There are a number of ways that an author can get my attention: occasionally I'm intrigued by an unusual plot, often I fall in love with the characters, and sometimes I am fascinated by new ideas. One of my favorite literary rewards, however, is something I think of as a Sublime Vision. Every now and again I'll find an author who has imagined something so delightful that it takes possession of my own imagination and sets up housekeeping in my mind.
Rebecca Hagan Lee has created just such a memorable image in Gossamer, a domestic fantasy set in 19th century California. James Craig is a wealthy single parent who actively cares for his four Chinese daughters (this would be a fantasy even by 1990's standards…), who are collectively known by all as "The Treasures." It is this image, the four little girls who are fiercely protected and carefully cherished by a strong, successful, and domestically competent man, that – fantasy or not – held me completely enchanted.
The story of how James Craig came to acquire four Chinese daughters is awhile unfolding, interwoven as it is with his efforts to secure Elizabeth Sadler as their governess. In an amusing reversal of a scenario familiar and feared by all mothers, he cannot seem to hire good help. A succession of untrained and unfit female servants have proven unequal to the challenge of four little gremlins ranging in age from a tyrannical 3 ˝ year-old to a 2 day old infant. He thinks that Elizabeth is the answer to their prayers –even though he has to spring her from jail and blackmail her to persuade her to stay.
The plot also includes everything from a serious and well-balanced portrayal of the tragic Chinese custom of female infanticide, to the somewhat incredible tale of Elizabeth's exile from polite society and subsequent rescue-and seduction – by James.
Frankly, the rest of the story could not compete with the scenes in which Elizabeth struggles to care for the Treasures, only to be shown how to do it by this handsome, sensitive, and sexy paternal hunk. As I was reading and drooling over what I think of as "The Nursery Scenes," I was reminded of the charge so often leveled at romance novel sex: that it is unrecognizably overblown and unrealistic. Think of this as romance novel parenthood: it's like nothing you've ever experienced, but it's so delicious you're willing to suspend disbelief.
The story, taken as a whole, is uneven. The dramatic exploration of infanticide, the portrayal of the prejudice (to which even Elizabeth succumbs, at first) from which James tries to shield his Treasures, and the exploration of James' emotional past are very well done. I wasn't as beguiled by the plot devices used to bring Elizabeth and James together, or with some of the twists and turns in their relationship. The author did an excellent job of imagining the historical plight of women and children, but was less successful in constructing a historically plausible relationship between the main characters. Her descriptions of the dirty details of life with four children under 4 years old are remorselessly accurate, but the narrative is marred by mood-wrecking anachronisms such as a 19th century heroine, who makes comments like, "Sounds like a plan."
OK. This is not a perfect book; it's just a delightful one. The image of those four little girls, precious as jewels to a man who loves and values them in defiance of an indifferent society, warms the cockles of my feminine heart. Just as the depiction of midnight feedings, diaper changes and the "terrible threes" as sexy and companionable, astonishes and gratifies my feminist heart. My hat's off to the mind of this author, for creating a vision I'll be happy to entertain for a good long while.