awkward ada: on polly whittacker

Ada Ellis, of my frustrating pair of drafts (now with 100% less fantasy!) has a spiritual mother in Polly Whittacker, the heroine of Fire and Hemlock. Ada is a little more precocious — a lot more precocious, all right? — and she meets Rory when she is eleven, not nine, but like Polly, Ada feels an instant kinship with her strange man. Polly and Tom bond over fairy tales; Ada and Rory bond over music. Oh, Tom’s a musician, but Polly isn’t. For Ada, the prospect of any other pursuit is preposterous. Inspiration, not plagiarism, and not the whole inspiration.

Polly, I’ll admit, has a lot more at stake than Ada ever will. Compared to Laurel, Harper is hardly a threat; she’s weak-willed, a slave to the conventional, and lacking in confidence. Rory will come to no harm with Harper, while Tom was very nearly a sacrifice. What makes these women kin is their devotion. Draft One is tentatively titled “What I Wouldn’t Do” for a reason. Ada, like Polly (like Janet — you do know the story of Tam Lin?) remains steadfast even when it looks as if she will lose Rory to Harper’s world. Ada loves him because he is himself, not because of what he represents or who he might become. She’s satisfied with the adjunct professor of music who moonlights as a residence director. He understands her; they both live on the fringes, even in a fringe town like fictional Boucher, New York.

She knows, when she is twelve, that she is at least infatuated with him. It doesn’t go away. She calls the feeling love. Lest you wonder: he does not. He is clueless until she’s seventeen, at which point he chooses to repress anything romantic until Ada herself confronts him. Oh, I am not looking forward to that confrontation. Polly didn’t listen to “it’s for your own good” and dash it, neither does Ada. Full to bursting, she can’t stop herself telling him at last.

And he has to react. He has to love her but come to hate himself for enjoying all of their time together. He’s not going to be happy when he sees how lover-like they have already become. On the eve of Valentine’s Day, at a party celebrating the only Ellis family holiday, he’ll look around and notice how little the two of them stick out from the couples in attendance. She’ll have to beg him not to go. She’ll have to tell him with words that he’s been her one forever. He’s going to hate himself both for loving her and for going to bed drunk, because he is going to get stone drunk that night. He hopes.

Tom is nothing like Rory. Tom is all right with Polly, by the end. There’s nothing unusual about trying a relationship with the girl he met when she was nine. Rory needs to reassure himself he hasn’t been raising his own wife. She will be Ada or she will be nobody; she will not be the ‘Liza to his Higgins.

When he doesn’t get drunk after all, he thinks. He plans. The last eight years of their acquaintance pass before his eyes.

In the morning he’ll walk home for his car, drive into town for a rose, and give in as gracefully as he can.

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