A Cottage by the Sea

Midnight on Julia Street
by Ciji Ware
(Fawcett, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-449-00187-3
Memo to Publishing Industry: We could use lots more books like this one, please.

Ciji Ware’s Midnight on Julia Street is a completely satisfying contemporary romance with a paranormal element that “gets it right” in every way that is important. If you are missing the stories about women struggling to reconcile careers and love that were popular in the eighties; if you are weary of plots involving unexpected babies and improbable cowboys; if you like suspense but can’t stomach gruesome sex-crimes, run -- don’t walk -- to get a copy of this book. Oh, and schedule at least a weekend to read it.

I loved every delicious minute of this book, and it was complex enough to require some real time to finish. Set in New Orleans, it faithfully captures the unique charm of that city, and manages to include some intriguing paranormal elements without sacrificing a solid sense of contemporary reality. In fact, reality is the hallmark of this book. The heroine, Corliss McCullough, has a real job as a television journalist. Throughout the story we see her actually doing her job: interviewing people, doing research, and having to meet deadlines that interfere with her private life! This woman is someone I had no trouble relating to. In fact, in the opening chapters she is fired from her job, and my first thought was, “oh well, this is a romance, she’ll have a trust fund, or a savings account, or some other source of funds to enable her to carry on.” No, she ends up having to take a job at a non-union television station for a third of her previous salary because she recently bought a condo and has to meet the payments. See what I mean?

Corliss is fired for turning coverage of a run-of-the-mill society wedding into an embarrassing expose of the philandering groom -- who happens to be related to her boss. This is not the first time that Corliss has been fired for “telling the truth at a moment when she could least afford to,” and she is beginning to wonder if she has “…some sort of Wage Earner Personality Disorder.”

The fateful wedding just happens to involve the family of her arch nemesis from college days, King Duvallon, scion of one of New Orleans’ old families and professor of architectural history. This is another refreshing dose of reality. King and Corliss were on opposite sides of the gender wars during their student days at UCLA. King and his fraternity brothers harassed the daylights out of Corliss and her crew at the college’s feminist newspaper. Corliss fought back and King was expelled. Both of them recall that incident with resentment and neither is thrilled to encounter the other in the flesh after twelve years. But both characters have grown up, and each is capable of acknowledging that their youthful judgment might not have been the best. Their wise agreement to put past conflicts behind them and focus on current affairs is deftly handled.

King is the de facto leader of the preservation movement in New Orleans, devoted to renovating historic architecture and saving it from demolition in the name of economic progress. He becomes involved in a fight with a powerful developer who wants to replace a designated historic site with a mammoth hotel. Corliss merely reports on the story at first, but becomes more and more involved as her relationship with King deepens and she begins to get glimpses of the past that suggest a mystery grounded in the threatened buildings.

Some readers might feel that too much time is devoted to the zoning fight and not enough to the romance, but for me this was yet another welcome example of the realism of this story. These characters are involved in the kind of issues that appear regularly in the daily paper (at least, they do in my city), and their admiration and respect for each other grow as they become more closely involved in each other’s projects. Rather than being told how smart, tenacious, committed, and loyal these characters are, we are shown how they act in real life situations, and are able to share the experience of growing attraction with the characters.

And these characters are extremely attractive! Corliss is ambitious, intelligent and has a normal interest in her own love life. She is really caught in an ethics quagmire when she finds herself attracted to King and to his cause even though she is supposed to be reporting on them. Her decisions ignore neither her professional integrity nor her femininity and are easy to empathize with. King is an equally compelling character. Thoughtful enough to put off pursuing Corliss until she’s recovered from a previous affair that ended badly, he has the abundant charm of a molasses-voiced good old boy and the drive and intelligence of an ex-Marine with a cause. The physical side of their relationship is realistically impeded, not by silly misunderstandings or neurotic reluctance, but by the very real constraints of their professional responsibilities. When they do come together it feels natural and completely believable -- in no small part because of the wonderfully intelligent conversations that complement the sex.

As a counterpoint to all this realism, Corliss is spooked by visions of the past involving her own ancestress, Corliss Bell McCullough, and other people who turn out to be the ancestors of various players in the present-day story. What might have easily become a distraction to the sophisticated contemporary plot, deepens and extends it by illuminating the history that King is struggling to preserve. The reader’s understanding of the complexities of present-day New Orleans is enhanced as the history of the city is portrayed through the lives of characters whose goals and motivations are inextricably linked with those of their descendants.

Without being in the least bit contrived, this multilayered plot kept me enthralled from the first page. Will Corliss and King be able to overcome the obstacles of her professional obligations and his zeal to preserve their growing relationship? Will King be able to prevail against the Old-Boy Network and new money interests that control politics in N’awlins in order to preserve a set of buildings that have more historical importance than he knows? What is the secret shared by the original owners of those buildings, and what does it mean to their descendants?

Each page I turned contained new treasures: wonderfully wry dialogue (“Why does everyone say ‘This is Louisiana, sugar’ whenever something really outrageous happens around here?”), intriguing and well-developed secondary characters, interesting emotional developments between characters, subtle and thought-provoking links between the past and the present. The writing was uniformly excellent, with rich, substantial paragraphs and plenty of description and narrative. This book deserves a leisurely reading; it’s just too filling to be gobbled quickly. When I closed the cover I felt completely satisfied -- and somewhat vindicated. Too often lately I’ve wondered if it’s just me, or are romances becoming increasingly shallow domestic or historical fantasies? I have missed realistic stories about ordinary women struggling to support a life and a relationship while being part of a larger world. This book is a perfect example of exactly the kind of story I’ve been missing -- may we see many, many more like it.

--Bev Hill

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