Jenny Crusie is back, just in time for summer reading, but don't wait for vacation to pick up this witty, shivery, heartwarming book. It's been six years since she penned a solo novel, and she has surpassed herself with Maybe This Time
, an homage to The Turn of the Screw
, featuring banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, music and sex.
The story opens with Andie Miller sitting in the reception room of her ex-husband North Archer's law office, holding on to 10 years of un-cashed alimony checks and some--okay, a lot--of unresolved rage over the way their brief marriage ended. Now she's getting married again, to Will, the anti-North, and wants to close this chapter of her life. As she waits, a lock of unruly hair falls out of her chignon, a reliable clue to her personality. North never has a hair out of place. He's still handsome--blond hair, blue-gray eyes, wire-rim glasses, straight shoulders, muscled forearms--sitting behind his massive desk, the desk where they had often... well, that's in the past, right?
North surprises her by making her an offer that's hard to refuse: for $10,000 per month he needs someone to stay with the two orphaned children of a distant cousin--North is now their guardian, and they're living with a housekeeper in an old house in the wilds of southern Ohio. They had been living there with May, their 19-year-old aunt, but she died and they've since gone through several nannies. Alice, who's eight, had a psychotic break when the last nanny tried to take her from the house, and Carter, 12, was sent to boarding school but expelled for setting fires. North needs someone to stabilize the kids, tutor them a bit, and then move them to his house in the city. When Andie protests that she's a high school English teacher, not a nanny or a therapist, he replies that she's perfect for the job because she doesn't care about the way things are supposed to be, she can handle the unexpected, and, er, the last nanny said the house was haunted. But of course that's nonsense. So Andie accepts, wanting to pay off some bills before her wedding, and leaves North wondering what crazy impulse made him offer her the job.
In the meantime, North's brother, Sullivan, whom Andie calls Southie, offers to drop in on the children to see how they're doing. The offer seems out of the blue, but he has an agenda: he's dating newswoman Kelly O'Keefe, "the little blonde with the teeth on Channel Twelve." She's heard about the haunted house, and has also, unknown to Southie, another agenda: she specializes in children in jeopardy, and thinks the two Archer children are abandoned and abused.
Others besides Southie have an opinion on both Andie's new job and her relationship with North. Flo, her mother, who's all about tarot cards and dream interpretation, has serious doubts about Andie's foray, warning she's going down a path that's filled with conflict and struggle. She tells her daughter that she's still sexually connected to North: "Those Capricorns are insatiable. Well, you know, Sea Goat." Which prompts Andie to say, "You know what I'd like for Christmas, Flo? Boundaries. You can gift me early if you'd like." Lydia, North's mother, is strong, stylish and determined. She tells North that in Andie, he picked a ballbuster, "Just like me." North replies, "I'd like to continue this conversation, but I find myself in need of a therapist."
We have the protagonists, we have the meddling family members, we have a rapacious reporter. What else is needed? An ominous setting: Archer House, a three-story, dark stone building brought over from England in the 19th century and reconstructed in a heavily wooded area, complete with battlements and a moat. Add the housekeeper, Mrs. Crumb, plump, powdered, hostile, wrapped in a faint scent of peppermint schnapps. She says Andie doesn't know this house, she's stirring things up with the ghosts, and when Andie is dismissive, Mrs. Crumb says, "You'll see they care." And the children, of course, watch this interchange warily.
Alice is a slight wisp with tangled white-blonde hair and narrowed, distrustful eyes, who wears around her neck an old strand of purple plastic pearls, an antique locket on a pink ribbon, a string of blue shells, a Walkman and a glittery bat on a black chain. Carter, all shoulder blades and elbows, brown hair flopping in his eyes, is unwaveringly quiet, with his mouth set in a hard, thin line. Carter has so much self-discipline he barely breathes; Alice, on the other hand, has none, and screams whenever something happens she doesn't like, but it's not a normal scream; there seems to be something more going on than frustration. Maybe fear.
When Andie first meets the children they're eating macaroni and cheese from a box, so she starts her reclamation project with food. She takes Alice and Carter shopping--a blue bedspread with sequins for Alice, art supplies for Carter--and buys real food. She buys them clothes. They go to Dairy Queen. She calls North about getting a contractor to fix the driveway, the kitchen, the wiring--the house is dirty and derelict, a little Gormenghast, "about as cozy as an abandoned mental hospital." She gets cable and a cleaning crew. She starts to bake--measuring and mixing smooth out her thinking, creaming butter calms her down--and she continues planning. Every now and then she senses something moving behind her, but never sees anything. At night, she hears whispers--Who do you love? Who do you want? Call him. Bring him here.
--as she falls into dream-laden sleep after drinking the tea that Mrs. Crumb laces with brandy. When she wakes up her bedroom is always terribly cold.
They settle into a routine: Alice spends time looking outraged, Carter quietly reads comic books and draws, and Andie keeps working on the house, the homework and the baking. The Three O'Clock Bake becomes her time with Alice, who dances around the kitchen with Andie, belting out radio songs with fervor. After three weeks, the only
problems Andie has with Alice are intractable stubbornness, occasional screaming and nightmares. Carter, as usual, is quiet and withdrawn, although he seems to be always looking over his shoulder. But this fragile stability is upset one night when Andie sees a young woman at the foot of her bed: May, the dead aunt, whom she quickly dismisses as a bad dream. Then one day in the garden she looks across the pond and sees a woman dressed in old-fashioned black and a man up on the tower of the house. Maybe she was a neighbor, maybe he was Bruce the contractor, if Bruce had started dressing funny. But the real game-changer is the arrival of Southie, Kelly and her cameraman, along with Dennis Graff, a ghost-debunking professor, because Kelly has also invited a medium to the house, in order to film a séance.
Now all we need is a dark and stormy night, and we get one. When we read, "Assuming the road doesn't wash out in the storm," and Isolde Hammersmith, the medium, arrives for the séance, we are ready for action. She has Cleopatra eyes, black Farrah hair, bright red lips (and a salty tongue), green leopard-print glasses, black stilettos, and Harold, her cranky spirit guide. When they prepare for the first séance, she lights candles and Dennis asks her what the candles do. She replies, "They make the people who put them on the table happy. Me, I don't care." So she proceeds, interrupted by the arrival in succession of Will, Flo, Lydia and, finally--the missing piece of the puzzle--North. Let the games begin. North does think it's an evil game, or a serious prank; he hires a private investigator to come to the house to figure out what's going on, so he can get the mess cleaned up and move the kids back to Columbus. Easy, now that rational thought has taken over in a house filled with wingnuts and ghosts.
We've been reading stories like this since the fourth of forever, but Jennifer Crusie takes genre conventions and expands their possibilities. The story pays respects to gothics and ghost stories, but Andie is older than the usual heroine, and resolute, even fierce--no vapors here. Many scenes are classic farce--rapidly opening and closing doors, interrupted phone conversations, sneaking into bedrooms--and Crusie excels at snappy patter, à la the screwball comedies of the '40s. It's the kind of dialogue we want to remember so we can use it later, but we'll never get the set-up we need:
"She likes you."
"She called you an idiot."
"That was ten years ago."
"That was ten minutes ago."
But why are the ghosts there? What hold do they have over Carter and Alice? And just how did their young aunt die? As these questions are answered, Crusie explores the nature of love, the essence of family and the ways that two halves make a whole. Lydia and Flo combine smarts, toughness and a loopy sort of caring. Southie is a slacker, but all gentle heart. Dennis lives in a conundrum--his disbelief in ghosts prevents him from seeing what he most wants to study--but his resolution is brilliant. North is the ultimate pragmatist, but has a nurturing soul buried under the lawyer suit. And Andie combines a can-do spirit with a tenderness that the two lost children elicit. When Andie rocks Alice out of a screaming fit, and sings "Baby Mine" over and over, her life changes.
It's a rare treat to find a book that truly makes you laugh and cry and want to share, so it's a joy to have a new Jennifer Crusie novel to savor. Maybe This Time
--a ghost story about creating family and finding one's way back home--is a treasure. --Marilyn Dahl