Two Shall be BornMay 20, 2014
I mostly avoid reading Marie Conway Oemler books I haven’t read before — I dread the point at which there won’t be any left I haven’t read. So I’ve been putting off reading Two Shall Be Born for, like, five years at least.
I don’t know if it was worth waiting for. I don’t, at this point, expect any book of hers to live up to Slippy McGee or A Woman Named Smith, and this one certainly doesn’t. But that’s not to say it isn’t pretty interesting and weird, and that’s all I really want, I guess.
I don’t want to say that this is Marie Conway Oemler’s Ruritanian romance, although it has a bit of a flavor of that. And I’m not sure if I want to say that this book is Mary Roberts Rinehart-ish in the same way that Slippy McGee is Gene Stratton Porter-ish, but there were moments when it seemed to have more in common with Rinehart than with Oemler’s other work. I only recognized Oemler in flashes — the disheveled single-mindedness of an artistic genius, the hero who looks like “a young god with good morals,” anything relating to what Irish people are like.
The premise of the book is, I suppose, about people falling in love at first sight. Fortunately, that’s not actually what the book is about. Countess Marya Jadwiga Zuleska’s love interest doesn’t even appear until what feels like more than halfway through the book, but apparently isn’t quite. Really it’s Marya Jadwiga’s book, but I didn’t feel like I got to know her as well as I got to know anyone in A Woman Named Smith or Slippy McGee or evenThe Purple Heights.
Marya Jadwiga is the daughter of a famous scholar and Polish patriot who apparently functions as some kind of spymaster for a Polish independence movement. Everything he has, he contributes to this movement — including his daughter, who he educates so as to make her as useful as possible to him. It’s not really clear exactly what that education consists of, or how he intends to use her, but I think the book would have been so much better if it had been. Anyway, we never really find out what he meant to do, because his impending death and the pressure exerted on him by Russian and German agents force him to change his plans and send Marya Jadwiga to America.
I mean, other stuff happens first. But I don’t really know how to get into it without spoiling the grisliest axe murder I’ve read since The After House, so.
Once she gets there, there’s a little bit of a Samuel Hopkins Adams in The Flagrant Years vibe, and once we’re introduced to Brian Kelly there’s a bit of a Samuel Hopkins Adams in general vibe, neither of which upset me. Brian’s story gives us a little of the character makeover thing — he’s had a fight with his rich dad and run off to become a policeman, and of course he learns to be a very good one. But, as with Marya Jadwiga, I wished more time had been spent on the learning part. If not the traffic policeman stuff, more than a few vague hints about other, more exciting police work would have been appreciated.
Brian and Marya Jadwiga meet one evening after Marya Jadwiga stabs someone (yeah, it’s pretty cool) although they’ve already seen each other and fallen in love at first sight at that point. Brian brings Marya Jadwiga to his boarding house, and the final turns of the plot take place there, among the friends he’s made. But the two of them, having gotten the falling in love part out of the way at the beginning, don’t seem to have much to say to each other.
It’s as if, having already fallen in love, they don’t need to get to know each other. And that’s what I hate about stories where people fall in love at first sight, because the getting to know each other part is the best part, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to skip past it. Especially Marie Conway Oemler, who’s so, so good at having her characters enjoy each others’ company. I mean, Sophy and Alicia. The Author and anyone he appreciates properly. Armand de Rancé and Slippy McGee. There’s no pair of characters in Two Shall be Born that made me feel like just seeing them interact was enough, except maybe the Kelly siblings. Some of that might be because it’s meant to be a very serious book, with attempted rape and beheadings and people watching each other die, but Oemler wasn’t really a serious story kind of author.
I did enjoy Two Shall be Born. I just think Oemler could have done something batter. I mean, that, and I wish I could read A Woman Named Smith or Slippy McGee for the first time again.