Bad Fences Make Good Lovers

Sarah Mayberry’s The Other Side of Us is a quiet romance between two mature people. Both Oliver and Mackenzie are recovering from trauma–in his case, the breakup of his marriage; in hers, a serious car accident. They meet when they retreat to neighboring beach houses to recuperate and regroup. It’s not a great time for either to fall in love, but they do. And because they are grown-ups, they talk through the inevitable difficulties and support each other in figuring out what to do next.

I had a Twitter conversation about this book with a reader who didn’t love it as much as I did and pointed out some of its problems (e.g. pacing issues and the way that Mackenzie’s “old” and “new” selves aren’t fully integrated). I agree with everything she said, but I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t care about those things. So I guess this is my “book crack.” This isn’t a straight-up review; check out Brie or Natalie for that. Rather, it’s about why the book made me think of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and how for once Harlequin gave us a really great title.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

In Mayberry’s book, it’s Mackenzie’s amorous dachshund, who finds a hole in the fence between their properties and introduces himself to Oliver’s schnauzer, thus bringing our couple together in a Meet Annoyed. Mackenzie brushes Oliver off and shuts the door in his face (because her rehab workout has made her nauseated, though he doesn’t know that). Oliver fixes the fence.

But because they are both basically nice and mature people, and yes, because they find each other attractive, they don’t stop at the cranky belief that “good fences make good neighbors.” Oliver helps Mackenzie when she’s threatened with a flood. She cooks him dinner as a thank you. They become friends, and then more.

The fence is a symbol, of course, like Frost’s wall, but Mayberry never smacks you upside the head with it: “Hey Reader! This is a Symbolic Fence!” (I love that the Wikipedia entry for “Mending Wall” informs us it’s “a metaphorical poem.” I guess that’s from the Blindingly Obvious School of criticism.) Neighborliness, friendship, love, do not love a wall. We have to let our defenses down, make “gaps even two can pass abreast,” to fall in love.

At the novel’s beginning, Mackenzie and Oliver are walled off. They’re isolated from their old lives and old selves, unsure of what will come next. Both say that they didn’t expect or want to meet someone desirable now.

[S]he was having trouble locating normal right at the moment. Her career was in limbo, her body a work in progress. She’d lost sight of so many of the things that used to be important to her, that used to define her. . . . Maybe some deep, wise part of her brain had understood that she had enough on her plate right now without helping herself to a big slice of Oliver, as well. Maybe that was what her precipitous retreat had been about.

So why do these two, preoccupied with working out their own problems and redefining themselves, manage to make a gap in the metaphorical fence between them big enough to walk through two abreast? I think it’s because they are mourning losses and considering the future, but they were mature and self-aware enough before their lives were shaken up to be basically OK. The trauma hasn’t undone them completely. They’re in rehab, not at rock bottom, when they meet. They’re imagining new creative work for themselves, a sign that they’re ready to create something together, too. (The wall-building in Frost’s poem is often interpreted as a metaphor for poetic creation).

The symbolic importance of the fence makes The Other Side of Us the perfect title for this novel. Oliver and Mackenzie live on the other side of a fence from each other, obviously. They are both coming out on “the other side” of a life-changing event–traumas without which, they recognize, they would never have found each other. They are stopping to discover their own “other sides,” pieces of themselves they had once left behind. It’s not that those gifts make trauma welcome, exactly; but they recognize that there are gifts.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
 

It’s no surprise these characters want to build protective walls. Mackenzie was always a bit prickly and reserved. Now she’s not sure who she is, nor what Oliver will think of her scarred and less-mobile body. Oliver was betrayed by his wife and is reluctant to trust his heart to someone else. But they each ask whether the other is worth the risk, whether they really want to wall out love.

The Other Side of Us is about having the courage not to repair those gaps you find in your defenses, to let connection and love through them. It’s kind of a cheesy cliché put that way. But Mayberry, like Frost, doesn’t put it that way. She tells a story about a fence, trusting her readers to make the metaphorical leap to her characters’ defenses if they’re so inclined. And that’s one thing I loved about this book.

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14 Responses to Bad Fences Make Good Lovers

  1. Nicole says:

    I really enjoyed this book, too, and I love that you connected it to Frost’s poem. I admittedly didn’t pay much attention to the fence or the title (shame on this former English teacher). Probably because I was too busy drooling over all the great gender reversal stuff. 🙂

    “But they ask whether the other is worth the risk, whether they really want to wall out love.”

    I think Mayberry did a great job of creating other “fences” in the story as well to go along with the actual fence. The ex-husband showing up as a barrier, Oliver putting a distance barrier between them. It kind of goes along with the actual physical barrier of the fence, especially since they work to overcome those barriers.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes! All kinds of barriers. Once I started thinking about the fence as a symbol, it just seemed richer and richer. I could have made this post three times as long, but I restrained myself.

    • I’m having a “duh” moment here, because I didn’t make the connection either, but I’m not a former English teacher, so I get a free pass. Shame on you, though *grins*

      The role reversal was drool-worthy, wasn’t it?

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I meant to say that I, too, liked the gender role-reversal. Except that I think it shows how rigid/conventional gender can be in romance, because I can think of more than one couple that is at least somewhat like Oliver and Mackenzie. Including me and my husband.

      • Nicole says:

        Brie,

        Oh, god, yes. I liked too that even though it was role reversal-y, Mackenzie still viewed her scars as a woman likely would. When guys have scars in romance it’s always sexy or dangerous or mysterious, and hers caused her to question if Oliver would think she was sexy–and were a symbol to her of rebuilding her own life. Oh, I could go on for hours about that.

        Liz,
        I totally agree with it being in rigid in romance, which Is why I am so in love with the gender role reversal when it does happen. I think part of why I like that is because I am not always warm and loving as women are “supposed” to be, like you said in real life it doesn’t always work that conventional way. For example, my husband is SO much better with the kids when they’re sick–patient and soothing, where I am (inwardly) annoyed.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, many, many people (most? Everyone?) do not conform perfectly to gender stereotypes, so characters who don’t feel way more realistic to me. And I like my romance–and my fiction in general–on the more realistic side most of the time, especially contemporaries.

  2. SonomaLass says:

    I really liked this book. I think Mayberry gives us characters who are wounded, emotionally and in Mackenzie’s case physically, but not so badly that we can’t believe in the connection they make. Like you, I appreciated the way they talk to each other and keep making the tough decisions to communicate, to apologize, to ask for what they want and need. I admit, I was disappointed in Oliver towards the end, but it did give Mackenzie the chance to go after him, in a strong way.

    Thanks for the Frost comparison. That’s one of my two favorite poems of his, and I loved revisiting it as a way of thinking aout romance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was just thinking that their recognition that they need to apologize (I love the night that they each spend at home thinking “Man, I messed up, I need to apologize”) is a big sign of their maturity–they are more grown up than most people I know, including me, manage to be a lot of the time. And of course they meet at the fence to apologize. 🙂

      In another book, that and similar moments could become an angsty Big Mis that kept them apart for a while, but here it does not (for long). They can never keep a wall between them because each has the impulse to be polite, honest, helpful, kind. That makes them sound so dull, but I didn’t find them like that at all. I wished they were my neighbors.

  3. Liz Mc2 says:

    Brie, now I am thinking that Vicki Essex’s book is a bit gender-flipped too, though less noticeably. Tiffany is the driven, ambitious one (though unlike Mackenzie, not met with success); Chris has reimagined his goals because of family responsibility. She’s more emotionally closed off. I think it is less noticeable there because Tiffany isn’t self-confident, and also because they are described in more conventional physical ways (she’s so petite and feminine, long hair, fashionable, etc). I was struck here by now Mackenzie sees Oliver as warm, golden, sunshiney, and he sees her as cold and hard. Total reversal of usual hero/heroine terms. And their hair, too (sorry the cover didn’t reflect that). The fact that they aren’t strictly gendered types is part of why the book felt so realistic. If she hadn’t switched their genders from her original idea, the book would have been more conventional and less interesting (to me).

  4. Ros says:

    This sounds fabulous. Wish I had bought more Mayberrys in the Harlequin half price sale! That’s what trying to be good with my credit card gets for me. 😉

  5. Liz,

    I think in Essex’s book isn’t so much about role-reversal in terms of gender, as it is in terms of small-town contemporaries (although, the latter usually means the former). Just the fact that the heroine is the one who left the town to try and make it big in the city, is a reversal on a traditional small-town plot, because it’s always the hero who leaves and comes back. Did you read Room at the Inn by Ruthie Knox? That book is an interesting, even original, take on the small-town contemporary, but uses all the common tropes and themes. So I think the role reversal is present in Essex’s book, but not as clear or deliberate as in Mayberry’s.

    Didn’t Oliver have long-ish, red hair? And she had cropped short hair, right? Simply fantastic.

    “If she hadn’t switched their genders from her original idea, the book would have been more conventional and less interesting (to me).”

    Had she used the same story but without the reversal, this would have been the most boring, cliché story ever. Think about it: the cranky, scarred hero trying to heal and wanting to be left alone, and the betrayed heroine, feeling weak and sorry for herself end up as neighbors and fall in love; the evil ex-wife comes and tries to wreak havoc in their relationship; the black moment of self-doubt happens and she leaves; and finally, true loves makes him a bit softer and loving. That’s one of the most common stories. But it only takes shifting the characters’ roles to get a completely new take on an old story. This genre has so much potential. If only more authors would be willing to take the risk. Readers should be more open as well, and pay more attention to books like this. There are plenty out there, but don’t get the same exposure.

  6. willaful says:

    Thanks for making the title make sense to me!

    Shelves? Role reversal? I’m a little lost.

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