Natalie Meg Evans: A Gown of Thorns

Natalie Meg Evans’ short novel, A Gown of Thorns, begins in contemporary (2003) France, as Shauna Vincent arrives in the French wine country. Passed over for the research job she was expecting at home in Britain, she has taken a summer au pair post with a distant relative on her mother’s side of the family, a woman she has never met, Isabelle Duval. Hoping merely to survive until fall and get back to something worthy of her academic degree, Shauna has no idea what to expect at the Chateau de Chemignac.

A Gown of ThornsThe contemporary inhabitants of the chateau are a varied lot. Isabelle is warm and welcoming. Her uncle Albert is not (he hates redheads, particularly English redheads like Shauna). Neither is Rachel Moorcroft, the manipulative young English woman caring for the horses and the tourist trade. The children, Olive and Nico, are exhausting but charming. The most fascinating to Shauna is Laurent de Chemignac, Isabelle’s nephew and the master of the Chemignac winery.

There is another story at Chemignac, the tale of the English spy known as Yvonne Rosel and Henri de Chemignac, Laurent’s grandfather, and a few dangerous days in 1943. Albert has one version of that story, an amateur historian in the nearby town of Garzenac another, and Shauna soon finds herself drawn into Yvonne’s story in the most inexplicable ways.

Is the chateau haunted? Shauna is a scientist and certainly doesn’t believe in such things, even after she tries on the forbidden gown of thorns hidden away in the wardrobe of the strangely unsettling tower room. The sound of geese where there are none, the glimpse of a silhouette through a long walled up window, and the discovery of a cave that vanishes have Shauna questioning her own sanity.

Family connections known and unknown help to peel away the fate of Yvonne, a mystery that Shauna and Laurent must solve before they can find their own destinies.

Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret (both of which I loved), are set in Paris before and during World War II. This shorter novel moves to the contemporary wine country, blending skillfully with the wartime countryside. Paranormal or psychological, A Gown of Thorns blends mystery, romance, and wine in a thoroughly satisfying vintage.

Writer Wednesday: Favorite Holiday Books

Our Writer Wednesday assignment for November is “Tell us your favorite holiday books.” That’s a WW Novemberno-brainer for me: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. What, that doesn’t sound like the holidays to you? Well, four of the five stories that Jean Shepherd turned into my favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story, came from that collection. (The fifth came from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other disasters.)

“Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” gave the movie its core, driven by Ralphie’s passionate desire for a “Red Ryder BB gun with a special Red Ryder sight and a compass in the stock with a sundial.” We hear about the Old Man’s battle with the furnace, Ralphie’s lofty expectations for his “What I Want For Christmas” theme, his visit to Santa Claus, Aunt Clara’s abominable bunny costume, and his broken glasses. I never lusted after an air rifle, but I sure can identify with the theme writing and the broken glasses.

The episode of the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, with its high anticipation and deep betrayal as Ralphie discovers the true meaning of the secret message, comes from “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or the Asp Strikes Again.” The arrival and demise of the notorious leg lamp is described in “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Ralphie’s epic battle with the neighborhood bully plays out in “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil.” (Fun fact for fans of the film: Scut Farkas character was added for the movie, with Grover Dill demoted to toady. Scut did appear in another story, “Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah” in the
Wanda Hickey collection.) The destruction of the Christmas turkey is adapted from “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” also in Wanda Hickey, in which the neighbors’ dogs destroyed the Parkers’ Easter ham.

All of Jean Shepherd’s writing was sharp and hilarious. My copies are old paperbacks, with small print and brittle yellow pages, that once belonged to my mother, who introduced me to Shepherd. I remember reading the Bumpus hounds’ story aloud to my late husband when he was ill, interrupted by frequent laughter. (The two of us also watched the movie every year, a habit I have continued.)

Writing this piece has made me think about the complexities of weaving several stories together into A Christmas Storya film that has become a Christmas classic. The five stories have been reprinted in one volume, A Christmas Story: The Book that Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. I want to reread them (and admire Shepherd’s skill in adapting them) without struggling with those old paperbacks (I actually have new glasses on order; they might handle the small print, but they won’t do much for the brittle yellow pages or cracked binding), so I’m downloading the Christmas Story edition to my Kindle to reread during the holidays.

Do you have a holiday book you love and reread? Visit some other Wednesday Writers, Tamra Baumann, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, Jean Willett, and Sharon Wray,
and discover their holiday favorites.

Writer Wednesday: Naming Names

Our Writer Wednesday topic this month is “tell us you favorite character name,” but I couldn’t think of one, WW Octobereither as a reader or as a writer. But names are important, and for a writer they require quite a bit of thought, and sometimes just as much planning.

Many of my favorite keeper books are science fiction, because I enjoy the world building. And names are often part of that world building. Character names in books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover often tell the reader quite a bit about family, social position, or occupation.

I find I can’t write about a character until I know his or her “true name.” From time to time I have realized that I simply can’t remember a supporting character’s name, a sure sign that whatever name I stuck the poor soul with is the wrong one. I like to play with names, and sometimes they take on an extra layer of meaning. In one of my manuscripts, the heroine is called Liz, short for Elizabeth, and the fact that the Spanish version of her name is Isabel becomes an important plot point. In another story, the heroine calls herself Charlie, but the hero, a European with a formal streak, always addresses her by her proper name, Charlotte.

Sometimes a character’s true name never shows up, suggesting that there’s something else about the Columbo & Dogcharacter that isn’t working. That thought reminded me of Lieutenant Columbo, who never had a first name, and his dog, who never had a name at all. Columbo tried out several names for the dog during the series, but none of them seemed to work, and the dog remained Dog. Come to think of it, Mrs. Columbo didn’t have a first name, either.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been reading a series of old-fashioned Regency romances, originally published in the 1990s, in which nearly all the male characters have at least three names, first, last, and title(s). How other people address these men speaks to relationships and social position. People in contemporary stories are generally casual about names, but in historical tales, arriving at a first name relationship may be a major romantic milestone.

Do you have a favorite character name? Or are there names that push your buttons and make you put a book down? For more thoughts on names, visit Wednesday Writers Sharon Wray, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, and Wendy La Capra (and be sure to check out Wendy’s upcoming release, Duchess Decadence).

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