May 23 2008
Dear Ms. Gibson,
Though I have read all of your books, in all honesty I’m not sure why. I liked your first book, Simply Irresistible, quite a bit, and loved your second, Truly, Madly Yours. Since then, your books have ranged from mediocre (I show five B- grades in my book log, which goes back to 2002) to something less than mediocre (Daisy’s Back in Town and last year’s Tangled Up in You barely eked out C range grades from me).
Your latest book is the last in a quartet about four female friends finding love. The series is based on a rather contrived conceit: each of the women writes in a different genre: mystery, romance, true crime, fantasy (the heroine of Not Another Bad Date, Adele Harris, is the fantasy writer). It’s not actually the conceit itself that has felt contrived in the series, but the way that each author mirrors rather stereotypical views of the genre she writes in. This was particularly aggravating in Tangled Up in You, with the true crime-writing heroine; she constantly wanted to pepper-spray everyone. That may explain in part why I disliked that book so much. Thankfully, Adele in Not Another Bad Date is not portrayed as being too obsessed with fairies, unicorns and the like.
Adele Harris returns to the small Texas town where she grew up to help her pregnant sister, whose husband has just run off with his assistant. She is not there long before she encounters the erstwhile love of her life, her college boyfriend Zach Zemaitis. Zach, a former NFL star who is now coaching high school football, is not so much the one that got away as the one that was stolen away by the mean girl who made Adele’s high school years hell. Adele has, of course, never quite gotten over Zach, and he is now a widower.
What worked for me: your books are very readable, and Not Another Bad Date is no exception. I read relatively few contemporaries, but for some reason when I do read them I find them easier, quicker reads than historicals, generally speaking. I’m not sure why – it’s not like the historicals that I read are that taxing. Perhaps it’s just that the more familiar setting makes the reading a little easier. Anyway, I appreciate it because it means that I don’t tend to get bogged down in even sub-par contemporaries the way I sometimes do with historical novels.
So, Not Another Bad Date was very readable. I didn’t hate the characters or their behavior (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment); their HEA was pleasant.
My lack of enthusiasm is, I think, reflective of a certain thinness of characterization found in both the hero and heroine. As I said, I’ve read all your books, and if you strip away a few superficial traits, Zach and Adele are not noticeably different from most of the couples in your other novels.
This may be what some romance readers prefer – predictable characters meeting (or re-meeting in this case), feeling attraction, having conflict, breaking up, making up, HEA. Some minor trust issues on each side, fear of commitment yadda yadda yadda. Though it can be comforting to pick up a book knowing what you’re going to get, I usually prefer a little more variety in my reading.
There is a small paranormal element in this book that I found cheesy at first but actually ended up liking. The aforementioned mean girl – Devon Hamilton-Zemaitis, Zach’s dead wife and Adele’s high school tormenter, is stuck in purgatory (for her, it takes the form of endlessly stocking shoes at Wal-Mart). Her machinations in the afterlife are directly responsible for Adele’s bad dates. This element of the story was hokey, but it at least gave some context to Adele’s bizarre bad luck with men, and ultimately I thought it was kind of a cute touch.
Oh, and my complaint – the one aspect that I found truly unlikable in your characterization, in this case, of the hero. Zach is a former NFL player who was in an unhappy marriage for a number of years. He lived away from his wife during the football season. Okay, I understand, intellectually, why in such a situation, the fact that he was routinely unfaithful is probably pretty realistic. But it still bugged me. Even though we know that his wife was indifferent to it (we’re told this in one of the sections where we are privy to Devon’s post-mortem thoughts).
But still. I’m just sick of it. I’m sick of the double-standard. Can you even imagine a romance where the heroine is in an unhappy marriage and routinely has affairs, even threesomes, with her husband’s tacit blessing? I could borrow the infinite number of monkeys working on typing up the complete works of Shakespeare, pull them off that project and give them an infinite amount of time to write a romance with such a heroine. When one of the monkeys finally presented me with her finished work, I’d find that the heroine wasn’t actually meeting all those men in hotel rooms to have sex with them; she was actually teaching them to read. Also, she was a virgin despite being married!
I said I didn’t hate Zach, and I didn’t. But I did dislike him when he had thoughts like this:
He’d been around women like Genevieve all of his career and most of his life. Women who offered up their bodies, and while he’d sometimes taken what they’d wanted to give, he’d never screwed around with married women nor women he didn’t even like. He wasn’t desperate enough to start now.
Oh, Mr. cheats-on-his-wife, has threesomes and random casual sex with women who "offer up their bodies", has standards. He’s not about to get with a tramp like Genevieve, who after all is married (doesn’t she know marriage is sacred?) and whom he doesn’t even like.
Ms. Gibson, I don’t want to place the burden of romance’s sexism all on your shoulders. But I’ve become increasingly intolerant of the way that female writers, writing for a female audience, continually reinforce sexist notions. Men who have sex with lots of women are heroes, even if they happen to be married while having it. Women who throw themselves at men (who don’t even like them!) are tarts and/or desperate and distasteful. Heroines are invariably unaware of their own appeal and semi-chaste. We have finally gotten somewhat away from the virgin heroine in contemporaries, thank goodness, but we have a ways to go before we get to heroines who actually own their own sexuality and aren’t just waiting for the hero to come along, flip the switch and finally give them an orgasm.
I will likely still continue reading your books; readability counts for something. But my grade for Not Another Bad Date is still a C.