bad" character (Jewel) is flashy and attention seeking and loves acquiring things. The comparison implies that caring about clothes and one's appearance is immoral and possibly even at the root of less-than-praiseworthy behavior. I think it's the lack of judgment about such classically "trivial" things that makes Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series so refreshing, and, dare I say, endearing. (I know, I know, I'm always dragging the Shopaholic books into my posts, but if the shoe fits . . .) Plain's books are filled with women like Jewel, and they always get their just desserts. I'm not saying I'd want to be friends with someone like her; she's sneaky and mean spirited. What I resent is the tidy way Plain bundles traditionally "good" and "bad" qualities in her heroines. Real women are more complicated than that. Hmm. Despite what I wrote earlier, I suppose Plain's characters can be cheesy even if the overall feel of her books isn't. Then again, maybe I'm taking this story just a bit too personally. These things happen when you read too much.

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