Joanna Builds a NestApril 15, 2015
Do you ever feel like a book knows you too well? I got about 75% of the way through Joanna Builds a Nest being totally delighted by it, and then I got to a point where I felt like my id was looking me straight in the eyes and I really, really wanted to look away. So, um, I’m going to try to write about the book as if that didn’t happen.
Juliet Wilbor Tompkins is pretty good with competent female characters, although in the other books of hers I’ve read — which were earlier — I felt at times like she was apologizing for them. I didn’t feel that way here. Joanna Maynard is about thirty, and works in publishing. She’s good at her job, and her firm couldn’t get along without her. Her real genius, though, is for design, and she reflexively turns unappealing spaces into comfortable, welcoming ones. She’s moved from apartment to apartment, making each one over until her landlord can charge more than she can afford to pay, but now she’s bought a house, and is free to do her worst. Her worst, I imagine, is pretty fantastic.
For all that it’s post-WWI and she and her friend Rosalind can go driving around alone when Rosalind’s husband is unavailable, Joanna needs a chaperon, and some help around the house. So she hires a “lady housekeeper,” Mrs. Roberts, who is offended at the expectation that she should wash dishes, and needs a chaperon more than Joanna does. And then the wounded veteran Joanna hires is cheerful and helpful, but not a veteran of the right war.
But Joanna has all kinds of plans for the house, and no one gets in the way of them for long, although Mrs. Roberts tries her best. She’s useless at best, and imposing on her employer at worst, and you can feel Joanna’s frustration warring with her unquashable niceness. If I was Joanna, I would probably have resorted to physical violence.
Things get better when Joanna enlists the help of an unhappy young man named Jones, a veteran of the correct war and one of the few people who dislikes Mrs. Roberts on sight. He helps formulate plans, rather than actively hindering them, and he’s that rare love interest who apparently never feels the need to assert any kind of supremacy over the heroine.
Obviously I love home renovation stories, and while this one isn’t as focused on stuff as I might like, it turns tout that plans to rip down existing walls and put in new windows are pretty much as good. It’s fun to see Joanna be practical about carpentry and whitewashing, and the fact that she’s not practical about social conventions or hiring staff doesn’t detract from that. For all the mistakes she makes, she always stays on track with the stuff she really cares about. Juliet Wilbor Tompkins is not the kind of author whose characters fail in their own areas of expertise, and I appreciate that.
I also appreciate almost everything about the romance. First of all, these are two characters who enjoy each others’ company, which is the one essential, really. And then…you know how, even in stories where the woman is the dominant character, the author finds some way to subtly undermine that? Or the woman takes care of the man, but mostly morally or spiritually or something? Tompkins doesn’t do that. Jones is good at stuff Joanna’s not good at, but the reverse is true, too, and they’re both good at physical labor and intellectual labor. And one of the reasons they go well together is that together they have a wider skillset. But the bottom line is that Joanna is in charge, and wants to take care of Jones, and is good at it. And Jones thinks Joanna is amazing, because she is, and will defer to her 100% of the time. And I enjoyed that so much that I’m a little uncomfortable about it.
I feel like I should have known from Pleasures and Palaces and Dr. Ellen that Juliet Wilbor Tompkins would reward further investigation. And halfway through Joanna Builds a Nest I wanted to read everything she ever wrote. Having finished it, though, I’m worried that nothing else is going to measure up.