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This is not the first time this year that I have had to confess that my To Read pile is now so out of control that what falls out of it is not exactly current. For Romance Week, the latest romantic novel I have read and relished is Gypsy Wedding, by Kate Lace, which was first published in 2011. One reason I leaven my reading with romance is that I find it highly enjoyable to explore what love looks like in a world that is different from mine. One such world, that has aroused considerable curiosity in recent years, is that of Traveller communities. I do not trust the most prevalent expression in popular culture of this curiosity – the ubiquitous programmes on TV along the lines of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. However, I do trust Kate Lace to write a novel based on solid research, reliable observation and empathy, while answering that question, the one about how love and relationships work and where the romance is to be found in this particular world.
The heroine is Vicky O’Rourke, the eldest daughter of a Traveller family, who in the community tradition is engaged at fifteen, to be married at seventeen to handsome and eligible Liam who has all the virtues she could want from a husband from her own background. However, she begs to be allowed to spread her wings before she marries and go to college, to develop the talent she knows she has for working with textiles and fashion design. The compromise with her highly traditional family is that her purpose is to design and make the bridesmaids’ dresses for her own wedding, which will be the dramatic, opulent, fairytale wedding that is now quite familiar to us from the media. Vicky is carefully brought up, but is intelligent and creative, has survived school and even has a loyal best friend Kelly from among the ‘gorgios’ who helps her to weather the prejudice that is reserved for people from a traveller background.
Vicky’s dream is of romance, of the perfect wedding and the perfect family life within her community, but her tentative experiment in mixing with the world at large leads her into situations that her careful upbringing has not prepared her to face. Kate Lace is very strong on this sort of detail – she does not shy away from the prejudice that Vicky encounters in college, nor from the language that goes with it. The support and empathy of a fellow student Jordan, a boy of mixed race, is both a solace and a huge problem for her, both in the risk to her reputation and in what she learns about her feelings. At times, the novel is anything but conventionally romantic – full of conflict and misunderstandings with high-risk consequences, dissecting as it does the ugliness of prejudice and exposing the standards, in many cases double standards of the outside world towards travellers. The protagonists are so very young – college-age teenagers fresh from their GCSEs – and Kate Lace makes them believable in their language, behaviour and attitudes. I feel this novel could have another life as a Young Adult novel – and I mean that as a massive compliment – as it is pin sharp in exploring the prejudices and double standards that make growing up so painful for those whose ‘otherness’ is exploited by their peers.
So, what about the element of romance? Well, the gypsy wedding is portrayed in popular culture as the epitome of buying into the idea of romance, and this novel shines a strong light onto that idea and its realisation. The dresses are fairytale, the rituals and preparations are too, with homemaking and bottom drawers a reality and not just a nod to tradition. In Gypsy Wedding the dresses are made, the nest built and the wedding takes place in the end, Vicky having spread her wings and then, arguably, folded them again after finding herself stuck in a horribly risky no man’s land between her traveller family and the outside world. She has had the chance to test what love is for her and she has made her Hobson’s choice. But the novel’s ending presents a dilemma for me as someone who holds to equality of opportunity; it flows from what goes before, but I found a real difficulty in knowing what to wish for Vicky and had to fall back feebly on wishing her what she wished herself. Her lifestyle has sterling qualities that are not understood by those who look in from outside, but her life choices are so highly circumscribed by tradition on the one hand and deep prejudice on the other. I hope that some of the interactions we see between the young characters are a glimmer of hope that the likes of Vicky and Liam can begin to negotiate a path through their tradition to realise their talents. One could float through a novel like this on a cloud of tulle, but Kate Lace faces the facts and the conflicts with such admirable honesty that it is not really possible to do that when reading Gypsy Wedding.
Kate Lace: Gypsy Wedding. London: Arrow Books, 2011 336pp
Also available in eBook formats