I bet you’re wondering how I got here: Starting from the end in Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

‘Tis the season where many romance readers are indulging in holiday novellas, and today I’m writing about one of my favorites, Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong. In addition to being a trope-filled, masterfully-written delight – with one of the best MC meeting scenes in all of romance – it is available for free! Here’s the cover, and a quick plot description excerpted from the author’s website:

With one more errand to go—the purchase of a hunting falcon—Andrew Blackshear has Christmas completely under control […] He has no time to dawdle, no time for nonsense, and certainly no time to drive the falconer’s vexing, impulsive, lush-lipped, midnight-haired daughter to a house party before heading home. So why the devil did he agree to do just that?

Lucy Sharp has been waiting all her too-quiet life for an adventure, and she means to make the most of this one. She’s going to enjoy the house party as no one has ever enjoyed a house party before, and in the meanwhile she’s going to enjoy every minute in the company of amusingly stern, formidably proper, outrageously handsome Mr. Blackshear […]

When a carriage mishap and a snowstorm strand the pair miles short of their destination, threatening them with scandal and jeopardizing all their Christmas plans, they’ll have to work together to save the holiday from disaster. And along the way they just might learn that the best adventures are the ones you never would have thought to plan.

Full blurb and download links here.

The novel starts with two introductory paragraphs of two sentences each, and that’s what I’ll be looking at today. This opening gambit exists in a liminal space – after the Chapter 1 marker, but also set off from the rest of the narrative by a row of asterisks (which today I learned is called a dinkus) and a date. Here’s the passage, and a picture of what it looks like laid out on the page of my Kindle.

The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road. His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth. 

But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour. The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.

The first thing I love about this opening is how the heroine inhabits it without being named or introduced- in fact, she’s only referred to via association as “the trouble.” However, Lucy is present, in particular, in the way she unravels Andrew’s thinking. He tries to hold on to his composure in the first and third sentences: they are short, straightforward, unembellished with adjectives.

“The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road”

“But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour”

And she unravels it it as he starts to think about her in the second sentence of each couplet. 

“His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth.”

“The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.”

The second sentence turns on the word “allure,” not coincidentally the first one that suggests Andrew’s desire. Before that we have orderly descriptions betokening harnessed control: indoors, seated, hair bound “tidily.” What comes after allure, though is… well, swooping. A very un-Blackshear-like effusion of three adjectives (great, swooping, clean-edged) for a single noun, and a “prodigal” mouth which evokes the biblical to describe the profane. I also love the sheer amount of alliteration to match the word “trouble” that stands in for Lucy herself – tidily, tedious, temper, turned, towering, trouble, torrents. Trouble is everywhere, tapping on Andrew Blackshear’s door, and he’s really a fool to think he could escape it when it has literally already baked itself into the structure of his thoughts. 

If the trouble is already there, it is because at the moment of narration, Andrew has already met Lucy; we just haven’t heard about it yet. The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” places readers into the narrative with a reminder of how things will turn out. I want to focus most of my post on how this opening sentence plays with time, and more generally with reminders of romance’s foregone conclusions. 

Reading this passage had me thinking about one of my earliest grad school readings: Philippe Lejeune’s idea that a book’s genre is, to some extent, determined by a “pact” between the reader and the author. Lejeune did most of his work on autobiography, so he talked about how that genre comes into being when an author makes a “pact” with the reader to tell the story of their own life, as faithfully as possible. Another way Lejeune puts it is that autobiography as a genre happens when author = narrator = character. In fiction, however, the author is very much not identifying with the narrator, and the narrator doesn’t have to be a character within the novel (though in certain narrative styles they are). I have a very clear memory of expressing this idea with little triangles in the margins of my grad school notes. Here’s the narrative triangle for most of 3rd-person extradiagetically-narrated fiction, including A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong :

It got me thinking about how one of the ways romance works is that, in part via this separation, we are allowed to have a VERY different pact with the author and with the narrator. I’m going to tread carefully here, because one of the main premises, for me, of doing close readings is to not bring “the author” into it at all. But when you pick up a romance, particularly from an author you trust, the one pact you’ve made is that you both know how it will end – happily – and the book will be consumed and enjoyed under that assumption. However, for narrative to be propulsive, to draw you in, it has to set up a different “pact” for you and the narrator: you both largely pretend you don’t know how it ends. Expressed as a triangle, because why not, it looks like this: 

Because of the pact of mutual ignorance we maintain with the narrator, romance often doesn’t have (to borrow a meme) the record-scratch “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” conceit of starting at the end and then rolling back to tell you how it happened. Once we’ve opened a romance novel, the primary pact that governs our reading has shifted from the one we made with the author – we both know how this ends – to the one we’re making with the narrator and characters – How this is ever going to work out? 

Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple: this strict division of HEA foreknowledge/ignorance takes on a lot of variation. For starters, it’s not like the HEA pact ever goes away. A lot of the comfort in romance reading comes from the fact that we can remind ourselves throughout that everything will work out fine. Even narrator ignorance is a deliberately fragile construct. In fact, I’m guessing a close look at just about any romance would suggest a lot of subtle ways in which the agreed-upon unpredictability of the reading is governed inside the narrative by the predictability of the outcome – foreshadowing, narrative tense, tropes, etc. Each romance novel has its own way of navigating the tension between two kinds of pacts with the reader, and it’s part of what makes the genre itself unique. In the case of A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, even just the first few sentences offer a glimpse of this novel’s take on that tension.

The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” is an unusually stark invasion of the novel’s end right at the beginning. As such, it’s a fun meta-reminder that we’re reading genre romance, which is thematically consistent with a book as unabashedly tropey as this one is (tiniest spoiler alert: at one point the fake-engaged virgin hero has to share a bed because he and the heroine have been snowed in. I mean.)

If holding on to the HEA even just a few words longer is a way of insisting on the peculiar joys of romance’s predictability, it’s also a bold act of narrative confidence. It’s rare to actually be inside the narrative and still reminding readers this clearly of how everything will turn out. And in fact, just as surely as this opening leans hard on the promise of HEA, it also flips it upside-down by reframing falling in love as “trouble” and disorder. This gesture, I think, is part of the narrator pact: the promise to keep the story interesting, even if we already know the ending. 

Even within romance reading, there’s a sense that narratives with an HEA progress towards order. We start with narrative “chaos”: the couple is apart, they may not even have met each other yet, even if they don’t know it something is missing. Slowly, they reach greater proximity and harmony until they end up together. A lot of the idioms we have around this moment are about order (even if I don’t love some of them): a couple getting together could be seen as “settling down;” once they find love “everything falls into place.”  Andrew, on the other hand, experiences the path leading up to HEA in the rather contradictory way of things falling apart, of increased disorder.

This disorder comes through in a lot of ways in the opening paragraphs. The heroine is obliquely referred to not as the solution, but as “the trouble.” There are images of storms, torrents, and squalls. Every suggestion of restraint and stillness turns out to be a counterfactual : if Andrew had stuck to the straight path, everything would have happened quietly, indoors, tightly wound. (I also appreciate the “would have” of this alternate, orderly history echoing the “would later reflect” of his actual, disorderly ending.) As mentioned above, disorder also works its way into the sentence structure, as each set of sentences progresses from control to effusion. It sets the book up as a narrative about love as losing control and embracing disorder, even as we’re reminded right away of the narrative’s orderly ending.

In addition to serving as a tantalizing opener, these first lines also prove that you can lay bare the constraints of the HEA plot and still find moments of novelty and renewal. And it’s also, just generally, a pretty neat encapsulation of how romance balances respecting and confounding expectations. Sometimes reaching the end isn’t about following the “main road” to get there. 

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