Lavender and Old Lace

September 3, 2011

Lavender and Old Lace had most of the right pieces to be awesome, but instead it was lopsided, frustrating, and, most importantly, not engaging. I’ll put up with a lot of structural problems and disagreements with the author’s worldview for characters I can like and believe in, but Myrtle Reed never quite pulled it together.

Our heroine is Ruth Thorne, a newspaperwoman who has taken the summer off, partly for the sake of her nerves and partly at the request of Jane Hathaway, her only living relative. Ruth and Miss Hathaway have never met, but Miss Hathaway has received a legacy and is using it to go abroad, and she wants someone to take care of her house. Ruth arrives a week after Miss Hathaway’s departure and finds that the house is quiet and beautiful and that her only responsibilities are to take charge of the unmanageable servant, Hepsey, and to light a lamp in the attic window every night. Miss Hathaway doesn’t explain why the lamp must be lighted, and Hepsey doesn’t know, but she suspects it has something to do with Miss Ainslie, another spinster living nearby. Miss Ainslie and Miss Hathaway grew up together. They’re both in their mid-fifties, and both seem to have some kind or romance lurking in their pasts. But Miss Ainslie is shy, sweet, and reclusive, and lives in a house full of beautiful things, while Miss Hathaway, when she returns, is cranky and bossy, and keeps her Colonial mahogany furniture in the attic.

Meanwhile, Ruth is joined in her exile from the city by Carl Winfield, a young man who will be working on her newspaper in the fall, if his overstrained eyes are up to it by then. My brief hope of a romance between Ruth and her editor was shattered within a couple of pages of her first meeting with Carl; they were obviously going to fall in love. And that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with Carl. Or with Ruth, for that matter. Their romance, like the book, seemed as if it ought to work for me, but never did. And it really should have. Ruth is prickly and Carl is accommodating, but he takes a while to figure out how to interact with her, so there’s this thing where they keep accidentally offending each other and not knowing how to fix things. It reminded me a little of The Silver Dress (which is apparently my default reference for Myrtle Reed). But in spite of their mutual wariness, and some reasonably good banter, they never fully captured my interest. And once they acknowledged that they were in love with each other, it got worse. It takes a very special writer to be to tolerate something this sickeningly sweet, and Myrtle Reed is clearly not that writer.

She also, I think, resolved the romance way too soon, only about halfway through the book. After that, Reed switches gears and takes the book somewhere a bit more comedic with the return of Aunt Jane. And then she switches gears again, focusing on Miss Ainslie and a mood that goes back and forth between poignant and maudlin. And none of it pulled me in.

The thing is, Myrtle Reed starts out with three possible sources of narrative tension: the romance between Ruth and Carl, the romance of Miss Hathaway’s youth, and whatever the hell is going on with Miss Ainslie. She uses all three serviceably, if not well, throughout the first half of the book. Then she wraps up the Ruth/Carl story, aside for an awkward bit where she wants to keep working and he wants her to stay at home and she gives in after maybe a page and a half. Then she wraps up Jane Hathaway’s romance in a manner that’s meant to be funny but is mostly sad. That doesn’t take long, either. We spend the rest of the book on Miss Ainslie, but her mystery? Never fully resolved. There are all kinds of threads left hanging loose at the end, sacrificed to a bit of spurious catharsis.

I don’t want to dsmiss Myrtle Reed completely, because she has so many of the right pieces, but man, was this ever unsatisfying.


  1. I read this quite a while ago and you reminded me that I wasn’t very impressed with it either. It’s a shame, because I like many of Myrtle Reed’s books, especially At the Sign of the Jack O’Lantern and A Weaver of Dreams.

    • Hmm. I’ll have to check those out. I’m not ready to give up on Myrtle Reed yet.

  2. I’m currently reading The Silver Dress, and I’m having that “not capturing my interest” problem with it. It’s just not my kind of story, I guess.

    Also–Jane Hathaway? Really? How amusing! I’d be picturing Nancy Kulp the whole time.

    • The Silver Dress is really…contemplative, I guess, for lack of a better word. I can see how it might not be everybody’s thing. I found it to be smart in a lot of little ways, which is a pretty good way to get my attention.

      Also: I was wondering why her name seemed so familiar :)

  3. I remember reading half of this and just couldn’t believe the plot was already falling apart so I dropped it. I’m still curious about all that lantern in the window nonsense, but I couldn’t make myself wade through the clumsy romance plotline to get to the explanation–and now you’re saying it was never fully resolved?

    • So, here’s what happened: Miss Ainslie was (very obviously) once engaged to Carl’s dad. And she doesn’t know what happened to him, but she still believes he’s going to come back for her. The lamps at her window and at Aunt Jane’s are meant to guide him home. Aunt Jane knows he’s dead and is just humoring her. And then Carl’s dad appears to Miss Ainslie in a dream and tells her it’s okay to die now, so she does. But we never find out why he married Carl’s mom instead of coming back to Miss Ainslie.

      And…yeah. This is one of the worst structured books I have ever come across.

  4. I agree that this was a very unsatisfying read, and it started out quite nicely. The romance did have a fun dynamic until the end when Ruth gave in far to easily to not having her job anymore. I am currently listening to another book by Myrtle Reed called A Spinner in the Sun, and so far I like it much better (currently at ch. 22 out of 26, so there’s still time for things to get mucked up). It does get a bit preachy, I suppose, but not necessarily in a bad way? There is also some animal cruelty, but it is portrayed extremely negatively.

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