Dear Ms. Stein:
I had trouble getting into this at first, because it seemed too obviously a romantic fantasy. By around three fourths of the way in, I concluded it was actually a love letter to romantic fantasy, saying in novella form, “no matter who you are, yes, it’s okay to want all these things, to dream of all these things.”
Very much a “cabin romance,” although not set in the woods, the story is intensely focused on just two people from the moment the agoraphobic Alice finds movie star Holden Stark od’d on her living room floor. It’s an abrupt beginning, and the story is abrupt in other ways: Alice succeeds in saving Holden (though rather appallingly, she puts his “career and his image” ahead of his life by not calling for help) and then he just… stays. It’s not that it’s not believable that this suicidally unhappy person would stay with a stranger; as he touchingly tells her, ‘I know you saved my life. I know you trusted me when I shouldn’t be trusted. I know you hugged me when I didn’t know I wanted to be hugged.’ I just would have liked to see the process a little more.
Alice has been though something huge, and she’s self-conscious about her disabilities and scars, as well as her lack of romantic experience. But she easily wows Holden with her humor, adorkable geekiness, and ability to show him to himself as someone other than a movie star:
‘Bernard Horganblaster,’ she said, and watched as his eyes slowly drifted closed. It was in the good way though, this time. The way that reminded her of blissful things, like biting into a bar of chocolate after a long period of near starvation.
‘Oh yeah. I could be a Bernard.’
‘And your friends call you Bernie.’
He gave her two gleeful, triumphant fists.
‘Yes! Yes, exactly like that. I have friends just like you, and you call me Bernie.’
‘…you kind of sound like you’d rather I stayed over here?’
‘Just ignore my voice. There’s a frightened nun living in my throat.’
He went to answer and had to stop to make room for the most awesome laugh. It was all surprised and full of joy, and it followed through into his words.
‘Who are you? I must be dreaming you. Did I die, and this is my reward?”
The balance of this story felt different from other Stein books, where the erotic tends to carry the romance. There are certainly some intense sex scenes; I enjoyed Alice’s realization that people who are gentle and considerate can still let themselves go in bed. “Dear God, she could have died over him saying, Fuck yeah, suck me off. It was too crude for the kind of guy she’d come to know.” But the sexual side of the story is really an outgrowth of their feelings, which are beautifully tender:
‘You don’t seem like a crazed fan for fuck’s sake. I wish you seemed more like a crazed fan because good goddamn am I a crazed fan of yours. For once in my life I’m the one who wants to write someone’s name on my fucking pencil case and it’s killing me, it’s absolutely killing me.’
Dear Lord in heaven, had he really just said that? She had to double check, just to be sure.
‘You want to write my name on your pencil case?’
‘I do, I really do,’ he said, tone so wistful she could hardly stand to hear it.
But I was tripped up, not only by how idyllic the fantasy is — their tastes match so completely, they would be shoo-ins on “The Newlywed Game” — but how precise:
‘Here, take my hand. I’ll pull you through like Morten Harket from A-ha in that music video where he takes her out of the real world and into a drawing,’ he said, which made it both worse and better all at the same time. Now she was close to swooning, but at least her power to make normal words was back.
‘Good God, I don’t think you could have said anything more perfect if you’d lived to be a hundred.’
That level of studied detail took me out of the world of the book.
The story is told in a limited deep third point-of-view that’s very similar to typical Stein stream-of-consciousness first person. As always, there’s a hilarious way with imagery:
She hadn’t taken into account that he didn’t have any clean clothes to put on. She’d somehow imagined him coming down in a fabulous outfit live from the red carpet, as though his skin spontaneously grew tuxedos.
I’m not sure how to evaluate Alice as a portrayal of a disabled person. (In addition to agoraphobia, she has some physical limitations.) Themes of brokenness and healing through love can be really iffy when coupled with actual disabilities. Definitely a plus: Alice’s physical issues don’t magically disappear during sex, and they find ways to work with them.
There was so much that was good here, and so much that didn’t quite work. Although I was touched by the overall message about believing in happy endings, I didn’t feel the story was developed enough for me to completely buy into the situation. And even with the whole healing-power-of-love thing, I’m uncertain about a happy ever after for a hermit and a movie star, much though I hope for one. Weighing everything, my grade is a fond B-.