May 10 2013
Know When To Hold ’Em – Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie
[Apologies in advance – my ebook for some reason came devoid of even pretend page numbers so I can’t reference in my usual half-arsed way]
Bet Me represents my first foray into the world of contemporary romance. And I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me (well, you don’t have to forgive me, but it would be nice) because I went slightly off-list in order to read it. I was still feeling pathetically fragile after To Have & To Hold and I’d formed the impression that Bet Me would be low on controversy and high on entertainment.
And, oh thank God, it was. And, oh thank God, I really needed it.
NB: This review from AJH is the fifth in his series of “I’m getting to know the romance genre.” His introduction is here and you can generally find his past reviews under the “Guest Review” tag. You can buy the book with these links. ( A | BN | K | S )
Bet Me kicks off at the loltastically named theme bar, The Long Shot, where the heroine Minerva ‘Min’ Dobbs is getting dumped by her absolute, grade A pillock of a boyfriend. Although under no illusions about David’s pillockhood, Min was hoping to keep him around long enough to be her date for her sister’s wedding, because apparently not having a date to your sister’s wedding is a major serious deal in the US. Anyway, while Min reacts to the break-up with righteous anger, David throws a dude-tizzy and ends up betting the hottest guy in the bar – a love ’em and leave ’em type called Cal Morrissey – ten grand he won’t be able to get Min into bed. Min, of course, overhears the bet, though unfortunately not Cal turning it down. Misunderstandings, mayhem and chicken masalas ensue.
A couple of reviews back I kind of laid into Dragon Actually for not taking its fun seriously enough. I know this was probably a bit wanky of me but frothy is not the same as superficial and frivolous is not the same as silly. A soufflé takes just as much effort and artistry as a swan-stuffed-peacock. Probably more, to be honest, because anybody can stick their hand up a bird’s arse. Bet Me struck me as an archetypally seriously funny book. Its surface charm is underpinned by real depth and the characters are depicted with a light touch that does not detract from their complexity. Also I was averaging about a chuckle per page, which officially puts Crusie up there with Wodehouse for making my day better.
Take this from the very first page:
I could shove this swizzle stick through his heart, Min thought. She wouldn’t do it, of course. The stick was plastic and not nearly pointed enough on the end. Also, people didn’t do things like that in southern Ohio. A sawed-off shotgun, that was the ticket.
That’s not just a joke. That’s the joke equivalent of a motorway pileup. Just when you think it’s all over, it hits you again. Bet Me is absolutely bursting with this kind of acerbic, merciless wit, to say nothing of the steady stream of one-liners that fly past you like bullets from a LOL gun. I am not forgetting “tall, dark and self-righteous” any time soon. In case it isn’t obvious: I totally loved the book. When you’re reading it, you get the feeling you’re in really safe hands, Ms Crusie knows exactly what she’s doing, and you can just sit back and enjoy the ride without worrying if the hero is going to arbitrarily starting being an arse or the heroine is suddenly going to get a spinedectomy. Bet Me fits together really well. It’s funny but not shallow, romantic but not sentimental, sharp but not cruel. It’s themes of fairytales and reality, chance and fate, freedom and restriction, unfurl beautifully, as the plot twists and turns, mirrors itself and doubles back. Frankly, it’s just a really damn good book by any standards you care to name.
Also, I don’t know if it’s just a different set of expectations between contemporaries and historicals but I felt like I could genuinely relate to the characters in Bet Me. I hesitate to use the word ‘plausible’ in this context because fiction is fiction and its role is not necessarily solely to represent reality as it applies to us. But I think there’s extent to which ‘history’ is as much an imagined place as any fantasy kingdom, so it gives the author liberty to create bold, larger-than-life characters, who can shoot each other, kidnap each other, and generally behave in a manner that would have you running away screaming if it actually took place in your vicinity. Whereas the characters in Bet Me felt as though they could be people I’ve actually met. They acted in sympathetically recognisable ways. Even the villains aren’t really villains. They’re just selfish, annoying and a little bit pathetic. It’s all quite personal, small-scale and human, even though events tend to play out exaggeratedly for comic effect.
For me, this ended up being both a strength and weakness: a strength because I really liked the experience of feeling part of a familiar world and a weakness because I discovered that my Genre Habituation is still somewhat weak. I kept bogging down in what felt like pointless minutiae, while recognising rationally it was textually important stuff. I think I’m slightly better at reading historicals, paranormals and steampunk romantic adventures than I am at reading contemporaries because, although they contain kissing and characterisation and girly stuff like that (I jest), there also tend to be fight scenes, explosions, zombies and people going to boxing matches. There were none of these things in Bet Me. Please understand, I’m not remotely suggesting that’s a flaw in the text, so much as flaw in me and my reading. And I’m working on it.
There were shoes. And talking, there’s a lot of talking, usually about dating. And haircuts. And nights in with the girls. And it all left me a bit: okay, you just carry on, I’ll be over here now. There’s also this bloody wedding that lurks about like Captain Hook’s crocodile during the first half of the book and then bursts out of the water during the second, devouring everything in its path. I’m sorry to be a curmudgeon but I just don’t like weddings, okay? The family wedding thing? It’s hell. Been there, done that (thankfully not mine, I hasten to add). It’s bad enough in real life. And here I was gritting my teeth through the endless travails and organisational crises of a fictional one. Although I will admit to a deeply pleasurable schadenfreude when it all exploded horribly. Okay, I lied about the lack of explosions in Bet Me. It does have explosions. It’s just that they’re social.
The other thing that struck me as interesting about Bet Me, and I’d be intrigued to know if applies to contemporaries generally, was the degree to which the relationship between Min and Cal, although important, remained quite secondary. Most of the other books I’ve read have either focused exclusively on the romance (occasionally to the detriment of everything else) or have embedded the love story so deeply in the world that the two are inseperable. Min’s developing feelings for Cal are part of a much broader arc and, essentially, he only really becomes narratively important when he becomes important to Min. It’s Min’s book, through and through, and it’s just as much about her journey towards self-acceptance and personal happiness, as it is about the importance of getting it on with a hot guy. I really liked this, actually. I understand the appeal of the Wuthering Heights “it is about us, only us, forever” thing, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I found it refreshing to be reading something more balanced. Love is, after all, only a part of living a full and meaningful life.
Min, it should go without saying, I adored. So much so, I felt weirdly like I was cheating on Jessica. Her near constant supply of snarky insights and devastating putdowns really made this book for me. That and the unerring accuracy of her bullshit detector. I couldn’t help wince for Cal sometimes but it was also sort of delightful to watch her tear right through him when he tries to put the charm moves on her:
“Yes.” He bent still closer. “Somewhere quiet where we can talk. You look like someone with interesting things to say. And I’m somebody who’d like to hear them.”
Min smiled at him. “That’s a terrible line. Does it usually work for you?”
She is not, however, without her flaws and her vulnerabilities and, for the most part, I thought they came across well, humanising her without compromising her strength. Again, I’m not really in a strong position to be reading for subversion but Min seemed to be taking absolutely no nonsense from her genre. At one point, despite having been repeatedly told that Min’s no longer interested in him, David turns up at house and tries to kiss her. This is neither deeply traumatic nor secretly romantic. She’s not really threatened by his behaviour, just annoyed that he believes he has the right to barge into her home and manhandle her. And when he tries to tell her it’s because “I just want you so much”, she threatens to mace him, completely puncturing the notion that ignoring a woman’s wishes are a way to demonstrate the intensity of your desire. Similarly, I really liked the fact she doesn’t want children. Although certain characters (knobby ones like David) don’t take this seriously, it’s very clear that the book itself does. Nearly every other romance I’ve read has taken it pretty much for granted that heroines naturally want babies, naturally love children and are naturally nurturing women-type people. Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting these things (and lots of people-type people do) but when it’s unquestioned or presented as an inherent part of being, y’know, a woman, it strikes me that it could be pretty depressing, to say nothing of problematic.
Also I don’t like children either, so it’s yet another reason Min and I are soulmates. Sorry Jessica. It’s not you, it’s Min.
Cal, despite the lack of soft, strong wings to wrap me around me, is probably my favourite of the heroes I’ve encountered so far. He doesn’t do anything too muppetish, nor does he rape the heroine. Okay, those are pretty low standards for human decency but I’m still counting it a win. To me, he came across as an ordinary kind of guy and I found it weirdly comforting that he basically spends the book behaving like a human being, albeit one with faults and insecurities that sometimes spill into his actions. For example, near the end, his ex-girlfriend (who is a deranged psychologist, more on Cynthie later) sends forth David the Grade A Pillock to mercilessly hammer all of Cal’s trigger buttons until he Hulks Out. Hulking Out seems to be pretty standard hero behaviour but usually I’ve found it a bit spurious, like Dain arbitrarily deciding Jessica is a whore trying to entrap him into matrimony based on no evidence whatsoever, but I totally understood where Cal was coming from here. It was nice to see Hulking Out rooted in what felt like authentic human behaviour, rather than hysterical over-spilling manliness.
For the most part, Cal seems to navigate the romance hero minefield with grace and charm. He’s self-aware and self-ironic, which are traits I personally find rather attractive and seem to be pretty underrated in Romancelandia. Like when David is trying to force him to take the bet, he responds:
“Look, David, sex is not in the cards. I’m cheap, but I’m not slimy. You want to bet ten bucks on a pickup, fine, but that’s it. Nothing with a future.”
I was basically on Cal’s side from that moment forward. But perhaps I’m just over-invested in ‘cheap but not slimy’ as an important and valuable distinction. My favourite scene, in the entire book, by the way, is when Cal takes Min home to meet his family and she leaps on her metaphorical white charger to defend him, and the choices he’s made, in front of his parents, totally ruining dinner in the process. Y’know, I think this might be the most breaktakingly romantic scene I’ve ever read. Min is awesome in it, of course, but I like the way they role switch continually throughout the book, taking turns to play the rescued and the rescuer, and fighting off life’s dragons together. As they leave, Min is resigned to having completely lost Cal on account of blowing up his family, and – truthfully – I could completely see a different hero getting his macho freak on about it – but Cal responds absolutely correctly by jumping on her and kissing her senseless.
Since I mentioned Cynthie in passing, I’d just like to return to her briefly in order to say: oh my God, is she deranged? I genuinely had no idea how I was supposed to be interpreting her. She and Grade A Pillock David are sort of the antagonists of the story. He’s just a wanker and she’s some sort of psychologist who has formulated a theory of attraction, which is mostly proven to be absolute bollocks over the course of the book as Min and Cal weave their own crazy, unpredictable way to love. I was glad about this because the theories made NO SENSE and filled me with a vague sense of instinctive dread every time Cynthie opened her mouth:
“He’s been trained to please people to get approval, and the people he likes to please most are women, who are more than willing to be pleased by him because he looks the way he does. So his looks guarantee assumption and his charm guarantees attraction. He’s one of the most elegant adaptive solutions I’ve ever observed.”
I presumed she was supposed to be a send up of that kind of pseudo-analytical dating theory that appears to be moderately popular in magazines and self-help books. But I found her place on the batshit/insightful spectrum somewhat difficult to understand – the book seems to take a certain delight in the wrongness of everything she believes, but she’s also reasonably acute. For example, although the basis of her analysis of Cal is wrong (he’s not trying to compensate for his mother’s conditional love), she’s actually in the right ball park and similarly she sees through David in about 5 seconds flat:
“David,” Cynthie said, “if you wanted sex in the first five minutes, you should have dated a stripper. If [Min’s] an actuary, she’s a cautious person, her career is figuring out how to minimize risk, and in your case, she was right.”
I know she’s nutbags but you kind of have to respect her for calling David out on this, when she could have won him more easily to her cause by criticising Min. So, basically, I felt ambivalent about Cynthie throughout. It also didn’t help that she’s the most conventionally attractive woman in the book and the one who seems most comfortable in herself and her sexuality. Given that Min is NOT comfortable in herself, I suppose it was important to demonstrate that people who seem to tick all the boxes aren’t necessarily any happier (or saner) than the rest of us. But, equally, I’m not sure if it wasn’t a little vindictive. Some people are just pretty; it’s not their fault.
Since we’re on the subject of conventional attractiveness, I don’t really think we can really discuss Bet Me without touching on the weight thing, because it’s kind of a major theme in the book. One might say a weighty theme. Do you see what I did there? The heroine, you see, is apparently chubby. I know it’s dangerous to be over-literal about this kind of thing but, given what a big deal it all was, I did research. At the beginning of the book, Min’s mother is trying to get her to fit into a size 8 bridesmaid dress so it seems logical to assume that Min is not a size 8 but could realistically be perceived as being close to it. So, I guess that means our Min is a size 10? I had no idea what that meant so I asked the Internet and the Internet told me that US sizes are about 2 lower than UK sizes. So Min, the chubby, initially undesirable heroine of this novel, is a size 14. Umm? That’s … that’s … Kate Winslet.
Now I know Kate is shown here wearing an Oscar dress and has therefore probably been lowered into it by a team of 20 stylists working round the clock but can we have a sanity check here? Since when did Kate Winslet become our standard for unattractively podgy? And, even taking into account that my deductions are incorrect and Min is so lost to human decency as to be a US 12 (UK 16), I guess that would make her … Nigella Lawson?
Right. Because there’s absolutely nothing desirable about Nigella Lawson. Okay, look, I know it’s about self-perception not actual body size. The whole point is for Min to come to terms with her body and how to live in it and feel attractive in it. I get that. And I recognise that it’s meant to feed into wider criticisms of the unrealistic beauty standards to which women are held but, given the fact that Min is completely average, arguably somewhat smaller than average, it all seems a bit absurd, bordering on offensive, to me. I mean surely the point, here, is that a human body is not public property. It’s nobody’s bloody business what size you are. But it seems to me that Bet Me’s take home message is more concerned with the problems arising when non-fat people are incorrectly assigned to the fat team. To me, and again this is just my take on it, it’s not about whether being a size x, y or z makes you a fattie, or that conventional beauty standards denote x and y as ideal but not z, it’s a much deeper, wider issue about the way people’s bodies are considered acceptable subject matter for open scrutiny.
Also there’s a moment halfway through the book where Cal attempts to convince Min she’s sexy by telling her that men prefer women who aren’t built like coat-hangers. And this annoyed me too. I know plenty of smaller-than-average people who worry about their bodies just as much as anyone else. For God’s sake, can we not acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of humanity without dissing each other along the way? Some people are built like coat hangers: that’s FINE. Some people aren’t: that’s FINE too. It is okay to be fat, thin, large breasted, small breasted, all or none of the above. Somebody will find you beautiful and want to bang you. And as they’re banging you, they’ll not be thinking very much beyond “yay!”
The other thing that was connected to this and slightly troubled me was the attitude to Min’s diet. Min appears to be doing a particularly misery-inducing version of a low carb diet, forced on her by her mother as part of the quest for the mythical size 8. As part of Min’s journey towards self-acceptance and cooking with butter, she allows Cal to tempt her away from the diet and feed her donuts and other sexy things. Now, I get this is nice, as it proves that Cal finds her desirable as she is, not if she was thinner/taller/better, unlike Wanker David, who wouldn’t let her eat desert. But I feel this treads very close to undermining Min’s agency. I know she’s hasn’t precisely chosen the diet for herself, but equally you can’t know what’s going inside someone’s head, you can only respect their decisions as they present them to you. So if someone tells you they’re on a diet, and you respond like Mrs Doyle (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Whbc5YJz7OU), trying to get them to eat a piece of cake, or a bread roll, or whatever, then, frankly, you’re being a knob.
This is the worst analogy/comparison ever but it weirdly reminds me of the rape/non-con scene in To Have & To Hold except with food. According to the text, Rachel feels sufficiently ambivalent about what is being done to her body, and takes just enough secret pleasure in it, for it not to “count” as rape. Similarly, as Min isn’t on her diet because she wants to be and secretly wants to enjoy food, Bet Me seems to be suggesting it’s fine – and even morally right – for Cal to completely ignore her stated wishes and preferences. There’s also a lot of attention paid to how hot Min looks when she’s eating, which I think is meant to underscore how naturally sensual and passionate she is. And I get that too: women enjoying themselves look very very attractive. But it seems a little bit off, to me, to tempt someone who is worried about their weight with donuts just so you can get your rocks off.
But, y’know, better Cal than David. I do get that Cal is trying to show her that she shouldn’t be worrying about her weight. But I just think there’s a middle ground somewhere between establishing that you can admire, respect and desire someone as they are without also riding roughshod over their decisions.
But, let’s face it, this is mere quibbling. There was a lot I really liked about Bet Me, and I especially loved the way it juxtaposed reality and romance, damaging neither. When they finally get round to the sexing, Cal cheerfully ties Min to her sofa with his belt, uttering the line: “I like being in control.” Given how many hoops I’ve seen heroes jumping through in order to get a little fully consensual mild bondage happening, I feel this deserves a big thumbs up. Oh, and afterwards, he says “I normally last longer than seven minutes” which struck me as a nice change from the Wang of Infinite Stamina that seems to come as standard issue here in Romancelandia. It didn’t counteract the eroticism of the scene and I thought it was a neat little acknowledgement of the way sex is basically at its most awesome when you’re with someone you love, and is still satisfying and meaningful, even if it’s not textbook perfect.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Bet Me: chicken masala is an Italian dish as well as an Indian one, Kate Winslet is an ugly fatty, even fictional weddings are awful, my penis is less inadequate than I previously believed.