Outside InnAugust 30, 2013
Outside Inn, by Ethel M. Kelley, is alternately fun and vaguely off-putting, and while the plots had almost nothing in common it ended up reminding me quite a bit of Cinderella Jane. And half a dozen other things, in bits. Possibly because there are half a dozen premises shoehorned in, each of them perfectly nice by itself, but slightly less nice when squashed in with all the others.
So, Nancy Martin’s family is mostly dead but she’s got a group of close friends, and she’s about to open a restaurant. She’s studied every aspect of the food service business and she’s full of schemes for feeding good, nourishing, portion-controlled food to the masses at low prices. Her restaurant is a sort of philanthropic project and operates at a large deficit, and people end up using the word “eleemosynary” quite a bit, which annoys me.
Nancy’s friends aren’t particularly well drawn as characters: Billy is…funny, maybe? And in love with Caroline, who is sort of unemotional and into charity, although that’s more of a described character trait than an observed one. Betty is the business mind but also the impulsive, unpredictable one, and Dick is rich and wants to marry Nancy. But while none of them feel really knowable, their friendships, collectively and in pairs, are kind of great, in a way that made me think of the casual social interactions in Wired Love.
Nancy’s main characteristic is her maternal feelings towards everyone. They’re why she feels such a personal interest in nourishing strangers, why she rejects Dick — he doesn’t need taking care of — why Collier Pratt wants to paint her portrait, and why she ends up adopting Pratt’s daughter, Sheila.
Pratt is the third corner of the central love triangle, an artist recently arrived from Paris and snobbishly dismissive of everything American. He loves the restaurant, though, and, at least initially, he seems a lot better for Nancy than Dick, who doesn’t seem to feel that Nancy should have interests that don’t revolve around him. But that would be too simple. For a book that I initially assumed was going to revolve around running a restaurant, Outside Inn turned out to be awfully melodramatic and complicated. And there’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, there were a lot of people-may-not-be-what-they-seem complications that I really enjoyed — but I don’t know if I ever really forgave it for not being the process-oriented business story I was hoping for.
Another than that bothered me was the glorification of motherhood. Which is not, in itself, a bad thing — until it gets all gooey and sentimental and the author starts denying that any other choice is acceptable. Character are free to have whatever emotional upheavals the plot prompts them to have, but when the authors then try to tie everything in to their gross gender essentialism, I’m disappointed. And there’s probably an author that could have told this same story and made me feel okay about it, but Kelley isn’t that author.
That said, in the end Kelley makes it work. She does the most melodramatic bits very cleverly, and she resigned me to a romantic outcome I was prepared to be really angry about. The characters, inconsistent as they mostly are, are pretty likable, and while Kelley manages to detach the success of Nancy’s restaurant from any competency on Nancy’s part, the little bits of restaurant-running are fun, too.
I guess I wanted Outside Inn to be more than it was, but I’m not actually disappointed, and I’m planning on checking out other things by Ethel M. Kelley soon.