Really Old Romance: Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

This is the first of a series of posts about the old romances that I’ve read, which inspire my plotting, if not my writing, today. Many of these have been comprehensively forgotten, but have some element of being wonderful treasure. Or awful. Or both.

831660Free Air by Sinclair Lewis was written in 1919. It tells the story of Claire Boltwood, a society miss, who takes a road trip with her father to get him away from work. Based in the US, this is a story about automobiles (Free Air refers to pumping up tyres) and elitism.

Milt, our hero, decides on the spur of the moment to follow Claire and her father and look out for them. As a Brit, I find the class issue particularly fascinating, as modern day America seems to believe there is no class system in the US, and never has been. But what I find interesting is that the class system portrayed feels like a parody of itself.

There are a *lot* of details about automobiles and I found it strangely charming. Whole scenes where Claire changes a tyre, or talks about the engine or the running boards. It was oddly fascinating for a history buff.

Free Air is a ‘road trip’ story, until they reach their destination, Seattle. Then it’s a straight up, rich girl, boy from the wrong side of the tracks story. This second part of the story meanders and doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s heavy on the social commentary and light on the ‘why they actually fall in love’.

But here’s the real thing. If you were to re-write this book for a modern audience, or take inspiration from it, what would that be?

Trope and Inspiration take-homes for romance authors:

  • Road trip in 1910’s America. Ooohhh yeah.
  • Seedy, leaking, lice-ridden motels. Milt and Claire didn’t have to share a room because of this, but this would work well.
  • Cars that need their oil, water, tyres and running boards looked after so much, they are practically characters in themselves.
  • Some of the stylised phrasing and tone is just swell, and it would be a jolly time writing something set in that era.
  • Picnics.
  • Bears.
  • Journeys where it is more about the journey than the destination.

Stuff to avoid

  • Blatant social commentary isn’t that entertaining
  • Heroines who have nothing to do aren’t really saved by getting together with a hero who has a job. Claire Boltwood never has anything to do.
  • Heroes who stalk their heroines. Look, we know Milt is a nice guy, but he stalks Claire. There has to be a better way of bringing them together than one-sided insta-love.