Reading an online discussion of Rainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas recently, I was struck by how many readers insisted that the book would have been better had Kleypas omitted the magical realism. My own reaction was just the opposite. I loved the way the fireflies, hummingbird, orchids, grapevine, and stained glass window served to erase the barriers between the real and the fantastic. It was the magical realism that made the book more than just another romance from an author whose books are nearly always winners for me. I thought Kleypas’s use of the magical was remarkably close to the use of the term “magical realism” by the art critic who coined it to describe the “magic insight into reality” that he saw in Post Expressionism and even closer to magical realism as I first encountered it in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
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Garcia Marquez said in an interview granted a couple of years after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that defining work of magical realism, “My most important problem was to destroy the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic. Because in the world that I was trying to evoke, that barrier didn’t exist.” Thus, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Renedios the Beauty who ascends into the heavens is an earthy figure not a celestial one, and she trails freshly laundered sheets, not clouds of glory. Garcia Marqez and other magical realists of literary fiction aim to reveal a reality that is deeper and truer than the reality of the strictly rational world we generally term “real.” I think writers of popular fiction who employ magical realism share this purpose.
In Like Water for Chocolate (1990), one of the books Kleypas identifies as inspiring her to use magical realism in her contemporary romance fiction, Mexican author Laura Esquivel uses food to integrate the real and the fantastic. Tita, the younger daughter marked by tradition to remain single and care for her aging mother and forbidden a union with Pedro, her true love, funnels her emotions into the dishes she cooks. The effects of the emotion laden food range from guests bursting into tears as they partake of a wedding cake with icing flavored with Tita’s tears to the aphrodisiac qualities of blood-stained roses used in a sauce for quail. The latter is so powerful that Tita’s sister Gertrudis radiates sufficient heat that her body sets a shower stall on fire and her scent attracts a revolutionary who rides off with her as they make love on horseback. Esquivel uses the magical realist’s tool of “metaphors made real” to show Tita subverting female tradition while serving in the traditional female role of food preparation.
Food also figures prominently in the other work of magical realism that Kleypas names as inspirational: Garden Spells (2007) by Sarah Addison Allen. A prophetic apple tree grows on the Waverly property in Bascom, North Carolina. Claire Waverley is in demand as a caterer because of the magical properties of the dishes she creates using edible flowers. Only her gift is food-related, but all the Waverley women have extraordinary gifts. Claire’s sister Sydney can cut and style hair so that the customer is filled with confidence and boldness. Cousin Evanelle feels compelled to give useless objects to people who later find the gift is exactly what they need. Even Sydney’s daughter, six-year-old Bay, knows exactly where everything belongs in houses and in lives. In Garden Spells and in Allen’s other books—The Sugar Queen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and The Peach Keeper—Allen’s self-described “Southern-fried magical realism” offers a rich strangeness that is suprarational but accepted by the characters as part of their reality.
Sherry Thomas’s Delicious (2008), another food book, was brushed with magical realism, but Kleypas is the first romance author with whose novels I am familiar who consciously blends the real and the fantastic in the style of magical realism. Lucy Marinn, the heroine of Rainshadow Road, is an ordinary woman, not a supernatural creature. Yet the reader learns in the opening paragraph that Lucy has “the power to create magic.” She discovers her power when her younger sister breaks a treasured glass ornament that her father bought Lucy on a day she shared with him, “the best day of her life.” As Lucy kneels in front of the shattered pieces of glass, filled with a stormy mix of “fury, grief, and a craving, nagging, desperate wish for love,” the shards of glass turn into “living sparks,” glimmering, dancing fireflies. Lucy understands even at seven the connection that exists between her powerful emotions and the glass that is transformed. Much later, a quotation from Einstein increases her understanding. “Whether she called her gift a phenomenon of nuclear physics, or magic, both definitions were true, and the words didn’t matter anyway.
In an interview with Eloisa James for the Barnes & Noble Review, Kleypas said, “For me, magical realism allows the heroine to have revelatory insight. It underscores emotions that are already present, and signals her transition to new directions.” It works the same way for Sam Nolan, the hero of Rainshadow Road. His gift, like Lucy’s, is connected to living things, but in Sam’s case the connection is to plants. Emotionally stirred by an interaction with Sam’s young niece, Lucy unconsciously turns a juice glass into a hummingbird. Guilty and worried, she tries to explain away the magic. But Sam is willing to accept that truth and logic are not synonymous. He demonstrates his understanding.
“Wanting to make things clear, but hardly able to believe he was doing it, Sam extended his free hand to the terrarium on the coffee table. The miniature orchids, temperamental as usual, had started to droop and turn brown. As he let his palm hover over the vessel, the flowers and button ferns strained upward toward his touch, the petals regaining their creamy whiteness, the green plants reviving.”
Another example of “metaphors made real.” Sam’s nurturing touch is just what Lucy needs.
Kleypas said in the interview with James that magical realism offered her the “chance to try something fresh in [her] career.” With Alex Nolan set to be haunted by the ghost of a WWII fighter pilot who wants to be reunited with the woman he once loved in Dream Lake, set for an August 7 release, and a spell-casting heroine in next February’s Crystal Cove (Friday Harbor #4), it looks as if Kleypas’s experiment with magical realism is an extended one. Sam might tell us that it’s really not such a departure for Kleypas who has been creating magic with her stories for more than two decades. As Sam says, “Sometimes . . . real things seem like magic, and magic seems real.”
- Lisa Kleypas’s Rainshadow Road Q&A for She Knows (Feb. 12, 2012)
- Eloisa James’s conversation with Lisa Kleypas for Barnes & Noble Review (March 13, 2012)
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.