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I and My True Love

December 7, 2010

“It is a pity that so excellent a novel should be handicapped by so inane a title as I and My True Love.”

So says a reviewer in The Arena, and I have to agree, although one of Hersilia A. Mitchell Keays’s other books is called He That Eateth Bread With Me, and that’s…well, far worse. I’m not entirely sure I’d call I and My True Love excellent, but it is really interesting. It’s the story of a divorced couple and their daughter, and although it’s nominally a romance, I felt that it was mostly about the complexity of human interactions, how hard it is to know what’s going on inside other people’s heads, and even your own. And, for a book from 1908, it’s sort of refreshingly frank about a lot of things.

Hersilia, is, admittedly, kind of a terrible name, but that’s no excuse for the fact that Keays has named one of her main characters Iliel. Iliel Sargent, to be precise. He’s a famous, slightly reclusive playwright, although I suppose that with a name like that he couldn’t be anything else, except possibly a famous, slightly reclusive painter.

His former wife Kitty, now Mrs. Dicky Warder and a widow, is beautiful, elegant, and worldly. She smokes, she flirts, she wears daring clothes, and she may or may not be planning on marrying Eben Gregory, the Governor of whatever state they’re in. Either way, he’s definitely interested. Kitty is, understandably, kind of shocked and upset when Iliel Sargent writes to her to ask if he can send their daughter Christina for a visit.

Christina is nineteen or twenty, and in love with her neighbor Benny Faber, but, with the example of her parents before her, she isn’t sure how she feels about marriage. Sargent hopes the visit to Madam Kitty, as they call her, will help Christina to know her own mind better. Instead it leads to Gregory falling in love with her, and Christina seriously considering marrying him, although she knows very well that she’s in love with Benny.

The best thing about this book is the way that most of the characters involve themselves in Christina’s decision, and how none of them are particularly rational about it. Especially her parents. Kitty doesn’t want to see Christina repeat her mistakes. Sargent mostly seems kind of confused. I just kind of love how the whole thing makes a very limited amount of sense, and how Gregory is annoyed because Christina won’t kiss him, and how Kitty is like, “Look, I know Benny’s letters are frustrating. That’s just because he’s stupid. Don’t worry about it.” And how Sargent is like, “I know there’s no argument against smoking for women that doesn’t work just as well for men, but I still wish you wouldn’t.” They’re not the most wonderful characters ever — far from it — but they’re so realistically messy.

Still, I can’t quite forgive Keays for “Iliel.”

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