The Marrying Game opens on Christmas Eve, with four sisters at home worrying about money. The setting is present-day England, and the girls' father, an eccentric aristocrat, has just died, leaving the Hasty family so impoverished that they are about to lose their splendid but crumbling house. So the two oldest sisters--Rufa, tall, elegant, and too serious for her own good; and Nancy, a gorgeous, irreverent redhead who relishes her work as a part-time barmaid in the local pub--decide that the way to redeem the family fortunes is to marry money. Surely it can't be that hard to find two very rich men and make the men fall in love with them.
Thus begins a gloriously modern story that makes us genuinely care about the whole Hasty family. As Rufa and Nancy set out to blaze a trail through London society, they find that nothing in The Marrying Game turns out quite the way they've planned.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Kate Saunders, the author of The Marrying Game, has also written for the Sunday Times, Sunday Express, Daily Telegraph, and Cosmopolitan. She lives in London with her son.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"This one is the set of Narnia books, from Roger," Nancy said. "This one is Barbie and her strangely enormous pony, which looks more like a dray horse-that's from Mum." She held the gaudy parcels up before her sister's dazed, melancholy face. "And mine's coming later. That's at least three more presents than we thought."
"Four," Selena said, from the depths of her book. Her obsessive reading never stopped her joining in the conversation. "I made her some chocolate fudge, and I thought I'd put it in my painted box-she's always fancied it. Has anyone got any spare wrapping paper?"
"I have," Rufa murmured. "Leave it on my bed, and I'll do it when I wrap mine."
Lydia was smiling mistily, like sun breaking through cloud. "It's going to be all right, isn't it? I can stand anything, as long as Linnet has enough presents. You're all wonderful I don't know how to thank you."
"You can stop her getting up at dawn," Nancy suggested. "It's so fiendishly cold, I need at least an hour's notice before I leave my virgin couch."
Rufa laughed softly. "You'll be lucky. Linnet told me she's going to borrow my alarm clock and set it for five." She was stretched out on the sofa, exhausted and reeking of nutmeg after weeks of Christmas cooking. Her long auburn hair, the color of garnets, poured over the hideous orange tweed cushions. Her three younger sisters sprawled on the floor, their long ropes of hair brushing the ashy carpet. Each had a slice of herself wedged against the fender, exposed to the tiny fire.
"Liddy," Nancy said, "get that monstrous great bum of yours out of the way."
"Monstrous bum-look who's talking." Lydia's soft voice was gently steeped in complaint. "I need more heat than you do. I'm thinner, and my surface area is greater in relation to my volume." She wrestled the cork from a bottle of cheap red wine.
Selena finally raised her head from the pages of Paradise Lost. "Biscuit, anyone?" From the darned folds of her huge jersey, she produced a packet of chocolate digestives.
"My God," Nancy exclaimed. "Where on earth did you get those?"
"Brian gave them to me. I think he's sorry for us."
Brian was the sweaty young man from the auctioneers, currently estimating the value of the ancient house and its dilapidated contents. Melismate, home of the Hasty family for nearly a thousand years, was about to go under the hammer.
Selena tore the packet open, and her sisters shot out begging hands. The appalling lack of money, further beyond a joke than it had ever been, made chocolate biscuits seem as exotic as caviar. They had been living on their mother's meager leek soup for several weeks, hoarding every penny for the last Christmas at Melismate.
"That was nice of him," Rufa said, with her mouth full. She felt it was important to notice when people were being nice.
"Hmmm." Absently, Selena turned a page.
"He's rather odious sometimes, but it's not his fault we're ruined."
"Don't say 'ruined' like that," Lydia murmured. She poured the wine into four mismatched teacups, and handed them round. "Every time I think about the future, I just feel sick."
It was Christmas Eve. The Zed was enjoying his first Christmas in heaven. The house he had left was freezing. Under the hammer, his family were being beaten to smithereens. Next day's lunch, a supermarket chicken the size of a canary, sat in the echoing fridge, ready for cooking. Rufa had spent her last reserves of energy scrubbing and peeling the mountain of potatoes that would have to fill seven empty stomachs. Now, they had reached the point where there was nothing left to do. The pies and cakes, which would have occupied her in the days of relative plenty, did not exist this year. Their mother was downstairs, with Lydia's little daughter. The Hasty girls had gathered, as they often did, in the old nursery.
The nursery consisted of two garrets in the sloping roof, knocked into one large room. It was as drafty as the deck of the Cutty Sark and crammed with lumber. Brian had valued the lumber, in its entirety, at forty pounds. He could not be expected to see that its true value went beyond money. The nursery was a mille-feuille of family history; layer upon layer, like the rings of a tree.
The scrap screen, covered with yellowed pictures of cherubic children in sailor suits, was a relic of some Victorian Hasty. The formidable Silver Cross pram, now dented and lame, dated from The Zed's postwar infancy. The orange sofa, disfigured by a huge burn, was part of the girls own history. They all remembered the famous bonfire night in the 1980s, when The Zed had painfully learned the difference between outdoor and indoor fireworks.
The Zed was their late father. He had flown out of the world six months before, leaving the rest of them to drop to earth like so many spent rockets. The Zed had been divinely handsome, dazzlingly autocratic, royally eccentric, and utterly charming. He could carry a ridiculous gesture far beyond comedy, and invest it with grandeur. On his honeymoon in Antibes, he had rushed out during an argument and tried to join the Foreign Legion. He had once daubed his naked body with blue powder paint and attended a children's fancy dress party as an Ancient Briton. The Zed had loved parties, he had virtually lived at a party. He liked his house teeming with people and ringing with laughter. He had loved to lose his heart, and his wife and daughters had nursed him tenderly through his many infidelities, when that susceptible organ was sent back in pieces-somehow, even his adultery was different, and did not count as betrayal. It was godlike, Olympian adultery-like the King of the Gods, he always returned to his wife and his mountain afterward.
Nobody could remember exactly when they had started to think of him as The Zed. Someone had called him "Zeus" when the girls were babies, and the nickname had stuck because its mixture of the majestic and the faintly loopy seemed to suit him. Gradually, familiarity had rubbed "Zeus" down to "Zoozy," then "Zeddy," then (he seemed to need the gravitas of the definite article) it wound through "El Zeddo" and "Le Zee," until it settled into The Zed; the rifle of the Alpha Male who was also the Omega. He had surrounded himself-and them-with an atmosphere of excitement and glamour. When he died, all the color had bled out of the world.
Rufa struggled into a sitting position to sip her wine. She had adored her father, but was beginning to admit that The Zed's highly individual morals had had a blighting effect on the romantic lives of his daughters. He had given them their fatal preference for the ornamental over the practical.
The problem was not that there were no men like him. On the contrary, the world positively seethed with charming eccentrics who never got up in the mornings. They were easier to catch than the flu, and always disappointing. Their charming ineffectiveness could never compare with the epic, sweet uselessness of Rufus Hasty.
Rufa's first romantic disappointment had been a major one; so heartbreaking and humiliating that, even three years later, she wanted nothing more to do with love.
And it's not just me, she thought-look at the others.
Lydia had come home, with her little girl, after the failure of her ludicrous marriage. Nancy was currently madly in love with the doctor's son, who lived in a caravan at the bottom of his parents' garden. Selena was still at school, and too young for really deep disappointment, but she already had an instinctive taste for a good-looking loser. It was only a matter of time.
Lydia said, as someone was always saying, "If only there was something we could do!"
Nancy helped herself to another biscuit. "Well, there isn't. Unless we all marry money."
"We might," Selena pointed out.
"What, before the auction?" Rufa laughed. "We don't even know anybody rich. Let alone anybody rich enough to pay The Zed's debts and save the house."
Selena put down her book. "But it's still a possibility."
"I got the only available man for miles around," Lydia said wistfully, "and just look at him. We never meet anyone."
"You can say that again," Nancy agreed. "This place is like Brigadoon-God knows what century it is out there. I must take a peek sometime, and see if they've repealed those awful Corn Laws."
"Actually-" Rufa began. Her eyes were fixed thoughtfully on a snake's tongue of flame that had shot out of the red embers. "Actually, Selena's right. If we could meet the rich men, it ought to be perfectly possible to marry one."
"I've got a better idea," Nancy said disconsolately. "Let's rub all the lamps, and see if a fucking genie pops out."
"I'd happily work for the money," Rufa said, "if I knew how to earn enough. Unfortunately, making jam, at a clear profit of sixty-two pence per jar, is never going to get us millions of pounds by the end of March."
"Well, don't look at me," Nancy said. "My tips barely keep me in cigs as it is."
Rufa had shaken off her exhaustion. She was looking narrowly at their faces. "You're all lovely looking girls, you know. And I'm not bad, when I don't smell like a mince pie. Now, there's an asset-it's almost a shame Brian can't put us up for auction along with the furniture."
There was a silence, as the four of them considered the unarguable, taken-for-granted beauty that was a fact of being a Hasty. It had never occurred to them that this beauty might do more than give them first pick of the local talent. And they could not think of their looks without hearing the rapturous voice of The Zed-"My seraglio, my genetic miracles, my peerless princesses-"
Rufa, at twenty-seven, was a Burne-Jones nymph in jeans and Timberlands. Her skin was transparently soft and white, against the royal burgundy of her splendid hair (all the girls had fathoms of hair, because The Zed had insisted that his lambs should never be shorn). Rufa's eyes were of a rare dark blue, that could blacken in shadow and suddenly blaze sapphire. She was as tall as The Zed had been, and very thin. A woman from a model agency had "discovered" her while she was in the Fifth Form at Saint Hildegard's, and begged her to come to London.
The Zed had laughed and laughed, at the bare idea of exposing his firstborn and favorite to the vulgar gaze of the public. It had never been mentioned again.
Nancy, at twenty-six, was a Renoir in everything but flesh. Her curves were slender, her voluptuousness spiritual rather than physical. She was a kind of alternative, X-rated version of Rufa-less gaspingly beautiful, more absolutely sexy. Nancy's hair was decidedly red. Her large, firm breasts were the envy of her skinny sisters. Her eyes were sleepy and mocking, her lips generous and wanton. She was an orchid among lilies of the valley.
Twenty-four-year-old Lydia was more like their mother than The Zed. Her style was delicate fragility, exquisite in the detail. She was smaller than Rufa and Nancy. Her eyes were of a lighter, brighter blue, and her billows of curly hair were golden-brown. At her best she was a Hilliard miniature, executed with the finest of fine brushwork. These days, unkempt and unplucked, she had the wistful appeal of a mossy stone angel in a secret garden.
Selena, The Zed's afterthought, was seventeen. She was very tall and lanky, but it was difficult to tell exactly what she looked like. Her hair, the same color as Lydia's, was worn in matted dreadlocks. She was further disguised by small round glasses and studs in her nose, lower lip, and tongue.
Regretfully, Selena said, "Nobody marries for money anymore."
"People have always married for money," Rufa returned, "and they always will. Most of our ancestors did. Nobody bothered about romance in those days."
The others furtively exchanged significant looks. They all knew she was thinking of Jonathan, the man who had broken her heart.
"Marriage without love is totally pointless." Lydia, the passive and retiring, spoke with unaccustomed authority. She was the only one of them who had ever been married. "It's total agony anyway. I could only leave Ran when I stopped being in love with him."
This time, Rufa joined in the significant looks. Lydia's sisters did not believe she had ever stopped loving her hopeless young husband.
"There would have been a point, if Ran had loads of money," Selena said.
Rufa tipped more wine into her teacup. "In this family, we've always made love far too important. It's only ever brought us trouble."
"I did have Linnet because of love," Lydia pointed out.
"Apart from Linnet." Rufa crossed her long legs, and pushed her hair impatiently over her shoulder. "Maybe we should think about marrying money. A hundred years ago, it would have been the sensible thing to do."
Very unwillingly, the other three drew the real, outside world into focus.
"I suppose I could just about marry a man I don't love," Nancy said thoughtfully. "But I draw the line at someone I don't fancy."
"I'm sure you could make the effort," Rufa said, "since you seem to fancy just about anything with a backbone."
Nancy smiled, not displeased. "If I was as fussy as you are, I'd never have any fun at all."
Rufa sighed. "Being fussy didn't do me much good, did it?"
She did not often talk about this episode in her life-the one time she had been at odds with The Zed. He had teased her relentlessly about the affair with Jonathan. He had entertained the family with such marvelous imitations of Jonathan that even Rufa had been forced to laugh. The seriousness of Rufa in love had alarmed him. For once in his life, The Zed had found himself sharing his throne.
"It was like a tasteful film on Channel Four," he used to say, smiling down the dinner table, over Rufa's bowed auburn head. "Tonight, after the news, poncey London novelist rents country cottage, falls for local redhead-then rushes home to his wife, to write it all down."
That had been more or less it, in a nutshell. At the time, three summers ago, Rufa had not known that losing her heart to Jonathan Wilby was a cliché. She had been ready to give him her body and soul-and he had not been able to cope with the intensity of his village-born beauty, nor the antics of her barking upper-class family. Rufa had never found out why Jonathan took fright so suddenly. She suspected The Zed-of what, she did not know; but it was the one canker in her memories of him.
0"If you ask me," Nancy said, snatching the wine bottle, "falling in love is the only thing that makes life on earth worth living. But I'm not sure about marriage. I mean, look at Liddy."
"God, yes," Lydia sighed, "look at me."
Ten years ago, the teenage Lydia had fallen wildly in love with Randolph Verrall, who raised goats on a neighboring smallholding, and believed that keeping a crystal in your pants drawer could increase your sexual potency.
Copyright © 2002 by Kate Saunders
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