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The Odd One

August 16, 2007

The Odd One

I feel like I should say anything about The Odd One, by Fannie E. Newberry, except that it was, well, an odd one. But I can’t help it. The title describes the book much better than it describes the main character.

Beth Merritt is the third of five sisters, and she’s called the odd one because, while Clarissa (Sister #1) and Trix (#4) are close, and Nell(#2) and Lala (Laura, #5) are close, Beth is always off on her own. The five of them live with their invalid mother in an old house somewhere in Ohio that, while pretty, has seen better times. The same applies to the girls. It’s all very Little Women. Oh, and there’s this close friend of the family called Thorne who has been in love with Beth for years.

Beth is invited to go to California with her ailing grandfather and his valet Calvin. There are some clear pros and cons for Beth to consider. Pro: she’s always wanted to travel. Con: her grandfather is old and cranky. You wouldn’t really think the latter would outweigh the former, and it doesn’t, but for a while it seems pretty close.

On the way to meet her grandfather in Chicago, Beth encounters a young man in the train. He’s clearly attracted to her, and she thinks he’s the most beautiful man she’s ever seen — although not at all effeminate-looking, the author is careful to point out. They run into each other a few more times before he manages to introduce himself to her grandfather. His name is Lester Gordon Palmerlee, he’s a lieutenant in the Navy, and it turns out his uncle was Grandfather Merritt’s best friend in college. So he starts spending lots of time with them and — of course — falling in love with Beth. She doesn’t really know how she feels about him, so she doesn’t say much about him in her letters home. By the time things start getting serious, it’s difficult to explain how close they’ve become, so she doesn’t.

And things do get serious: he proposes, she accepts, and then, when he’s suddenly called away to Chile, they tell her grandfather that they’re engaged, and he seconds Palmerlee’s suggestion that the marriage take place immediately.

So, they get married, and Palmerlee leaves for Chile. Beth spends the next day writing a long letter to her mother explaining what’s happened, but just as she’s about to send it, she gets a telegram: her mother has died. She rushes home, grief-stricken and guilt stricken. Then, like, three days after she gets home, she gets a telegram from California: her grandfather’s died, too.

She’s feeling bad about the whole California trip, and, for reasons that are too complicated to explain, she neglects to mention that she’s married. Oops. It’s one of those awkward situations where the longer you put of saying something, the harder it gets to say it.

Meanwhile, the girls are as happy as can be expected. Sure, their mother is dead, and they’re sad about that, but the grandfather has left them a bunch of money, and of course their household of five beautiful young women is very popular among the men in town. Clarissa seems glad to keep house and be an old maid, and Lala is too young for marriage, but Nell gets engaged to a boyish young architect — probably the best character in the book — and Trix has an aborted affair with a young doctor who turns out to already be married, but then she strikes up a relationship with a widowed neighbor who has a cute little daughter. Everything’s going well except that Beth is so racked with guilt that her siblings decide she must have heart disease. Also, Thorne, having no idea that she’s married, is trying to court her.

On day, one of Thorne’s cousins comes to visit from California, and over dinner he tells a story about a young Naval officer and the girl he married. Turns out that this is the minister who married Beth and Palmerlee, and after that it doesn’t take Thorne long to figure out what’s going on.

The next morning the newspaper contains a report from Chile that includes a mention of Palmerlee being stabbed with a machete. He’s not dead, but he’s in critical condition. Both Beth and Thorne see the article, she faints, he rushes over to her house to tell her he knows everything, etc. It’s all very intense and full of unspoken declarations of love on Thorne’s part. You know. The usual. Thorne volunteers to go to Chile and nurse Palmerlee. They return in time for the whole family to celebrate Christmas together, and there’s something about Beth and Palmerlee consummating the true marriage of their souls, or something. And Beth tells Thorne that she thinks of him as a brother, which I wouldn’t think would be much consolation, really, but there are also signs that Lala is growing interested in him. And there the book ends, with one sister married, one not intending to marry, two marriages in the offing, and one potential one in the distant future.

So, it sounds like a pretty typical, slightly trashy, definitely overly dramatic romance novel with vague religious overtones, right? Okay, so I didn’t talk about the vague religious overtones, but they’re there. Except that I have the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek. If it is, it’s not overt enough to be sure about, but there are a few things that make me wonder, like the occasional laugh-out-loud funny line that’s completely out of keeping with the general tone of the book. Like when Thorne comes to pay a call on the Merritts early on in the book and Mrs. Merritt says something like, “Come take this chair by me; its uncompromising severity of character will just suit you.” And there are a few lines toward the beginning of Beth and Palmerlee’s relationship that suggest that he’s really foolish to fall in love with her.  There’s also a bit where the narrator talks about how Beth shouldn’t be blamed too much for keeping her marriage secret — circumstances have conspired against her — which is funny in a meta kind of way: it isn’t often that you’re so clearly reminded that the author of a book is constructing events specifically to create those conspiring circumstances.

All in all, The Odd One is a fun book, but a perplexing one. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

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