I’ve recently been proofing a family memoir I wrote back in the ‘8Os for conversion into an e-book. And I find myself laughing at a painting party my husband and I threw to celebrate the annex of a new livingroom. It was a hot August night, and we’d mixed up a “painter’s punch” in a recycled five gallon paint bucket; each guest was given an apron, brush, and a section of wall to paint a warm off-white. The evening moved along smoothly until a giggling woman started to paint a tic-tac-toe on a neighbor’s derriere. He retaliated, and then everyone got into the act! Two divorces and a vendetta came out of that party after a male guest set up a telescope in our back yard and one of the laughing wives (not his) ran outside to watch the stars with him.
So recalling my frustrated husband as he dashed out to halt a rising confrontation on the grass, I begin to think how explosive parties can be: how things can go wrong, how people lose their inhibitions, drudge up old grudges, and spin new and devious plots.
My first YA novel came out of a party that all but destroyed that same livingroom. My husband and I were away for a weekend, leaving my college son in charge of his fifteen-year-old sister. She’d invited a dozen girls for a slumber party but the word flashed through the high school grapevine and over 200 showed up, along with a five-guy rock band. “I hired a cleaning lady,” my remorseful daughter sobbed on the phone. “They were throwing up all over the place, but don’t worry, the police got the stereo back.”
After recovering from the shock of finding my antique sofa in three pieces and cigarette holes in my oriental rugs, I sat young Catharine down “to record all” on tape, and the party became chapter four of a YA novel, Down The Strings. The hardcover was reprinted in paperback despite some adverse reviews from the deep South in which staid librarians cited chapter and line where, on occasion they’d seen (in dialogue) an unsavory word (I strove for verisimilitude).
I think now of a teenage party in Helen Schulman’s novel, This Beautiful Life, which incites a young girl to send an erotic e-mail of her naked self to a naive boy, who unthinkingly sends it to a friend–and off it spins around the school, the town, the state, the country, the world in a chain reaction, and forever alters the lives of all the characters–kids and adults.
I recall my favorite Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, in which wealthy William Boldwood puts on a Christmas bash in honor of beautiful, widowed Bathsheba, whose husband, Sergeant Troy, is believed to be drowned. At the party Boldwood persuades her to marry him. But then an uninvited guest appears: the despised Troy himself, returned from ‘the dead’: “Bathsheba, I come here for you!” And Boldwood reaches for his gun.
Perhaps PD James was thinking of Hardy’s party in her latest mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel of sorts to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, when she set the action on the eve of a ball. A coach thunders up the drive bearing the uninvited, disgraced sister Lydia, who stumbles out of the carriage shrieking that her husband, the notorious Wickham, has been murdered. The ball is forgotten as the men rush out to search for the body. But the party has fulfilled its purpose by bringing together a group of contentious characters, and even a dead stranger, to complicate the plot.
And we’re all familiar with Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” in which Prince Prospero throws a masked party for a 1000 giddy friends in his sealed-up castle, while the plague rages outside. The unexpected guest here is a mummer, the Red Death itself. “And one by one, Poe, writes, “dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls…And died each in the despairing posture of his fall.”
I was so enthralled with the idea of a masked ball that I included one in my mystery novel, Midnight Fires. My sleuth picks up a few vital facts as she interrogates a suspicious dancing partner. And in my sequel I set up a soiree in a London salon, replete with accusations and jealousies–and ultimately a dead body.
Since then I’ve tried to have at least one party or social gathering in each story or novel to introduce bullies, villains, spies, and uninvited guests. And since I don’t attend or give as many action-packed parties as I did as a young woman (I surely wouldn’t want to replicate that notorious painting party!), I can take my vicarious thrills by reading and writing them into fiction.
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