Cloudy JewelAugust 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.
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.