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Cloudy Jewel

August 4, 2014

I’m sorry to report that I didn’t love Cloudy Jewel. A bunch of people recommended it, and it definitely sounds as if it should be right up my alley, but I’ve never met a Grace Livingston Hill character I liked more than a little, and if I had, Julia Cloud wouldn’t be it.

She should be. She’s a capable, unselfish spinster left at loose ends after her mother dies. She doesn’t want to go live with her genuinely awful sister and brother-in-law, and fair enough, but she hasn’t got enough money to do anything else. Enter her orphaned, almost grown-up niece and nephew, Leslie and Allison. They’re bound for college, and they want her to live with them and keep house and be a substitute parent with a salary. They find a house and furnish it at length, with nice rugs and modern appliances and kind of a lot of homemade curtains. And I don’t know what French gray enamel furniture looks like, but somehow it sounds really appealing.

So there’s home-making (always fun!) and winding the population of the town around the Clouds’ collective finger (usually fun) and also there’s kind of a lot of religion. Which isn’t actually a problem for me in itself, but it might be becoming a problem for me with Grace Livingston Hill. I might not have realized this if I hadn’t stopped in the middle of Cloudy Jewel to read something by Amy Le Feuvre, but I did, and when I came back to Hill afterwards she started to look like a hypocrite.

I mean, there’s a fine line. You want characters to be human beings, not saints, right? But Julia Cloud seems meant to be saintly, only Grace Livingston Hill doesn’t know how to show that. Julia’s clearly not meant to be too saintly — Hill knows not to do that. But she doesn’t know how to temper Julia’s saintliness. Like, laughing at Leslie and Allison’s mean-spirited jokes. Not cool. These aren’t, like, sociopathic, Tom Rover mean jokes, but they do betray a fundamental lack of sympathy for people in general.

Okay, so, eight or ten years ago I was at a bar or bat mitzvah for one of my cousins, and the rabbi talked about the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself. My family hated this rabbi so much. We still talk about him once in a while. And here’s why: mostly he wanted to narrow the definition of “neighbor.” Your neighbors, he said, weren’t the people who happened to be around you. They were the people you’d chosen to go through life with.

Take a minute to think that through. Going by that definition, the commandment becomes meaningless. Because this is the golden rule: treat people as you want to be treated. You don’t get to choose who to be nice to and who not to be nice to. But what this rabbi was saying kind of boils down to this: be nice  to the people you want to be nice to. You only have to be nice to the people who are like you. In fact, you get to decide who is and isn’t worth treating well. And I’m not religious, but doesn’t that completely miss the point? I mean, you’re only really as nice as you are to the person you’re least nice to.

Hill reminds me of that rabbi. Not in an overt way, but…I don’t know. If I’m reading a book about people who are “real Christians,” I don’t want to see them delighting in uncharitableness towards people who haven’t done anything especially awful. And I say that as someone who’s pretty uncharitable, as a rule. If Julia Cloud is supposed to be better than me, I want her to actually be better.

I guess the bottom line is that all I want from religious fiction is a sense of everyone being essentially human, and worth being nice to. And it’s less important that I get that from the character then that I get it from the author. I get that from Le Feuvre. I get it from Susan Warner. I even get it from Mary Jane Holmes, who is super vindictive all the time and not necessarily very religious. But I don’t get it from Hill, who doesn’t seem to think anyone other than the three Clouds and their two best friends is terribly important. And sure, that’s not the end of the world. But it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway.

I thought Cloudy Jewel was fun. I didn’t care about or respect any of the characters enough for more than that, and I haven’t figured out why the interior decoration and club organizing bits weren’t more satisfying for me, but I was, at least, really into Leslie’s motoring adventure. I mean, I was into any bit where Leslie shot at people. Also I’ve spent entirely too much time wondering why they couldn’t have carried a thermos or two on their cold-weather hikes and canoe trips instead of an actual pot of soup.

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16 comments

  1. I think the problem is not so much GLH’s religion – it’s that she’s VERY class conscious – ‘not our kind, dear’. She doesn’t think she is, but she is. And it’s never occurred to her (at the time this book was written) that her Christianity is in conflict with her ‘everybody in their place’ class views.


    • What’s confusing is, Hill makes a point of noting that Jane is being unfairly treated by others because of her father’s actions (and I gotta say, I’d’ve liked a Jane and Leslie have adventures book a LOT)– but at the same time, what kind of portrayal would Jane have got if her parents had been alive and poor and Jane had been less “appropriate” a friend?

      When I like GLH, I really like GLH (Aunt Crete! Victoria Gracen!), but when I don’t? Yeah, no.

      I still like Cloudy Jewel for the makeover-y bits and the home-making parts, though.

      Isabella Alden does a great job of “main characters who screw up over and over again and somehow figure out how to be better people”– Hill’s main characters start out better (at least on paper).

      (Still better than Elsie Dinsmore!)


      • Yeah, it seems like the line isn’t money or breeding, but…maybe vulgarity?

        Clearly I have to read Isabella Alden–is there a particular book you’d recommend starting with?

        (And yeah. Most things are better than Elsie Dinsmore.)


        • I need to re-read the Lulu books– stopping before she’s Elsiefied, though.

          Will think over recs, get back to you this weekend– ‘s been one helluva week. FTR, some of Alden’s best books are the ones where her heroines are flawed verging on jerkish, and actually acknowledge that they need to cut it out.


        • Okay, quick Alden recs– Ester Ried. The heroine is actually pretty unpleasant through a lot of the book, but at the same time, she’s got a lot on her shoulders, and to me, that makes her really easy to identify with.

          I liked “Four Girls at Chautauqua” and “Chautauqua Girls at Home” for the same reason. Our four heroines have widely differing personalities and flaws, and even when they become true Christians? They STILL screw stuff up.

          No makeover-ing or come-uppance-ing, though.

          (also am re-reading Elsie because I just can’t get over the endless WTFery)


          • Thanks! I’ve fallen into a Patty Fairfield series-shaped hole, but I want to get to these next.


            • I need to re-read Patty, I think. I’ve been reading non-stop WW2 non-fic lately, and… yeah. Time for some non-thinking. Also just finished Hill’s Re-Creations, as recommended by whitequeen54, and it’s pretty awesome! It has the usual Alden / Hill “start slow and wind everything up in the last two chapters” thing, but the house makeover is wonderful!


              • Ooh. Wonderful house makeovers are obviously an attraction.


    • Absolutely yes to the class consciousness thing, except that Hill’s notions of class don’t correspond exactly to established financial or social classes. It’s not even a family thing. People just are “our kind” or they’re not, and they don’t get to change.


  2. “you’re only really as nice as you are to the person you’re least nice to.” There’s a quotable quote.


  3. I think the makeover-y and homemaking bits weren’t as satisfying because Julia just went out and bought everything she wanted, unlike in “Re-Creations” or “Not Under the Law.” Especially “Not Under the Law” where our heroine not only made her own clothes but also made her own furniture for her $5 house!


    • That’s a good point–everything comes a little bit too easily to the Clouds. It’s funny, though, even where they are actually putting in work, like when they pack up Julia’s house, Hill makes it feel like a breeze.


    • Can I ask about these two books you mention? Who are they by?


      • They are Grace Livingston Hill books, both available on Kindle now.


        • Gonna have to run after these!


        • …and starting on Re-Creation and already liking it LOTS.



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