Vows by LaVyrle Spence is testament to one thing at least: Love ain't no freaking Hallmark card with hearts and flowers and sweet sentimental sayings with cute Cupids shooting benign arrows of love into the hearts of his victi-, erm, I mean, potential lovers. For Tom, Emily, Charles, Tarsy, Josephine, Edwin, and Fannie, love is messy, confusing, painful, selfish, sneaky, heartbreaking, sad. And it's also joyous, selfless, exciting, passionate, life-changing, and wonderful. Love, as someone said, hurts. A lot. The heart wants who and what it wants and has its 'reasons, which reason does not know' and is felt in a thousand things. If you read Vows, you'll probably feel each and every one of those thousand things, and it's a book that will stay with you for days afterward. At least it was that way for me.
The messy, painful, etc part of love in Vows stems from a love squared situation for two couples and a love triangle for three older characters. The love squared portion involves Tom Jeffcoat, Tarsy Fields, Charles Bliss and Emily Walcott. Or to put it another way: Tom has a budding physical intimacy with Tarsy to stave off loneliness while falling in love with Emily who is attracted to Tom but is engaged to but not 'in love' with Charles Bliss who is deeply in love with Emily and has been forever. Oh, and Tom and Charles are BFFs. Phew! Did you get that? Let me confuse you more. Emily parents, Edwin and Josephine, have been married for twenty years and though Edwin has remained faithful to his marriage vows physically he has been in love with his wife's cousin, Fannie Cooper, for at least as long as his marriage has lasted. To ramp up the angst another level, Josephine is dying of consumption and, fully aware of Edwin's secret love for her cousin, has invited Fannie into their home ostensibly to ease the burden of her family until she dies but is in reality releasing Edwin from his vows to her so that he can pursue happiness with Fannie after her death. See? It's complicated.
Tom Jeffcoat is newly arrived in Sheridan, Wyoming from Springfield, Missouri. What would make a young, hardworking, honest, fair to a fault, adventurous young man with strong family ties and a history of smithing that goes back generations pull up stakes and travel one thousand miles to resettle as a stranger in a strange land? Something pretty powerful, I think. Powerful enough for a proud man to borrow monety from his grandparents in order to strike out on his own, far away from all that's familiar, with hopes of making new friends, becoming a part of another community, setting up his livery and blacksmithing business. The short answer is a woman. The longer answer is he is heartsore from having his childhood friend and sweetheart jilt him just weeks before their wedding, choosing a man completely opposite of Tom, one who has wealth, social position, and polish.
One of the first people Tom meets in Sheridan is Emily Walcott. Emily is no wilting violet, nor is she the epitome of Victorian womanhood. She does not wear gingham dresses 'with ten-gallon petticoats, and starched white aprons.' I'm pretty sure Emily doesn't even know what a 'leghorn hat' looks like like, and she's as 'thin as a whip snake and about as shapely.' Ouch. Emily surprises and confuses Tom from their first meeting, mistaking her for a 'skinny boy', 'dressed in worn blue britches, a faded red shirt, black suspenders, an ankle-length leather apron, and a floppy brown wool cap with a button on its crown', swearing at a horse while she repairs a quarter crack in his hoof. Oh, and I forgot to mention the 'dung-crusted cowboy boots' on her dirty bare feet. Not even a hint of 'wispy lisle stockings.'
I didn't particularly like Emily at first. She's mouthy, bad-tempered to the point of abrasiveness, and seems to have a huge chip on her shoulder. At least in her dealings with Tom. Part of her 'hate at first sight' is because Tom mistook her for a man, calls her 'tomboy', and his reaction to her less than ideal feminine appearance rankles with her. A larger part is, perhaps, because Tom's new business will be directly in competition with her father's livery business, and Emily is daddy's girl and loyal to a fault. But I believe the biggest part of the antagonism between these two is the instant awareness each has for the other.
I did change my opinion of Emily pretty quickly. Tom, after all, has preconceived notions of the ideal woman, a paragon of frills and lace like Jilting Julia, his former fiancée, and he needed those expectations shaken and stirred. Emily was just the woman to do that for him. Her strong personality, independent spirit, and unconventional behavior has a lot to do with the way Edwin encouraged her to be her own person, to speak up for herself as her mother Josephine was never allowed to do. Emily has enjoyed the freedom to think for herself, to choose her own path as a veterinarian, to follow the beat of a different drum other than traditional wife and mother, very much like his own beloved Fannie.
It was because of his memories of Fannie, he knew, that he’d never resisted any of Emily’s outrageous wishes. Emily was so much like the Fannie he remembered that he loved her unconditionally and had always secretly hoped she might turn out like Fannie—part rebel, part sprite, but all woman. (13)
Sparks fly between Tom and Emily from their first meeting in her father's livery and carry the tension and conflict well over past the halfway mark in Vows. The tension in the last half is far more complicated.
Has anyone ever told you that you’re a rude, infernal pain in the hindside?” She grabbed the boot, overturned an enamel bucket, and dropped onto it to pull the boot back on. Before she managed to do so, he snatched it from her hand and went down on one knee to do the honors.
“Allow me, miss. And to answer your question, yes, my mother and my grandmother and my fiancée and my teachers. All my life I’ve seemed to irritate women, but I could never understand why. You know, I’ve never done this before, have you?” He held the boot at the ready.
She felt her whole body flush, from her dirty bare toes clear up to her brother’s cap. She grabbed the boot and yanked it on herself.
Watching, he grinned and answered belatedly, “Oats, please, and stable them inside and curry them, too. Do I pay in advance?” (8)
Those sparks really set up some very fine banter, and I enjoyed reading their verbal sword crossing. At Emily and Charles' engagement party, Fannie, surrogate mother and stand-in sister, suspects which way the wind blows for Emily and plays fairy godmother to Emily's Cinderella assisting with her transformation from 'tomboy' to attractive young woman. It begins with a phenomenal pink confection of a dress.
Even wrinkled, the dress was stunning, with a dropped neckline bordered by embroidered tea roses, wondrous bouffant elbow-length sleeves and a matching pouff at the spine. When it shifted, it spoke - a sibilant whisper telling of Eastern soirees where such frocks were customary. (92)
A dress with a 'sibilant whisper'? I so want a frock that talks when I walk. Emily is irritated when Tom appears not to be listening to its message and appears totally unaffected by her transformation. Or is he? After all, he doesn't take his eyes off her when he steps through the doorway and like a magnet pointing directly to true north, he determinedly makes a beeline for her. But waiting for a compliment on her changed appearance is futile, and the more she waits, the angrier Emily becomes until it spills over during a cotillion-like dance with everyone changing partners and she and Tom finally come face-to-face. It's his "Hiya, tomboy" that sets her off:
'You and I will never get along, and you know it perfectly well. You also know that if it weren't for Charles you wouldn't be in this house right now.'
'Do you practice being mouthy or does it just come naturally?'
'Do you practice insulting women or does it just come naturally?'
'Hostesses are supposed to be polite to their guests.'
'I am. To my guests.'
'You know, Charles and I get along remarkably well. I have a feeling he and I are destined to be friends. If you're going to marry him, don't think we should try to grin and bear each other - for his sake?'
'You already grin more than I can bear.' (104)
Like the waltz they're dancing in the Walcott's drawing room, they twirl and swirl and step on each other's toes verbally. Emily, complaining that Tom has scuffed Fannie's borrowed shoes, finally gets Tom to acknowledge the dress:
He glanced down briefly, then resumed dancing. 'Fannie? So that's where you got the clothes.'
'Not that you noticed.'
'Did you want me to?'
'You're the one who called me a tomboy!'
'After you called me shabby. I dress the way I do because it's the most sensible when I work.'
'So do I.'
Their eyes met and each gave the other a begrudging point.
'So, what do you say, should we call a truce? For Charles's sake?'
'She shrugged and glanced aside indifferently.' (104)
For Emily and Tom, this then is the beginning of easing of some of their initial tension, a newly gained mutual respect which replaces animosity with a sexual tension thick enough to cut with a knife. I enjoyed the way Emily turned the tables on Tom here and made him think twice about dismissing her as a woman simply because she wears britches and is ankle deep in horse dung while she works. Likewise, Emily has to revise her snap judgment of 'shabby Tom' she first met with his sleeves cut off, bulging arm muscles displayed indecently and sporting several days growth of beard, straight off his dirty, tiring, dusty thousand-mile journey. Detente is sealed when he asks her opinion of who has the best horses in the area for his livery and who has the best hay, but when he accompanies Emily on a visit to a local pig farmer whose pregnant sow is in trouble birthing her piglets, both are able to see each other without the veil of prior prejudice for the first time. I learned three things from this scene: pigs like beer (it calms them), a sow in distress and the pig birthing business is pretty disgusting, and Tom and Emily and Charles and Tarsy are all headed for heartache.
Tom and Emily do not succumb to their growing attraction immediately. This thing between them is fought and struggled against and denied and questioned until they cannot any longer. There are very real obstacles - Emily's feelings for and engagement to Charles, Tarsy Fields' (Emily's closest friend) involvement and professed love for Tom, Tom and Edwin's competing businesses, the turmoil in Emily emotions as she watches her mother dying - to prevent Emily and Tom from acting on any of their burgeoning feelings for each other. Charles is an honorable man, a good man, a man truly and deeply in love with Emily. Tarsy is Emily's friend, and Tom and Emily have no desire to hurt either of them. But those genuine feelings of love and friendship cannot hold back Tom's admiration for Emily's concern for animals, her love for what she does, her willingness to do whatever is necessary without complaint or missish airs, and her refusal to allow anyone to dismiss her as a local rancher does, as if she were a 'ghost he could see through', simply because she is a female whose opinion on how to save a prize sow or judge superior horseflesh could not possibly be superior to a man's, her perseverance despite the doubt from many that she's capable of doing a job traditionally reserved for men.
They listened to the squeak of shifting saddles, the three-time waltz rhythm of cantering hooves, the steady rush and pull of the horses' breath. They felt the east cool their fronts and the west warm their backs and realized they were enjoying each other's presence far more than advisable. . . riding . . . a mere horse's width apart . . . eyes correctly ahead . . . digesting the mellowing turn their relationship had taken in a single day. Something indefinable had happened. Well, perhaps not indefinable - inadmissible, rather - something startling and compelling and very much forbidden. They rode on, each of them battling the urge to turn and study, to confirm with an exchange of glances that the other was feeling it, too - this new confederacy, this inadvisable, insidious fascination. To feel it was one thing; to allow it to show was another. (129)
'The heart has its reasons which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.' Emily and Tom know how painful the divide between reconciling what the heart wants and the mind dictates can be to live with. Spencer shows perfectly the yearning, the longing, and the torment of being separated from the one person you need to be with, how impossible it is to simply decide to love someone, or to decide not to love another despite the hopelessness of it.
I scarcely know him. But it didn't matter.
He's Papa's competition. But noble about it.
He's Tarsy's beau. It carried little weight.
He's Charles' friend.
Ah, that one stopped her every time. (151)
I think one of the most emotion-filled moments is when Emily realizes she is, indeed, in love with Tom no matter how much she has fought against it and denied it and run from it. It's a moment in the book full of rich imagery with Tom at his smithing forge, 'the scarlet radiance of the coals' as a backdrop, punctuated by the 'roar' of the air lifting up the chimney, the illusion that Tom's silhouette is expanding, surrounded by a 'vermillion halo' until she sees nothing else, as sparks fly with every 'pang-pang' of his hammer on the anvil, the smell of smoke, 'a singeing, bitter perfume', in the air as Emily finally understands he's not leaving, that she'll see him here dozens of times in the future, but never again in the same way before this day. Even more, this moment is one of mutual recognition, one in which Tom's love for Emily is reaches such clarity and becomes crystallized for him:
She glanced up at the horseshoe again and he watched the curve of her throat come into view. He dropped his eyes to the line of her breasts flattened at the tips where her red suspenders crossed them, her thumbs hooked into their brass clasps at the waist of Frankie's britches. He found her as attractive in boy's wear as he did in a mauve gown. He'd never met a more unpretentious woman, not one who shared as many of the same interests as he. Suddenly, he wanted her to see all of his realm, to understand his joy in it, because only another livery owner could appreciate what all this meant. (159)
Mirroring the way Tom saw into Emily's soul the day he accompanied her to the pig farm and Cal Lambert's ranch, Emily's realization is set amidst a prosaic, yet poignant for all that, moment and is just as life-changing as he shows her who Tom Jeffcoat really is, what is important to him, the family he misses, the heritage passed from father to son that he's proud of:
'The bellows were made in Germany in 1798. They'll last all of my lifetime and longer. The anvil is the one my father learned on, from his father, then taught me on. The one I'll probably teach my sons on.' He gave it an affectionate slap and rubbed his hand over the scarred iron. 'I know every mark on it. When I left Missouri my mother sent me off with four loaves of her homemade bread for the road. Don't get me wrong - I loved it, but eventually I ate them up. This, though . . .' He gazed down at the anvil, his hand lingering upon it with great affection. '. . . the marks from their hammers will never disappear. When I get to missing them it helps to remember that.'
It was an odd, passionless moment in which to recognize that she had fallen in love with him, but it happened to Emily in that instant while she met Tom Jeffcoat's eyes, while he let her see the soul inside the body, and admitted how he longed for his family and how he valued his birthright. It struck her with the force of a blow - Pang-pang! - I love him.
She turned away, afraid he'd read it in her eyes. The heat of the room pressed hard upon her flesh, joking the heat from within, an awesome heat spawned by the sudden, jolting admission." (159-160)
One of the things LaVyrle Spence excels at is giving me a sense of the time period in her novels. In Vows, there is Tarsy Fields' obsession with ladies' fashions of lace and bustles and fashionable millinery of the late 1800s, Fannie's knickerbockers and bicycle, Josephine's adherence with the 'modern' Victorian decorating sentiment - "more was better" - making a large parlor feel claustrophobic with all the draped China silk, cordball fringe, a huge upright piano as centerpiece, various 'fans, framed photographs, a clutter of umbrellas, plaster busts, wicker rockers, cushions, coat racks, China cabinets, scarves, clocks, and gimcracks', etc., etc. Very busy.
Then there are the parlor games Fannie instigates at Charles and Emily's engagement party, games that progress from flirty fun and innocent innuendo to a more daring exploration of sexual interest and pseudo-seduction at Tarsy's parties and are the unwitting instrument for Tom and Emily to explore their mutual attraction. Like "Squeak, Piggy, Squeak" which makes Tom aware that his 'fascination' and 'watchfulness' of Emily are sure fire symptoms he is falling in love with her. The way that Emily watches Tarsy rub on Tom's leg as she trides to make Tom laugh when they play "Poor Pussy" and her reluctant acknowledgement of her jealousy for the way Tom kisses Tarsy and rubs her back. "Guessing Blind Man" plants Tom on Emily's lap and under cover of a parlor game gives him permission to touch Emily in a way he's longed to do for weeks and cements in his heart what he feels for Emily:
The game gave him license to do what he might never get a chance to do again and he'd do it, by god, with Charles watching, and satisfy his curiosity. Those looking on would see only what they'd been seeing all along - a teasing man having his fun with a woman who could scarcely tolerate him.
Still holding her wrist, he explored with his free hand each long, thin finger, each nail clipped veterinarian-short; callouses (surprising) at the base of her palm, then the palm itself, working it over mortar-and-pestle fashion. Sure enough: a scab - undoubtedly caused by her fall from the bicycle. He felt an acute forbidden thrill. (142)
Likewise for the shivaree/housewarming party Charles, Tarsy and others organize for Tom's newly finished home with yet another parlor game - a 'Toe Social' - in which the ladies take off shoes and stockings, stand behind a quilt or curtain with skirts raised high and only their bare feet and (shockingly!) ankles visible while the men, one at time, guess who belongs to which feet. If the man guesses correctly, he and the woman spend five minutes alone together in a dark closet. The sexual tension of this scene was pretty much at volcanic eruption level and, of course, leads to Tom and Emily's first kiss.
Tom Jeffcoat moved along the line of bare toes slowly, assessingly, coming to a halt before Emily. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt as if her entire body were puffing with each heartbeat. He moved on to the end of the line and she breathed easier. But he was back in a minute, striking panic into her heart. She glanced down. There were the tips of his black boots an inch away from her bare toes.
'Emily Walcott,' he said clearly and covered her distinctive longest second toe with the tip of his boot.
She closed her eyes and thought, no I cannot do this.
'Is it you, Emily?' he asked, and she dropped her skirts as if they were guillotines. (198-199)
That kiss. Oh, that kiss in the dark closet. Aspiring romance writers and some experienced ones really need to read Tom and Emily's first kiss to learn how to capture the hunger, the passion, the impatience, and finally the melting acquiescence, the surrendering of lovers to each other - his breath against her cheek, her retreat, his tender persistence, her resistance finally giving way like 'table linen slipping to the floor', the irresistible urge to learn and know the other and become as close as humanly possible for fear the opportunity will never be granted again - to something larger and more powerful than they ever realized.
Outside, someone banged on the door, teasing. Emily jumped but Jeffcoat remained unyielding. His hand slid up her calf and came to rest behind her knee. She sat as still as a monument while his other hand searched the dark, found her cheek, then slipped around her nape, pulling, pulling, while she stiffened against it.
'I'm scared, too, tomboy, but I mean, by God, to find out. Now come here.' (199-201)
A kiss not just with lips and tongues but engaging every part of the body from a roughened calloused hand folded over an elbow and trailing down a smooth arm to an armpit and on down to a breast to an arm coiled lovingly over a shoulder and another around his body, heady and exciting, wet and unrestrained. Absolutely wonderfully delicious!
I have to mention Edwin and Josephine and Fannie and how their troubled relationship affects Tom and Emily's relationship as well as Emily and Charles' potential marriage. Edwin, Josephine, and Fannie's story serves as a cautionary tale for Tom and Tarsy or Emily and Charles. Edwin has not been unhappy in his marriage but it has been an alliance remarkable for its lack of warmth and genuine emotion. A stolen kiss between Edwin and Fannie clearly shows the price of sacrifice and denial, the ensuing guilt, the very painful, heartbreaking consequences of trying to do the right thing and acting honorably.
'I'd forgotten how it feels. Do you know how long it's been since I've done anything like this?'
'Shh. . .nothing about her, not ever. This is dishonorable enough.'
He gripped her head, held it as a priest holds a chalice and drank her - Fannie of the bright hair and insatiable spirit and crushed-grass scent. He cherished her - Fannie of the memories and warmth and dew-kissed days of youth. How had he sustained through all these years without her? Why had he ever tried?
He lifted his head and delved into her eyes. 'The dishonor was mine in giving you up. What a fool I was.'
'We are human, Edwin. What we feel for one another cannot always be held in abeyance. Sometimes, when we are bleak and in need, we may find ourselves seeking one another, as I sought you today. But we will not speak of eventualities, nor will be consign ourselves to deceitful tête-à-têtes. It would only compound our guilt.' Her voice lowered to whisper. 'Now I must go. Please let me.' (176-178)
Fannie's story after Edwin and Josephine marry is no happier than Edwin's who's honored his vows physically if not emotionally, learned to live, if not happily, at least harmoniously and contentedly, with a woman he never loved and married only out of duty and at his parents' urging. Fannie had the illusion of freedom to do what she wanted, to experiment with new and exciting opportunities for women, to have an adventurous life, but she was just as much trapped in her freedom as Edwin was trapped in his marriage because she could not be with the man she loves. Josephine, too, was hurt though she may not have shown it. How awful to live with the knowledge that your husband loves not just another woman, but a much beloved and admired cousin. I could only admire Josephine for loving Edwin in the only way she knew how and for the choice she makes as she comes to terms with her death, a choice that gives Edwin and Fannie a rare second chance. The heart has its reasons. . .
When Emily makes her choice between Tom and Charles, it's not an easy one. As the old song says, somebody has done somebody wrong. Love hurts, remember. Charles is hurt, devastated, angry, betrayed by both the woman he loves and the friend Tom had become. Tarsy is hurt, too, though she shows herself to be selfish, cruel, and bitter in a way which Josephine had every right to have felt, but didn't. Her desire to attack Emily in such a personal way, to destroy the essence of Emily was disturbing. Tom and Charles fight it out physically, a well-matched, equally balanced, fair fist fight between a muscly carpenter and an equally muscled blacksmith. But Tarsy's reaction is more viscerally cruel, attacking Emily as a 'flat-chested freak who dresses like a man and smells like horse apples and probably hasn't got the right equipment to make babies anyway. A moron.' Then she calls Emily a 'bitch' and a 'Judas', capping it off with the coup de grâce - 'You may be a virgin, but I'm not! I did it! With your precious Tom Jeffcoat, who wouldn't take no for an answer! Take that to your wedding bed and sleep with it!' Definitely not her finest hour.
Emily knows there are consequences to her decision, ones which leave her familiar life in turmoil. Her mother is dead, her father and Fannie are to be married, she and Tom have confronted Charles, she's broken her engagement to Charles, her father is suddenly throwing up barriers to keep Tom and Emily apart, there's at least a year of mourning to be endured before either couple can marry, she's been mocked, jeered, and attached both physically and verbally by her best friend who has gutted her as only another woman can, making her question exactly how much of a friend Tarsy had been to her in the first place - '...how many times had Tarsy secretly laughed behind her back, ridiculed, derided, probably even among their crowd of mutual friends.' Everything is a question mark for Emily at this point.
'Perhaps the men's way was more civilized after all. A swift, clean fistfight would have been preferable to this insidious, long-term venom inflicted by Tarsy's words. (...) Instead, she would live for years festering with the knowledge of her own shortcomings as a woman, and of Tom's sexual predilection for another. (334)
So Emily saddles a horse and goes riding, images of Tarsy playing kitten and rubbing on Tom's leg, Tom and Tarsy kissing during a forfeit of one of the parlor games, how his hands caressed her back, and can't help wondering how long they were lovers and how often and how she compares to Tarsy and will Tom be disappointed with her after being with Tarsy. Then she comes upon a heard of buffalo in the snow.
'Emily rode with her head hanging until her abstraction was interrupted by the sound of wind chimes.
She lifted her head at the same moment Buck stopped moving, and found herself at the edge of an upcountry meadow, and there before her grazed the straggling remnants of a buffalo herd. Few of the great beasts remained, and those that did were considered precious relics of the past. She'd never seen any this close and sat motionless, afraid of scaring them off. Pawing the snow, foraging beneath it, they presented their rumps until one old bull raised his head and assessed her with a wary black eye, warning the others. As one, they poised to run, ugly beasts, humped and hairy, their faces unlovable, their coats matted and tangled. But suddenly they moved in concert, trotting away, setting into motion hundreds of sparkling icicles that hung from their shaggy undersides and tinkled like an orchestra of wind chimes. The sun glanced off them, creating prisms while the sound drifted across the snowy meadow in a sweet glissando.' (337)
The unexpected beauty in such an unlikely place lifts her spirits momentarily, and she heads home unsure of what she might face in the future but no longer running away from it either. How powerful it was for Emily to confront the 'relics of [her] past' as she gazes at the herd of buffalo, feeling a sympathy with the powerful, ugly animals whose future appears as uncertain as her own in this moment. There was a newly found maturity, a renewed strength of character, in Emily not present at the beginning of her journey. This scene with the buffalo, the icicles hanging from their fur, sounding like wind chimes as the move away is such an emotional scene in the way that it's a bridge between her past and her future, a connection with the earthy part of her personality, the part that grounds Emily everyday as well as a balm, and the healing of her spirit as well as a desire and decision to move forward.
After reading Vows by LaVyrle Spencer, I found myself thinking a lot about this quote: 'The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things...' I have never enjoyed love triangles or infidelity in romance novels. In fact, I tend to run in the opposite direction if I know those elements are in a book. Yes, I'm aware these things occur in real life. I just don't particularly want them in my fantasies. It's messy, it's confusing, it's painful, it's . . .well, a little too real. There's always somebody left out in the cold. Like Charles. I truly wish LaVyrle Spencer had written a book for him even as I see and appreciate the symmetry and foreshadowing of Tom's arrival in Sheridan after being jilted and Charles leaving Sheridan at the end. The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. My experience reading this book echoes in this quote - emotions tugged in one direction while my mind reminded me why I was not supposed to like this book. At all. But my heart. . . Ah, it was telling me something entirely the opposite.