On Bear Mountain
by Deborah Smith, contemporary (2002)
Warner, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61067-4


If Jennifer Crusie tells me that falling in love is a defiant middle finger in the air and a loud "FUUUUUCCCCK YOU!!!" as I take the plunge, because hey, love sucks, but it's the best piece of crap I will ever get in this sorry world, Deborah Smith tells me, at least in On Bear Mountain, that love is like honeyed hemlock in my veins, where I gaze into my true love's eyes as I slowly expire in bliss.

It's a rather sad image. Nonetheless, this book is amazing. Deborah Smith doesn't just tell a story. She doesn't just slap a hilarious-haw-haw name on some stupid backwater area and put in ten dotty old ladies and say, "How's that for atmosphere? Here comes the stupid pregnant city girl in a run down car now!" No, she is a meticulous artist, slowly brushing every detail of her story - characters, places - with individual colors that she pulls me in the story whether I am willing to be pulled into or not.

I have no idea how to give a decent synopsis of this story. It's too rich and complicated, and it defies my ability to do even halfway of the big picture. The story opens with our heroine Ursula Powell cradling a wounded and probably dying Quentin Ricconni, our hero. I can say something about the folly of men cavorting with bears in the wild here, but I'm in a good mood after reading such a great story, so I won't. Er, never mind. Then we have a flashback of sorts, about Ursula and Quentin's sad past and how they later meet and fall in love and all.

Actually, this isn't a love story as much as the disastrous consequences of loving a man too much to the point that the woman lets the man lead her and her family down the pithole. Both Ursula and Quentin's mothers are such women. I'll just give a very simple view of things here: Ursula's father and her great-aunt ask Quentin's father to sculpt an iron bear out of scrap metal one day. The reason for the bear is tied up with some local folklore about bears (bears figure strongly in this story, right down to the heroine's name - from Ursine, which is us scientists' pretentious way of calling a bear a bear.)

Quentin's father is mad so obsessed with becoming a great sculptor and his wife so obsessed with pleasing him and seeing him achieve his dreams that the whole family goes under because of the lack of money. Same here with Ursula's family - her father is more in love with the idea of romance and arty-fartsy pretensions that the money goes under and the wife died because no one could afford the doctor. Both kids saw their family perform volunteer kamikaze because of the bear. Oh boy.

Twenty-two years later, Quentin's father was posthumously an acclaimed artist, and the bear in Ursula's possession is now worth a fortune. Quentin wants the bear. Ursula won't sell it because her brother Arthur loves the bear and... oh my.

See? Ursula hates the bear, but she willingly lets the bear and family ties suffocate her. She is a wonderful heroine in that she is real, doesn't take crap from people, yet at the same time she willingly lets herself be tied down because of memories, families, and obligations. It's rather depressing. Yet Ursula is a fascinating character, with so many facets in her personality that she feels so real I just hang on to her story, every word really. The author creates a rich setting of half-folklore, half-real, and all so vivid atmosphere of which Ursula is the superstar of the stage. And what a superstar she is.

Quentin is more problematic character. A streetwise kid hardened to the point of being a mule, he seems to suck charisma from Ursula like a demonic parasite. That man doesn't fit into the scheme of things well. His dialogue is too linear, his thought processes too curt and - dare I say it? - too much like a romance novel hero. In the poetic world of On Bear Mountain, Quentin's presence is like a hideous jarring sound in the midst of an orchestra. He does do a lovely oh-I'm-dying-I-love-you scene at the end that has me blubbering and weeping (warning: don't read this book in public like I, I mean, my friend did - it's beyond embarrassing), but he never progresses beyond a plot device.

In the end, I feel wrung dry. The story arouses so much emotions in me: exasperation, frustration, amusement, inspiration, and other less clear-cut emotions I can't and won't want to analyze. And it's all because of this book. So, yes, it's a keeper. A very treasured keeper to this very drained but ecstatic reader.

Rating: 98


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