Elevate Difference

The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes

No point beating about the bush. Might as well get the finale over with right now at the top, instead of coyly building to it with flourishes of logic and neat exempla. Here goes.

This is one terrific book Tess Uriza Holthe has written. It's tough, slapstick, delicate, witty, bawdy, rueful and superbly crafted. One minute she throws her head back in laughter; the next she whips out a blade and knifes you in the ribs. Can't trust her at all, meaning she's the best sort of writer. There are lots of good characters, too, women and men: a Scots enforcer, three widows all once married to the same man, a band of gypsy pickpockets, a hard ex-con who finds happiness with a street urchin and vice versa, a Jewish mother and son, a master lace maker, a snoopy wife who suffers migraines, a young French woman who marries a rich good-hearted American only to discover that he's mentally ill and drug-addicted. These characters are unusual and engrossing, including the not-so-likable ones. In fact, now I think of it, most of the good ones aren't so good all the way around, and the bad ones aren't so bad all the way around - which is to say that they have dimension and are recognizably human.

However hard the surfaces are sometimes, and they do get hard, there are knots of love in these stories. But this ain't chick lit. No way. Rakish heroes and heaving bosoms do not abound in Holthe's worlds. She's too Annie Oakley smart. Miss Sure Shot, you know. Can throw a dozen glass balls in the air and get 'em all before they hit the ground. That good. A champ. And the dust jacket design is very nice, too, by the bye, and useful to see the locations, which are mostly the Italian and French Rivieras, the Côte d'Azur. So, to put the conclusion before the facts: I highly suggest you pedal your Schwinn to an independent bookstore and buy this collection of interrelated short fictions by Holthe. Read it. Savor it. Dig it. You'll be glad you plunked down your bucks. You'll be advising your friends to do the same.

So now that's clear, time for some convincing details. How about this fine, calm image of the exterior of a wealthy château in Cannes that the protagonist, Claudette, comes back to after a few years' absence in the U.S.:

The château is heartbreakingly beautiful in the soft twilight. Mauve and rose light upon the clay-colored exterior and black wrought-iron railing...Blue cornflowers and red poppies rustling in the warm breeze. Cypress and plane trees leaning in to shade the house. Ivy climbing alongside magenta bougainvillea. Two small red birds flutter and hop on the faded red-tiled roof, craning necks down, small jerks of their heads as they listen to her fumble for the copper skeleton key…

And those two birds!

Or how about this, a nice contrast, in which Clara thinks Alberto, the man she has just intentionally knocked into the bushes, is a thief, and confronts him. He will become her husband, of course.

[S]ince she was certain Alberto was a thief, albeit a good-looking one, ...she said, "You can stuff your hand up a pig's behind, you pig!" He blinked. "A pig's behind?" But she had called him a pig. Did she then mean for him to stick his hand up his own behind?

The superbly crafted aspect of these stories turns up in their interrelations, not only in the excellent, concise writing. A character who is the protagonist in one story will turn up as a minor character in the next. Three typical, young, American male tourists pass through a couple of stories. That street urchin links the Scots heavy to the ex-con. The gypsy pickpockets have two stories, but figure prominently in a third, the one in which the rich American meets his unkind fate. And so on.

A different facet of Holthe's craft is on display in the bashing but comic story "The Bruiser." She takes a big chance in this story with her Scots protagonist, Colin Fergusen. He's not exactly your typical enforcer: He likes yoga and aromatherapy, can't get a Ricky Nelson tune out of his head and admires American advertising. But even more, when he speaks or thinks, it's in the brogue of his country. Like this:

In America ye couldnay smoke in certain public places. That's what he heard telt. Nay joke. Imagine that. People claiming the air around ye. He'd never make it there. He inhaled deeply and let the smoke oot through his nostrils. Worked like a charm in calming yer nerves. If he couldnay had a smoke at will he'd be a goner.

Hoot mon, dialects are tricky. Some readers will turn off if it's not done perfectly. Well, Holthe not only pulls it off for Colin's speech and his interior monologues, she also has some fun by making the omniscient narrator's voice in brogue as well. Note above, for example, "He inhaled deeply and let the smoke oot through his nostrils." A sight quibble in this matter, though: To me, "yin" does not equal Scots for "one," and so every time this word appears it's a minor distraction.

Is every story equally good, then? Almost, but not quite. "Weightless," about a young American woman who steps into an affair with an Italian fisherman who is having an affair with his brother's wife, goes on too long. And it also seems not very well borrowed from a Henry James American-innocent-abroad-in-Europe narrative.

Nonetheless, she's a sly, funny coyote, Holthe is, when she tells her tales. And most of them, BTW, do not have little, pink bows at the end. Whew. Thank goodness. Just like life.

Okay, that's it. Enough. End of review. Go to your independent bookstore; buy a copy of The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes. You'll be glad you did, but I already said that, didn't I?

Written by: Neil Flowers, July 29th 2007