Aug 9 2013
It’s not suddenly you, it’s suddenly me – Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Suddenly You. The words are arranged on the page in a perfectly reasonable way. Some of them form entertaining or otherwise vivid conjunctions. There are characters, who seem perfectly nice. There is a beginning, a middle and an end that is happy. I suspect, if it’s the sort of thing you like, then it would be a charming example of the thing that you like.
Our heroine Pippa is a MILF in vintage glasses. Our hero, Harry, is a man with tattoos who works as a car mechanic. Pippa briefly dated Harry’s mate, Obnoxious Steve (this is not his actual name, I mean, his name is Steve, it’s just not Obnoxious Steve, but it should be) during which time he impregnated her, dumped her and then screwed her out of child support. Harry and Pippa encounter each other by chance when Pippa’s car breaks down. He fixes her car. She gives him beer. He then fixes her ceiling. So she cooks him dinner. Then they have sex. Then they settle down together.
It’s honestly the first time I’ve read a romance and genuinely felt like the genre wasn’t for me. Even books I haven’t particularly enjoyed, I’ve been able to understand on some level, and I had an idea of what they were doing, or trying to do, and why they were doing it. Even, for that matter, Bared To You. I mean, I totally get the dominant, messed up billionaire fantasy, I just had issues with certain aspects of the execution. But Suddenly You was completely alien to me, in every conceivable way. My initial thought was actually that it was a gender thing but that just depressed the heck out of me because it’s such a lazy, essentialising explanation. And then I realised that plenty of my dude friends want to settle down and have kids and a picket fence, and plenty of my female ones want to drink, shag and party until the artificial hip gives out … so it’s not actually about gender. It comes down, basically, to values.
I completely respect the right of anybody to read, write, and enjoy books about nice women who meet nice men who fix their ceilings, but there was nowhere for me in Suddenly You. I mean, Pippa was … well … nice? I admired her for her commitment to her daughter, her cheerful disposition and her natural kindness. I enjoyed her colourful underwear. I would probably shag her. But, and I feel bad for saying this, she didn’t interest me at all. I vaguely wanted her to be happy but I feel like that about most people, and it’s not really enough motivation to get me through a book about them.
Harry, similarly, seemed like a nice guy. But I don’t really daydream about nice guys coming to, ahem, tweak my motor, and I’m the sort of man who pays other people to fix his car and repair his ceilings. Not because I’m too good to get my hands dirty but because it bores the crap out of me, and I’m happy to have reached a stage in my life where my masculinity, or worth, is no longer directly reflected by my interest in cars or DIY. I do, however, construct furniture like a boss.
The problem is, not really being that interested in the characters, or particularly wanting to bang them, left me with no spaces of either fantasy or identification. And I know settling down together with a kid is kind of the implied endpoint of most romances anyway but there’s a difference between potential future and literal HEA. I think Suddenly You is meant to be a quiet, everyday domestic kind of fantasy, and I can see why that’s appealing. I think most of us have some deep, primal longing for a place and person (or people) to call home. But, for me, it simply can’t be like this, and I’m not sure I’d want it to be. And I know I’m not the target audience, so that’s kind of fine, but at the same time it did mean I spent this novel sitting on the doorstep, looking sad.
There were, however, some aspects of Suddenly You that I sort of enjoyed. I quite liked Pippa – she was clearly admirable, but not implausibly perfect, navigating the treacherous waters of personal pride and financial vulnerability. Harry was, you know, okay too. I liked his relationship with his father and, for that matter, his relationship with Obnoxious Steve which frays at the edges and almost, but not quite, falls over when they have to have a discussion about something that really matters. That’s pretty much how friendship goes, for some dudes at least. Obnoxious Steve is, well, obnoxious but it has a vague basis in recognisable human frailty, so he’s not really ever what you’d call a proper villain. I quite like romances without obvious villains, just people in various states of mess, not quite getting past their mess sufficiently to calculate the impact of that mess on the messes of other people. I think there’s often something banally tragic and real in that.
The humour, on the other hand, was pretty hit and miss for me. There’s stuff like this, which frankly just made me a cringe a bit:
“How have you been, Harry? How’s Hogwarts going? Cast any good spells lately?” The Harry Potter/ Porter jokes had gotten old around the time Ms. Rowling had made her second billion […]
“Made some underwear disappear the other night, if that’s what you mean.”
She laughed appreciatively. “Dirty dog.” (p. 9)
It’s not quite up there (or do I mean down there) with the precum hilarity of Painted Faces but I was still a bit, um, why are you laughing appreciatively Pippa? Does a remark like that really merit it? On the other hand, there’s a bit where Harry apparently gets a raging boner at the top of a ladder while doing his ceiling fixing thing, and it turns out to actually be a tube of filler in his pocket. This just amused the heck out of me because I’m often quite bewildered by the way romance heroes will spring spontaneous and unflagging erections at wildly inconvenient times, just because the heroine is vaguely in their vicinity.
But there were other bits of Suddenly You that just left me completely bewildered and on the borderline of uncomfortable. There’s this, for example:
Unlike many of the women in her mothers’ group, she had been unsuccessful at breast-feeding. A series of infections and an inadequate milk supply led her paediatrician to recommend bottle-feeding Alice when her daughter was barely a month old. Consequently, Pippa wasn’t nearly as casual about flinging her breasts around as some of her friends. To her, they were about sex and intimacy, not sustenance. (p. 42)
Okay, look, I’m not a breastfeeding expert but this strikes me as just plain mean. I’m aware that sexy is not really high on the agenda when you’ve got an infant attached to your nipple but I know plenty of women who have breastfed their children and nevertheless either retained or reclaimed their bodies for sex and intimacy. It’s not an either/or. And breastfeeding sort of requires women to “fling” their breasts around by necessity, so if you didn’t move to a space of feeling relatively casual about it, I suspect you’d get pretty miserable pretty quickly, but this does not de-value the boob. A breast is a breast, you know, it doesn’t matter how many people have seen it, and under what circumstances.
I just felt that this was the text going out of its way to somewhat uncharitably emphasise that Pippa is the hot, bangable sort of mom, not the sort who heaven forefend, ever had stretch marks or leaking nipples. Let’s face it, there’s not all that much about motherhood that’s conventionally sexy. A lot of the time – as far as I’ve seen – it’s just physically and emotionally demanding, but it doesn’t mean you permanently stop being a sexual, or sexually desirable, person.
And the portrayal of Alice, Pippa’s child, struck me as similarly timorous. I know about as much about children as I do about breast feeding, but I have a goddaughter and, honestly, I love her beyond human reckoning, but there’s no getting away from the fact she was a fucking monster when she was tiny. Babies, when they’re yours, are – as far as I’m concerned – vulnerable and ugly and furious and terrifying and beautiful. They’re a pile of constantly leaking, constantly needy human flesh. With tiny, perfect toenails. We’re told that Alice is occasionally cranky and throws up, but on the page she’s usually desperately, desperately convenient. She’s quiet and smiley, she has a gummy thumb and big eyes, and when she cries it’s only ever after Pippa and Harry have finished having sex. She even facilitates sexual tension by unbuttoning Pippa’s clothes at apposite moments:
Then Harry lifted his gaze to hers and realized he’d been busted. Dull color stained his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s just … your dress …” He gestured toward her chest, his gaze trained resolutely over her shoulder now.
She glanced down and discovered that the top two buttons of her bodice were undone, offering him an untrammeled view of her deep red bra and a whole lot of cleavage. (p.41)
Seriously, if I thought having a kid was even remotely like this, I’d have four or five. And you might say Pippa has just been inordinately fortunate, some children are just angelic and my goddaughter happens to be a goblin changeling but according to her mothers she’s pretty standard for the breed. And, here’s the thing, being a raging wildling has in no way detracted from the fact she’s still the human I love most on the planet. Again, it’s really not my place to judge but I just sort of felt that Suddenly You was presenting me with, well, the child equivalent of margarine: baby-lite, if you will.
And maybe that’s the nature of this fantasy: a child who never gets in the way of your bonking, but, for me, my fantasies need an edge of reality to let me truly lose myself in them. I don’t think children need to be shot in soft-focus to entrance us. I don’t think women are any less desirable, or beautiful, for being mothers. I wouldn’t have thought any less of Pippa if she’d flung her breasts about, or less of Alice if she’d occasionally been arbitrarily monstrous. I think, in all honesty, I’d have liked them more.
Because of this, I felt a bit dubious of Harry’s conversion to the pleasures of domestic life with Pippa, since the domestic life he’s being offered seems to be nothing remotely like the reality of being responsible for a small human being. I feel bad that I didn’t like Suddenly You more. I got the sense that it was probably a very likeable book. And it’s certainly mostly harmless. It’s just so completely and utterly not for me that I almost feel writing about it is actively unfair, like asking a non-drinker to review a bottle of wine. So, please, take this piece not as criticism of Suddenly You – or as denigration of particularly fantasies, values or preferences - but as a reflection of the way our personal tastes, preferences and lifestyle choices inform our responses to texts and, occasionally, exclude us from them.
Everything I learned about Life & Love from reading Suddenly You: babies are lovely human beings who helped you get laid. Shopping trips are less boring if you know your partner is wearing lacy underwear. Just because it’s a tube of filler in his pocket, doesn’t mean he’s not pleased to see you.
Housekeeping: Just to let you all know, I’m off on holiday (yay), so there won’t be any articles for the next two weeks. I’m also going to take this as a small opportunity to take stock of where I am in my reading and indulge myself shamelessly by re-visiting some of my favourite authors while I’m lounging in cafes and dashing between venues up in Edinburgh. So, on my return, there’s going to be a brief flurry of Laura Kinsale, Loretta Chase, JD Robb, Suzanne Brockmann and Nalini Singh. And then normal service will resume with Julie James and Cecilia Grant. Have fun, I’ll miss you and see you on the other side.