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Forecast: High Anxiety, Increasing Laughter

Author Julia Strachey was the niece of critic and biographer Lytton Strachey.
Author Julia Strachey was the niece of critic and biographer Lytton Strachey.

The framework of the romantic comedy is now so ingrained in our collective unconscious that given some basic plot points — a bride on her wedding day, an ex-boyfriend lurking about and a houseful of eccentric guests — an 8-year-old could tell you the story will end with the bride in the arms of her ex and the groom in the arms of a consoling cousin. Right?

Not with Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. It falls into the screwball comedy genre, but none of the players behave as you might anticipate. That bride, Dolly, has been drinking rum straight from the bottle all day and, to get her through the ceremony, is now trying to hide the half-consumed fifth in the folds of her gown. The ex has something to declare, but it's not what you think. And we barely see the groom at all. Even the weather is in a turbulent state, banging open windows and tormenting the befuddled guests.

With her knack for the unpredictable and the frenetic pacing of a Howard Hawkes film, Strachey creates an environment of comic high anxiety and unexpected imagery. The ferns in the sitting room, she writes, "arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly." Metaphors that at first appear whimsical are quickly revealed to be perfectly apt, as when Strachey describes the bride's forgetful mother, who has just assigned half of the overnight guests to the same bedroom, as having the worried facial expression of someone who'd "swallowed a packet of live bumblebees."

Strachey, a Brit whose upper-middle-class life was as careening and crowded with high hopes and dashed dreams as this book's loopy storyline, wrote only two novels in her lifetime: Cheerful Wedding, originally published in 1932 and out of print for decades, and 1951's The Man on the Pier. It's a shame. Her sharp eye, playful language and perfect comic timing will not only have you laughing, it'll leave you wondering why the rom-com formula isn't imaginatively tweaked more often.

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Jessa Crispin