In Vienna they say, “Mit Schlag.” In America they say, “A dollop of whipped cream.” In bookstores they now say, “Isn’t It Romantic?, please.”
For Ron Hansen’s new novel Isn’t It Romantic?, subtitled “An Entertainment,” is just that: a Schlag, a dollop of sweet cream, an entertainment, a sip of champagne, a screwball comedy, a romp, a bauble, a love letter to Nebraska.
Yes, to Nebraska.
Ron Hansen, Nebraska native, professor at Santa Clara University and very serious novelist (Mariette in Ecstasy, Atticus and Hitler’s Niece), has suddenly decided to play. And he does it well.
He plays in this novel about wine (in Nebraska?) and about romance (in Nebraska, of course). How to review such a novel? Very lightly.
The plot? Natalie and Pierre, young, French and engaged to each other, are in America on vacation. Touring the United States by bus, they become stranded in Seldom, Neb. (pop. 395). It’s a town of improbabilities: it was founded by a French trapper, makes fine wine, knows a bit of French, welcomes outsiders and every August puts on “The Revels.” During these “Revels,” French boy and French girl meet American boy and American girl, fall in love with new girl and new boy and are named king and queen of the Revels. At the end, boy gets girl.
But who gets whom? Does French get American? Or French get French, and American, American? As in good slapstick, the first half quietly sets up the second half. Along the way come froth, chance happenings, wine tastings, subplots, mix-ups. The plot, seemingly offhand, is carefully crafted, and the organization, seemingly invisible, is clever. An Ella Fitzgerald song, for example, casually mentioned on page 10, presages the humming of “Isn’t It Romantic?” on page 166 and Ella Fitzgerald’s sung version on page 196. Rodgers and Hart’s song thus pervades the climax and provides the title.
Characterization? Just enough for the plot: Natalie is curvy and gorgeous, Pierre, a hunk but prissy. He’s from an old French wine-making family, the Smiths of “Smith et Fils.” All others are props, colorful, delightful props: Owen Nelson, who runs a gas station and makes world-class wine called “Côte du Silo”; Iona Christiansen, a pouting blonde beauty of a waitress; Dick Tupper, who owns “twelve hundred acres plus farm buildings, machinery and feeder pens” and wears silk pajamas. I won’t even mention two kids in scuba gear who, with grand comic irrelevance, pop in and out of the novel.
Amid the romp, Ron Hansen, past master of image and style, remains no less an artist, even if an artist of whipped cream. His comparisons and images—his special talent—are typically vivid and unusual. An Ohio diner serves “a softball of mashed potatoes” with “Crayola-yellow gravy.” Nebraska has “skies of a Windex blue” “where...the east and west peter out.” Seldom’s fairgrounds have “a miniature Eiffel Tower ring toss booth” and “a French Foreign Legion shooting gallery with Algerian rifles and tin camels for targets.” A concession serves “a vanilla ice cream cone that a churring machine had stacked like a minaret.” At night “lightning bugs flickered and trembled and described strange golden alphabets in the air.” The noise of a car door gently closed is “softer than the crunch of celery at a ladies’ tea.”
His humor and satire are as gentle as that car door, as he quietly makes the reader smile about French attitudes toward the United States (“but they are peasants”), American roadside attractions (“a living diorama of all seven native Nebraska grasses”), out-of-it Americans (“Joan of Arc was my heart throb when I was a boy”) and super-Nebraskans (Cornhuskers football scores on the back of a winemaker’s labels). Hansen can be subtle, too, with a throw-away play on Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz”: in the middle of a slapstick scene he adds, “Such a waltzing was not easy.”
In Seattle for a reading at Elliot Bay Book Company, Hansen said that Isn’t It Romantic? has been rattling around his mind since 9/11, and he thought America needed something light. In the process, two ideas merged. Years ago his car broke down in western Nebraska. He took a Greyhound bus, saw two passengers who couldn’t speak English and wondered what the United States looked like from their perspective. Then he read about an Arizona town that had a local festival every year and arrested two outside visitors so they could make them king and queen.
The imagination works wonders. It combines strange things. So does Ron Hansen. As a result, Isn’t It Romantic? is a lively whimsy, a light entertainment, a wonderful whipped cream romp.