Sep 8 2008
I started reading Jennifer Crusie’s books after reading reviews on this blog and at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Until then, I’d never heard of her.
A brief history of the Crusie oeuvre: her first nine books, starting with Sizzle published in 1994, were category romances. Then came Tell Me Lies (1998) followed by five more single-title novels. In 2004 she began collaborating with Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret and the author of more than 30 books. Together they wrote Don’t Look Down (2006) and Agnes and the Hitman (2007). She also co-authored The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes with Eileen Dreyer and Anne Stuart; this is her only paranormal book.
Setting (era and geographic): Contemporary, USA
Crusie’s books are always in the here and now, set in America, and the action often takes place in small Midwestern towns. There are no exotic locations, no foreign parts, no travelogue scenes. In some of her books the insularity and peculiarity of small communities are integral plot elements, as in Manhunting, Charlie All Night, Welcome to Temptation, Tell Me Lies, and Crazy for You. In a town where everyone knows you and your business, other people’s expectations can be barriers to self-understanding and growth. And you can never escape your parents.
Occasionally those placid little towns are backdrops that mirror the ruts the protagonists find themselves in. In Crazy for You, Quinn the heroine is living with Bill, a fellow teacher. Her life is okay, very ordinary and set, but she’s vaguely dissatisfied.
Then she meets a homeless mutt. She’s got a history of rescuing strays. She knows she can’t have a pet in the apartment she shares with Bill. But when Quinn can’t figure out a better solution, she decides to keep the dog.
This one little change in her life is the falling domino that sets off a series of events: she leaves Bill, chops off her hair, buys a house, and seduces her old friend and ex brother-in-law, Nick. Her actions – her decision to "go for it" – inspire her best friend to leave her husband and Quinn’s mother to move in with her lesbian lover.
Here’s another example. In the small town of Temptation, Phin Tucker is forever getting re-elected even though he is not sure he wants to be in the Mayor for Life rut. Sophie Dempsy and her sister breeze in from the big city (Cincinnati) to make a film. Phin takes one look at her and suddenly he’s in another type of rut.
Phin’s political rival and his mother, both Pillars of the Community, warn him to stay away from the trashy "movie people." Family histories, petty rivalries, and small town politics play out in the backdrop of Phin’s growing interest in a woman he considers to be the "devil’s candy."
As Phin’s seduction of Sophie progresses, the town’s water tower, like some sort of phallic mood ring, keeps changing color. It starts out flesh-colored. Then it’s painted with cheap red paint the same day Phin and Sophie have sex for the first time. As their relationship hits a rough patch, the color on the tower starts to bleed and run. By the end of the book its rosy color reflects the HEA.
Heroine Type: Feisty, Funny, Self-Assured
Crusie’s writing reflects the trend towards romance imitating life: her heroines are not the beautiful young innocents of yore. In some of her books the "difference" of those women is an integral part of the story, and dispensing with the convention gives life to the plot. For instance, a significant age gap – older woman, younger man – is an important source of romantic conflict in Anyone But You. In Bet Me, Minerva Dobbs, the heroine, is overweight, and coming to grips with her fat is what brings the hero to his knees.
Some of Crusie’s heroines start out disabled by blows to their self-esteem – I am thinking here of Nell in Fast Women, depressed by the failure of her marriage, and Maddie in Tell Me Lies – but by the end of the book they’ve gained strength and self-assurance. Others are focused on career or some other goal (Lucy in Don’t Look Down, Allie in Charlie All Night, Kate in Manhunting, Mae in What a Lady Wants), and one is getting court-ordered therapy for her rage (Agnes in Agnes and the Hitman). All of these attributes play a part in the romantic conflict. For example, Allie is trying to turn a reluctant Charlie into a media star so she can salvage her career; Lucy is directing a film and doesn’t know that the hero, J.T., has infiltrated the set to foil terrorists. Kate is so determined to find a husband she’s made out a list of qualities, and she’s so focused on carrying out her plan she doesn’t realize the perfect guy is the one she’s been hanging out and drinking beer with.
The heroines are usually in their thirties or forties. Rocky past relationships are often key to subsequent actions; they’ve learned from past mistakes (Nell in Fast Women, Lucy in Don’t Look Down). They are upfront about their sexual needs, and the physical relationship is important to the heroine. In Strange Bedpersons it is Nick’s refusal to have sex in a parking lot (symptomatic of his buttoned-down personality) that leads Tess to split up with him. There’s no sign of that persistent, romantic double standard: approval of female virginity and admiration of male promiscuity (a.k.a. "rakishness," and for an explanation of what that’s all about, check out Laura Vivanco’s post).
Au contraire, the women in Crusie’s books are just as comfortable with their sexuality as the men. Here’s 42-year-old Nell, who’s sitting in a restaurant with her ex-husband Tim, her one-night stand Riley, her hero, Gabe (the one-night-stand’s partner), her sister-in-law Suze, and the ex-husband’s new wife, the bitch Whitney.
-Gabe poured the last of the beers and said, "What shall we drink to?"
Nell looked around and said, "Good grief. Drink to me. I just realized I’ve slept with everybody at this table."
"And God knows we appreciate it," Riley said, while Tim gawked.
"Except for Whitney, of course," Nell said.
"To Nell," Gabe said, raising his glass.
"To Nell," Riley said and drank, and Suze clinked her glass with Nell and drank, too.
Whitney tried to share a superior eye-roll with Tim, but he was staring at Nell. She turned back to Nell and leaned across the table to her, looking condescending and amused. "That’s really wild of you. Three men in what? Fifty years?"
Die, bitch, Suze thought, and said, "And me." She held up her hand, and all three men turned to her on the instant, leaving Whitney with no audience at all. Suze beamed on the table impartially. "She’s a terrific kisser. And when you consider she’s nailed three of us in less than seven months, that’s pretty good." She patted Nell’s arm, thinking, Do not tell them we only necked. This is payback time.
Gabe had already turned to Nell, a grin splitting his face. "Hello?"
"After Riley, before you," Nell told Gabe solemnly. "I don’t cheat."
-Whitney looked at them sourly. "We don’t need the details."
"Oh, sure we do," Gabe said, not taking his eyes off Nell. "Start at the beginning. What were you wearing?"
"My blue silk pajamas," said Nell. "You know, the slippery -"
"God, yes," Gabe said.
"Just the top, though," Nell lied.
"Good, good," Gabe said.
"Did you get the bottoms?" Riley said to Suze.
She shook her head. "No, I was wearing an old T-shirt."
"Not as good as the silk thing," said Riley, "but acceptable. Was there a pillow fight? You get extra points if there’s a naked pillow fight."
Hero Type: Competent, Middle-Class, Manly Men
Crusie’s protagonists are regular guys. No billionaires or chairmen of the board, sheikh, Greek, or otherwise. They are typically unambitious, attractive, and good at what they do: auto mechanic (Nick in Crazy for You), detective (Gabe in Fast Women, Mitch in What the Lady Wants), book-shop owner (Phin Tucker in Temptation), disk jockey (Charlie in Charlie All Night), resort manager (Jake in Manhunting), cop (Zack in Getting Rid of Bradley), accountant (C.L. in Tell Me Lies), soldier (J.T. in Don’t Look Down).
One character with a driving determination to succeed is Nick in Strange Bedpersons, and this is critical to the plot: his relentless ambition to make partner in his law firm is the source of conflict with his laid-back hippie girlfriend.
For the most part the heroes are content with their lives (until those lives are upended by the heroine), and this sometimes sets up the romantic conflict. For example, in Crazy for You, Nick likes his friendship with Quinn so much that he is loath to act on his sexual attraction for her. The same dynamic is at work in Anyone But You.
While they are all alpha males, none of them could be described as arrogant or overbearing. In most of the stories they approach love in typically guy fashion, which is to say, sidling up on it cautiously and ready to scuttle away at the first sign of a Cling-On female persona or the utterance of the C word (that would be commitment).
Villain Type: Believably Human
I’ve read so many complaints about unbelievably evil villains that I want to note that Crusie usually gets wrong right: except for the antagonists in Tell Me Lies, the baddies are more than just cardboard caricatures, and there’s none of the shorthand that relies on ugly prejudice, like making the villain gay. I seldom find myself wondering "Now, what’s the motivation for this dastardly deed?" Instead, the antagonists’ emotions are revealed, and while they may not be sympathetic characters, at least you understand where they’re coming from.
An example is Bill, the control freak boyfriend in Crazy for You. His point-of-view is given throughout the book as he quietly goes mad trying to get Quinn back. He stalks her, sabotages her house, hurts her dog, attacks her, and yet in the end I felt sorry for him. (This is a contrarian view, I think, as other readers have found him hateful; to me he seems deranged and pitiful.)
The beautiful, manipulative, slim Cynthie in Bet Me (she is fat Min’s foil) does what she can to derail Min and Cal’s romance, but she is nonetheless a sympathetic character. She’s in love, she wants him back, and her attempts to sabotage their relationship are just pathetic.
On the other hand, there’s the one-dimensional sniper in Don’t Look Down. What a creep. We get his point of view, and what a nasty one it is. (Spoiler alert: he’s done in by a five-year-old, the hero, and the alligator in the swamp, in that order.)
And then there are the dogs
Animals in Crusie books are comedic counterpoints to move the plot along, and they do it better than the plunging stallions found on the covers of some older romances.
The creatures are invariably losers until they have the good fortune to be taken in by the heroine. The mangy cat in Bet Me bolts inside Min’s apartment and soon learns to channel Elvis; Fred in Anyone But You is a reject from the pound who brings the hero and heroine together.
The cat is smart, but the dogs? They may have brief flashes of perception when they attack an antagonist, but the rest of the time they are charmingly stupid. Here’s an excerpt from Getting Rid of Bradley. Zack has arrived to question Lucy, who had beaten him up earlier with a physics book. She thinks he’s a mugger, slams the door on his foot, warns him she’s got vicious attack dogs, and then learns he’s a police detective.
She closed the door behind him and then opened the vestibule door, and the dogs attacked.
The big sheep dog was the first to reach him. It immediately leaned heavily against his leg, shedding all over his jeans and drooling into his shoe. The little skinny brown one draped itself over Zack’s uninjured foot and stared off into space at nothing in particular. And the one that looked like a floor mop barked at him once and then rolled over onto its back with all four short legs in the air and lay there, motionless.
"These are vicious attack dogs?"
Plot (action-oriented / character-driven): Both
Sometimes the action in the plot is so screwball comedy it seems it’s being driven by one of those miniature clown cars. In Manhunting, Kate keeps accidentally maiming her dates; in Agnes and the Hitman, Agnes has a penchant for whacking faithless lovers and anyone else who crosses her with frying pans; in Welcome to Temptation, Sophie uses her experiences with Phin to write sex scenes for the movie she and her sister are making.
Even events as unamusing as death have comical elements: a wife beans her husband with her Franciscan Desert Rose pitcher and the body is stuffed in a freezer (Fast Women); after a blackmailer who’s threatened half the town suffers a heart attack, his body is moved, run over twice, shot, and clubbed (Welcome to Temptation).
The exception is Don’t Look Down, which is more romantic-suspense-serious than any of Crusie’s previous works, with a gruesome body count and moments of angst, as when a child is lost in the swamp and later, kidnapped. This is one book that’s almost entirely action-oriented.
But the more central plot mover is the protagonists’ characters; as mentioned above, the men are often commitment-leery, getting into the relationship because of a mutual physical attraction, but not sure they want to take it any deeper. Or, the hero or heroine may fear that a perfectly good friendship will be ruined by sex. These are some of the barriers to resolution.
All these hurdles are overcome as the main characters get to know each other and as the commitophobic hero falls in love. In the beginning of What a Lady Wants, Mitch explains what it is men want:
"-the fact is, men cheat. We have to. It’s a biological imperative."
"An imperative," Mae repeated. "This would be testosterone we’re talking about here, right?"
"Well, that’s part of it. But a lot of it is just man’s need to see what’s beyond the next hill. It’s the reason men crossed the oceans, built the pipeline, opened the West-Look, there’s no point in getting upset about this. You can’t understand because you’re a woman, and women don’t think like that."
"Women don’t want to open the West?"
"No. Women want to say home and keep the East looking nice."
Mae took a deep breath as a red mist rose before her eyes. "You’re deliberately trying to make me kill you, aren’t you?"
"No." Mitch’s voice was the Voice of Reason. "This is just biology. Men need multiple breasts in their lives. Women need to make a commitment to one penis."
By the end of the book, though, it’s "No more pipeline. I’ve lost all my interest in the West. The only thing I want to explore is you."
Plot (slow / medium / fast): Medium to Fast
In Crusie’s category romances the plot moves along at a pretty fast clip, partly due to the shortage of the story (getting to HEA in 60,000 words or less). This doesn’t detract from the buildup or denouement; there’s just less detail in the subplots and fewer characters to keep track of.
The later single-title books have more action, more nuance, and more fully developed subplots, and Crusie takes more time to describe the difficulties that are keeping the lovers from resolving their conflicts.
Writing style (simple vs. ornate): Simple words, straightforward narration, showing not telling, multiple points of view
Crusie doesn’t suffer from adjectivitis, and there’s not a lot of lyrical description of settings or people. There is, instead, abundant dialogue to reveal character, and simple actions to evoke the sense of place. For example, the police chief and mayor in Temptation volunteer to fix plumbing and electrical problems for newcomers – something that could happen in an idealized small town. Bet Me takes place in a city large enough to have a yuppie bar, several restaurants, Little League teams, and apartment buildings, and we learn all this because that’s where the scenes take place.
The stories start out in the heroine’s head. When the hero arrives on scene we get his perspective, and later and to a lesser degree, that of friends, family, or antagonists. It’s given as deep point of view nearly always with the two main characters, and sometimes with ancillary characters: their thoughts accompany the dialogue and action. There’s no shifting POV from one paragraph to the next, so it’s not difficult to keep track of whose experience we are reading about; we get one head per scene.
Dialogue: (lots / little / balanced): Lots
There’s dialogue on just about every page; even the backstory often comes out in conversations.
Humor (Yes / No-serious / Some): Yes, Lots
I think what distinguishes Crusie from many other contemporary romance writers is the humor and wit that saturate her books, including, in some stories, the clever incorporation of cultural references that enhance the theme.
The sexual banter can be amusing at the same time it’s arousing, but just as funny are scenes and dialogue with friends. Here’s an example from the beginning of the long seduction of Min in Bet Me. Cal has picked her up in a bar and taken her to an Italian restaurant to win a ten-dollar bet:
"Ah, Mr. Morrisey," Emilio said, and Cal turned to meet his old roommate’s glare. "How excellent to see you again."
"Emilio," Cal said. "This is Min Dobbs." He turned back to Min. "Emilio makes the best bread in town."
"I’m sure you make the best everything, Emilio," Min said, offering him her hand. She looked up at him from under her lashes, and her wide smile quirked wickedly.
Emilio cheered up, and Cal thought, Hey, why didn’t I get that?
Emilio clasped her hand. "For you, my bread is poetry. I will bring my bread as a gift to your beauty, a poem to your lovely smile." He kissed the back of her hand, and Min beamed at him and did not pull her hand away.
"Emilio, Min is my date," Cal said. "Enough kissing already."
Min shook her head at him, with no beam whatsoever. "I’m not anybody’s date. We don’t even like each other." She turned back to Emilio, smiling again. "Separate checks, please, Emilio."
"Not separate checks, Emilio," Cal said, exasperated beyond politeness. "But a table would be good."
"For you, anything," Emilio said to Min and kissed her hand again.
Unbelievable, Cal thought, and kicked Emilio on the ankle when Min turned to look at the restaurant again. The guy was married, for Christ’s sake.
"Right this way," Emilio said, wincing, He showed them to the best table by the window, slid Min into a bentwood chair, and then stopped by Cal long enough to say under his breath, "I sent the servers home half an hour ago, you bastard."
"You’re welcome," Cal said loudly, nodding to him.
Crusie’s stories are very American, and the pop cultural references can make her humor somewhat obscure to a reader who’s not up on cult classics. In Welcome to Temptation, in which the plot revolves around the making of a movie, Sophie repeatedly uses film quotes to mask her anxiety. You’ve heard of film noir (Prizzi’s Honor, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas); you may have heard of film blanc (feel good, care bear movies). And then there’s film blank, which I characterize as comedic nonsense (Tootsie, Stripes, Young Frankenstein, Rocky Horror Picture Show). Crusie uses quotes from these movies to punctuate the dialogue, and there is an interesting progression in the book: as the quotes go from black to blank, Sophie goes from thinking Temptation is Amityville to finding it a "nice little town." In the beginning of the book it’s mostly fear and loathing and looking out for dive-bombing bats; toward the middle and at the end it’s more "Oh, you men are all alike. Seven or eight quick ones and then you’re off with the boys" (Young Frankenstein) and "This isn’t the chamber of commerce, Brad" (Rocky Horror). These scenes are funnier if you "get" the references.
For the reader with a higher brow, here’s an example of how Cruse uses the classics to heat up a seduction scene. In Crazy for You, Quinn and Nick have split up over his fear of commitment (which he expressed by rolling out of bed and suggesting they have a post-coital pizza), and he’s trying to recover:
"I did not pancake the third time." Nick came closer, blocking her off from the rest of the stage, and her pulse kicked up as she edged back until she was flat against the wall. "I may have made a small musical error and blown my dismount, but pancake, no. As I keep reminding you, you came."
"I faked it," Quinn lied.
"You did not," Nick said. "You were like wet Kleenex afterward."
"Thank you," Quinn said. "That was very romantic. You can go now."
"You liked it," he said, and she refused to meet his eyes.
"A lot." He leaned over her, his hand on the wall above her head, and she could feel herself flush, just because he was that close. "We should try it again-Want to talk Shakespeare with me?"
Quinn put as much scorn into her voice as she could. "You don’t know Shakespeare."
" "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,’ " he said. -
Quinn tried to glare at him without meeting his eyes. "Where’d you read the sonnets? They’re putting them on cereal boxes now?"
"College," Nick said. "GI Bill, remember? Business major, English minor. Good for seducing women. "The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think do there embrace.’ Be a shame if we never tried again and died not knowing."
"I can live with that."
He leaned closer, his cheek almost touching hers, and whispered in her ear, " "License my roving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, above, below.’ " His breath was warm on her skin. "Let me touch you again. Come back to me, Quinn. I’ll drive you out of your mind, I swear."
"Who was that one? I got Marvell, but not -"
"Donne. My favorite." He looked down into her eyes, so close. " "Thy firmness makes my circle just/And makes me end where I began.’ Come home with me tonight."
Finally, there is Bet Me. The story is bracketed by the classic lines of a fairy tale: it starts "Once upon a time" and ends with "They all lived happily ever after." At the heart of it, Crusie turns the Cinderella fairy tale on its head. It starts off with Cal (Prince Charming) completely unimpressed with Min, who looks like a prison warden in an ugly gray suit. He’s not interested in marriage, and neither of them are smitten. It is so not love at first sight that they spend half of the book determined to avoid each other, and when random events (or bets) throw them together, they argue – mostly about what Min is not eating. There are no ugly stepsisters; instead, there are two beautiful friends and a beautiful sister, Diana, who all think Min is wonderful and deserving of a prince. Cal brings Min a gift of open-toed, fur-lined bunny slippers – about as far from a glass slipper as you can get. When they finally make love it is on a pumpkin-colored sofa.
Bet Me has another theme: food as a metaphor for love and acceptance. Min is dieting to get into an ugly maid-of-honor dress for Diana’s wedding, and throughout the book Min’s mother nags her to stay away from carbs and butter. At the outset Min is doing her best to comply; she has a poor self-image. Then Cal persuades her to sample forbidden fruit (bread and doughnuts) and finally tells her that losing weight is misguided in a woman with her body type, and unnecessary anyway:
"The truth is, most guys would rather go to bed with you than with a coat hanger, you’re a lot more fun to touch, but most women don’t believe that. You keep trying to lose weight for each other."
Min rolled her eyes. "So I’ve been sexy all these years? Why hasn’t anybody noticed?"
"Because you dress like you hate your body," Cal said. "Sexy is in your head and you don’t feel sexy so you don’t look it."
"Then how do you know I am?" Min said, exasperated.
"Because I’ve looked down your sweater," Cal said, flashing back to that. "And I’ve kissed you, and I have to tell you, your mouth is a miracle. Now eat something."
At the same time Cal is accepting Min as she is and trying to get her to eat what she wants, Diana’s fiancé Greg is failing to provide food. He’s supposed to order the wedding cake, but doesn’t; he’s supposed to bring wine to a family dinner, but forgets; he’s supposed to arrange for the rehearsal supper, and neglects to do so. Each time this happens Min and Cal save the day. Greg doesn’t love Diana.
Emotional Angst (high / medium / low): Low to Medium
In the romance realm, any tension derives from conflict resolution on the road to the happy ending, and each emotional moment should lead to change. We expect the protagonists to stay in character at the same time they are growing. When they do fall in love it shouldn’t be irrational or the result of a deux ex affecta (the emotional equivalent of a deux ex machina).
Emotional moments in Crusie have very little bathos. Changes can be painful or difficult, but never as emotionally wrenching as what is found in works by Laura Kinsale, for example; and they makes sense in the context of the characters’ development.
In Tell Me Lies, Maddie lives according to others’ expectations, and she covers up for her husband for fear of what others will think. When her daughter, distraught because of her father’s death, accuses her of being a liar, Maddie has an epiphany that lets her move forward with healthier relationships.
Then there’s the final revelation in Welcome to Temptation. Sophie’s going to marry Phin and they’ll have four thousand useless Tucker for Mayor – More of the Same posters, since he has decided not to run again. That’s when she sees her destiny:
She’d have two years to get to know everybody in town. That was only about two thousand people; she could do that. And she could make a difference, she was good at making people do what she wanted. She was born to make people do what she wanted.
"My God," she said, as the full meaning of her family’s legacy for lying, cheating, and scheming hit her.
She was born to be a politician.
To paraphrase a famous quote from the movie A League of Their Own: There is no crying in Crusie.
Conflict (externally-driven / internally-driven / both): Both
Crusie has "opposites attract" as a set up for the romantic conflict. Min is an actuary, Cal is a risk taker; Phin is respectable, Sophie is not; Kate is focused, Jake is laid-back; Gabe is a slob, Nell is orderly.
The internal conflict is often due to the protagonists’ insecurities and uncertainties: Min thinks she is unattractive because she is overweight; Sophie is the low-class "daughter of a thousand felons" from a family with a tradition of con artistry; Nell is shattered by the end of what she had thought was a good marriage.
In some of the books, external conflict comes from family and friends. In Tell Me Lies, Maddie has ample reason to divorce her cheating husband, but her mother tries to guilt her out of it. In Bet Me, Min’s mother tries to keep her away from fattening food, her friend Liza tries to keep her away from Cal, and her ex-boyfriend David sets up the bet that creates all the trouble. In Welcome to Temptation, family members try to sabotage Sophie and Phin’s relationship.
Heat level (kisses / warm / hot / scorching): Hot
The sex scenes are funny and hot. The buildup of interest may be long or short – it varies from months (Fast Women) to mere days (Welcome to Temptation) – but it’s always the culmination of some funny verbal foreplay. Here’s an example from Manhunting:
"Are you playing pool tonight with me or not?"
"Yes," Kate said. "But I’m going to win."
"Oh?" Jake looked amused. "And what makes you think that?"
Kate batted her eyes at him once. "I’m not going to wear any underwear."
Jake looked at her for a moment and then pulled his hat back over his face. "Me neither," he said.
There isn’t a lot of explicit description. We get the woman’s perspective, what she’s thinking and feeling, and then we get post-coital comedy.
Here’s later on in Manhunting, after sex in an old rowboat out on a lake:
Gradually she realized there was something wrong.
"Jake, have you noticed the wet spot is bigger than usual?"
"Jake, I’m all wet."
"I don’t care," he said into her neck. "I’m not making love to you again tonight. I have to be able to walk around tomorrow."
"Not that kind of wet." She pushed him off her and sat up. "The boat is leaking."
"What?" He put his hand between the cushions where her hip had been. The boat was filling with water. "I knew I heard something crack a while back. I thought it was my spine. Thank God, it’s just the boat."
"Just the boat?" Kate grabbed her tank top and pulled it on over her head.
"I was wrong." He lay back against the cushions, exhausted and happy. "You’re not going to kill me with sex. You’re going to drown me."
"Jake, the boat is going down."
"So did you." He smiled at her in the moonlight. "Have I mentioned that was great?"
She grabbed the front of his shirt and shook him. "Jake!"
He sat up slowly. "What do you want me to do? Sing "Nearer, My God, to Thee’?"
If you like Jennifer Crusie, you’ll like-
Crusie at her best is incomparable.
This is true of other great romance authors as well, but they are incomparable in other ways. I read Janine’s description of Laura Kinsale’s novels as I was writing this, and was continually reminded of the famous Monty Python line: And now for something completely different! Kinsale is uniquely excellent, but her work could not be more different from Jennifer Crusie’s.
The closest I’ve found to Crusie is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Match Me If You Can and Natural Born Charmer, in particular, are very similar in tone, treatment, and story arc. She incorporates comedy, interesting subplots, great friendships, and well-developed characters in contemporary stories that are set in the American heartland.
Mr. Perfect, by Linda Howard, has got some wonderful give and take between an assertive heroine and a cop. But it gets less and less funny as sympathetic characters are killed off.
Nora Roberts is another author who melds wit and humor with hot romance, but her later novels are more romantic-suspense than Crusie’s; there’s likely to be a murder plot driving the action, often a loathsome serial killer, and that can be a real downer. Probably the closest to Crusie are the stories about the Quinn brothers: Sea Swept, Rising Tides, Inner Harbor, and Chesapeake Blue.
I recently started reading Rob Byrnes, who writes m/m romance. When the Stars Come Out is a lighthearted, charming book about the difficulties of being who you are in a world where people expect you to be someone else. It’s more sweet than erotic.
For more in the sweet, not particularly hot line, there is Susan Wiggs. She writes contemporaries as well as historical romances. Her Lakeshore Chronicles are set in a small town and tell the story of connected families.
Suzanne Brockmann writes hilarious romantic suspense with unconventional heroes (in the sense that they may be short, balding, older, gay, or otherwise different from the usual) and heroines who kick ass and take names.
Janet Evanovich has the same sort of comedic outlook as Crusie, I am told, but she’s been hit or miss for me. I couldn’t get into the Plum line, but read Metro Girl and liked it. Then, unfortunately, I picked up Love Overboard (one of her older categories), got to the part where it is revealed that the heroine is an ex-cop in her thirties and still a virgin, soldiered on, got to the part where "her doodah started to hum a little tune," and could not go on. The magic was gone. So if anyone can suggest other books of hers that are funny but doodah-less, I’d like to know the titles.
Improper English by Katie MacAlister has some high comedy, a hot romance, a wonderful hero, and a not so wonderful heroine. The humor devolves into slapstick at times, but I’d give some of her other books a go.
Blame It on Paris by Jennifer Greene was recently reviewed here by Jayne, and while I haven’t read the book, it sounds like fun.
Smart Mouth and Heiress for Hire by Erin McCarthy are funny contemporaries; most of her other books are paranormals, and don’t work as well for me.
If you, gentle reader, have any other ideas, I’d like to hear them.