Nina Askew is forty, divorced, and, much to her surprise, the proud mother of a depressed beagle/basset hound named Fred. She wanted a perky puppy; Fred’s idea of perky is eating Oreos. Then one night, Fred brings home Alex Moore, the smart, funny, handsome doctor who lives below Nina. Alex is everything a woman could want — and ten years younger than Nina. He’s used to perky, silicone-enhanced bodies. Nina has discovered that gravity can be very cruel, indeed. Despite her long list of reasons why Alex is a Bad Idea, Nina discovers that she doesn’t want anyone but him.
Jennifer Crusie’s beloved Anyone But You was originally released in 1996. HQN has re-released this classic title in hardcover this month. I fell madly in love with the book when I first read it, and was pleased to know that my memory didn’t fail me. It is a rare romance that stands the test of time — it is even rarer for a category romance to rise above the sheer volume of titles released every month. That so many of Jennifer Crusie’s titles are remembered fondly is a testament to her skill as a writer and storyteller.
But enough about me. Let’s talk about the book:
[Kassia opens with one straight over the plate] Before we begin, I should note that I’m filling HelenKay’s very cute shoes, or at least the right one (she’s going to kill me when she realizes it’s gone). This is not easy, and I’m sure she’ll pop in to gently correct our analysis, but until she does…
First question — we recently discussed the decline of category romance with me taking the position that there is indeed hope for the sub-genre. We also agreed that short is not an excuse for crap. And, sadly, we agreed that books produced to be treated as disposable entities are necessarily going to be short on the qualities that make for great stories.
That being said, despite Harlequin’s best efforts, sometimes something good slips through. Anyone But You, for example. Did this book make you a believer in the potential of category romance?
[Wendy singles straight up the middle] I’ve always believed in category romance. Sadly, I haven’t always found category romances that justify that belief. Too often I’ve read titles from Harlequin’s lines and thought, "it was okay, for category," and more often than that, I’ve needed to stop midway through a read to look at the jacket copy for a refresher on the heroine’s name. On the rare occasions when something, as you say, slips through, I wonder: Who blinked? Category writers take a lot of knocks for what is published in series romance. Some of those knocks are well deserved (if you write about thirty year-old virgins, sorry, but you’re asking to be eviscerated), however the lion’s share of the responsibility belongs to the publisher. Harlequin treats their releases as throwaways; the editing is poor (not just grammar but continuity), February’s cover models will likely show up on May’s covers as well, titles are recycled to the point where it’s impossible to identify an author by the title of one of her books, and ongoing series such as the Texas Cattlemen’s Club strain credibility with both premise and duration. At this point are there men in Texas who aren’t part of the club?
Like many other readers, category has, time and again, been my entry into romance. The first romance I ever read was a category and after pretentiously thinking I’d outgrown the genre, I returned to romance with a Mills and Boon category. The principle of category—short works that focus exclusively on the emerging love story—fills a role in my reading repertoire. When I reach for series romance, I do not want to forgo quality for quick.
Anyone But You is all that I would ever ask of a category release in that it doesn’t read like category or feel disposable. There is no sense of carelessness in the writing; Crusie put thought into her choices and took risks. Therefore the urge to qualify the quality with a category curve never comes. Yes, there is some familiarity here, but not the utter predictability or the sense that, "Gee, I’ve read this before, but the characters had different color hair then."
In the pantheon of Crusie’s career, Anyone But You isn’t her best work. It’s less sharp, less fine-tuned than her later books, but nonetheless it’s good.
[k2 tries a curveball] I’m not so opposed to thirty-year old virgins, but I scream when they’re sex therapists. Like any other personal choice that is made an issue in the story, virginity needs to be part of the character. Despite the move toward sexier romance, I’m not sure that romance authors are entirely comfortable with heroines who embrace their sexuality — sure there are some exceptions, but sometimes I feel like the "good girls don’t" attitude prevails (this does have something to with the story, I’m sure of it)
This book remains a classic because Crusie put effort into building the story. She wasn’t writing a disposable story. I wish her publisher took that to heart. I have long maintained that the romance structure is like the haiku structure: it’s what you do with it. This story contains a series of category touchstones — I think readers of all stripes like a certain level of familiarity — but twists them. In this book, however, Crusie breaks so-called rules left and right (hello, alcoholism as a family disease? Not wanting kids?), but my favorite is the story’s central plot.
Older women, younger men romances are relatively rare in the romance genre. This wasn’t the first time I encountered this plot element in category (or any other sub-genre), but I think it was handled especially well. Romance heroines are so often gorgeous beyond belief, and I guess I get the fantasy, but it was/is refreshing to encounter a woman who actually does have something to worry about when she’s naked. Did you find this plotline convincing, compelling, refreshing, or other? If it didn’t work, why not?
[WD gets tough] Nina’s body issues were one of my favorite parts of the book. As you point out, romance heroines come from a sea of genes marked by, not simply beauty, but perfection. The standard issue heroine walks around with c-cup, teardrop shaped breasts, a flat stomach, and shapely yet slender hips. So why would that woman fear taking off her clothes?
Nina’s age brings her body image into sharp focus. She is aware of how she looks, plus, at forty, she is obsessively aware of how she looks now versus how she looked ten years ago. To exacerbate her insecurities, Nina knows—or assumes—the women Alex usually sees naked aren’t yet victims to changing hormones or gravity.
Nina’s refusal to take off her bra with the lights on, actually forced me to put down the book and think: If I were in Nina’s position, what would it be like to get naked with someone new? The last time I took my clothes off in front of someone for the first time (that someone is now my husband) I was 21, likely drunk, and a wisp of a girl who didn’t have first-hand knowledge of cellulite. Things are different now, and like Nina, the very idea of disrobing for a new person strikes fear in me; I would agonize over it, want the lights off, and probably insist on pointing out that, "My butt used to be higher and not so wide."
Aside from striking a personal chord in me, I saw Nina’s body issues as groundwork for a later Crusie heroine, Min Dobbs. Comparing the two heroines—on this point only—my sense is that Crusie tested out the insecurity issue in Anyone But You and then completely spread her wings in Bet Me.
Several years ago, an aunt gave me a scratchy recording of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks from a pre-Fleetwood Mac club performance. Listening to that recording was a bit like holding a live wire because, there, in those original songs were melodies and structures that were rough drafts of what would go on to be some of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits. In comparing the old song to their final incarnations you can watch the progression of the duo’s creative process; they took what worked and gave it a supportive structure and tossed away what wasn’t quite right. I was reminded of that old recording as I read Anyone But You. Crusie’s artistic growth from here to Bet Me is clear; she’s honed her craft, figured out her strong suits and played to them, and discarded the boundaries she played within here. Do you appreciate this novel solely for its stand alone value? Or, do you also appreciate where it falls in the catalogue of Crusie’s work?
[k2 sits down on the mound and thinks] Yeah, I think the fact that Nina is a real woman is what makes her a memorable character. Look at our society. Real women can’t compete with airbrushed images. Sheer perfection in any form is, frankly, boring. Nina has physical imperfections and bad moods. Alex does stupid things. They say the wrong things sometimes.
Your analogy is a good one — there’s something really raw in an artist’s early work (I was reminded of hearing "So. Central Rain" live, pre-studio time), and it’s fascinating to see how they build on strengths and develop a distinctive style. For me, this was the book that moved Crusie up several notches on my reading scale. This wasn’t the same old story, the same old characters, the same old conflict. That’s not to say that Crusie wasn’t coloring outside the lines before this book, but I felt like she (pardon the expression) turned a corner. In my mind, she became a more fearless writer with this story.
I get the sense that Jennifer Crusie is a writer who isn’t afraid to take a chance and fail. That’s something missing in so much of today’s romance: risk.
One thing that Crusie does particularly well is secondary characters. So often, if a secondary character shows even a spark of interestingness, that’s because the author is seeing sequel stars in her eyes. To the best of my knowledge, the only time Crusie has done this is with Davy Dempsey, the bad boy from my favorite Welcome to Temptation.
I felt that characters such as Charity, Max, Alex’s off-the-page sister, and even the upstairs neighbor’s boyfriend played integral parts in this story and added depth. Am I off base here?
[WD realizes she’s not into sports anyway and sits down, too] Ah, Davy Dempsey. Let’s agree to set time aside for a future discussion on the Dempsey family.
Yes, Charity and Max do add depth to the story. They aren’t the full bodied, three dimensional secondary characters Crusie would grow into (once again, see Davy Dempsey), but they help move along Nina and Alex’s story without the typical meddlesome tactics. Both Charity and Max are interesting—even if Max’s attitude toward women is a bit clichéd—and it’s clear, as a possible couple, they were not being groomed for their own book. Knowing Charity and Max’s story hadn’t been written, allowed me to be more invested in Charity. Odd and seemingly backwards, yes. Often secondary characters, like Charity, with a history littered with men are toned down to be good and likeable for their own story. When I knew Charity’s history wouldn’t later be explained away with "people think I’ve slept with all these men, but it’s just a front, none of it’s true," I felt more compelled by her.
Here at PBR, we’ve received an email or two from authors basically saying, "it’s only romance, you weren’t supposed to pick it apart." Is the subtext there: it’s romance, it’s ok if it’s bad? As a reader, bad isn’t ok with me. Poor craft isn’t ok with me. Secondary characters that do not have purpose or further the plot are not ok with me. I’ve always admired Crusie for her obvious dedication to craft. I love her voice, like you, I recognize her risk taking, but it’s the way she employs the building blocks of storytelling that most captivate me. Her work is a clear demonstration that: yes, you can pull it apart and find the steps of the hero’s journey; funny doesn’t have to be a throwaway; and romance needn’t be bad to succeed.
Now that I’ve gushed about Crusie’s craft, I need to say that there is a large misstep in Anyone But You in the amount of action that takes place off the page. For example, Alex’s birthday with family members didn’t pay off with actual scenes of Alex and family. That could be dismissed as a page limitation constraint. However, between the emotional climax of the book, when Nina and Alex finally have sex, and the black moment when Alex and his father announce they’ve purchased a house for Nina and Alex, too much of what Alex goes through (his actions, the decisions he makes, the person he turns into) happen without giving the reader the opportunity to follow along. Am I making too much of this? Did I miss the subtlety here?
[k2 checks the runner at first, decides the conversation is more interesting] Oooh, a Dempsey Date. Can’t wait. Here is what I say to those who say it’s only romance: You’re wrong.
Do mystery writers say, "It’s only a mystery — who cares if we don’t solve it logically?" Do science fictions writers say, "It’s only sci-fi; world-building doesn’t matter?" It’s fiction and treating the book like it’s something to be thrown away shows serious disrespect to millions of readers (many of whom are educated, smart women). I believe we need more serious examination of craft and characterization and plotting and storytelling and the whole shebang. If you want to be treated as serious fiction, you first have to take your genre seriously.
Soapbox tucked away for the moment. I use it a lot, so I never put it into a closet.
I’m glad you made the point of noting the tendency toward toning down a character’s uniqueness to make her "likeable" (these don’t count as air quotes, do they?). I really resent it when a great character gets all her rough edges honed to fit the heroine mold. It’s like we have a new character who closely resembles, but isn’t, the original. This may be the root of my sequel problem — boring characters. Who said that romance heroines have to be so ridiculously good all the time?
I was all geared up for the missed opportunities discussion, and you beat me to it. The missing scenes really leaped out at me with this reading — maybe they did before as well, I don’t recall. While I believe this was largely a function of page count, I find now that skipping what I believe are pivotal moments shortchanges this story.
Length really does this story a disservice; though I’m not a fan of the rewritten book (while I understand the desire, I think it’s generally bad for the story. See: Catherine Coulter.), I am almost anxious to see what Crusie could have done with more story. Almost. Really exploring her secondary characters would be a great thing. Leaving some mystery, of course, is also an art. It allows the reader to create her own stories as well.
It also leaves the reader with some logical gaps that would make for a richer story. We learn that Alex (and Max) think they’re drinking too much. Alex has unhappily embarked on a career path that he thinks will make Nina happy. I wanted to see this drinking affecting him on a personal level rather than being told he’s pushing the edge of "I’m Okay." By pulling us into the tension he’s creating, a tension that is primarily due to his own blindness, we would have a much stronger sense of conflict in their relationship.
And, yes, I would have been thrilled to read a series of vignettes about Alex’s birthday. His father was a big presence, but not so much in the story. Interestingly, Crusie went into Nina’s personal life much more than she did Alex’s — with Nina, we saw her at work and with Charity. With Alex, not quite as much. It’s not about missing the subtlety, it’s about missing character progression. It’s funny, but I’ve been reading a lot of more literary fiction by women where the big moments in the story are skipped in favor of the moments in between the big moments — missing major story developments is a letdown.
And it might be the biggest failing of category in general. So often the story requires more space, more time, but more space won’t fit into the Harlequin shipping boxes. Yet the story isn’t quite a single title, either. My New Year’s wish is that word count should be secondary to story at Harlequin, with the knowledge that the books are short by design.
Speaking of Alex, in many ways, he’s a typical Crusie hero — rebellious in a patrician sort of way, laid back, smart and funny, into dogs — but he is ten years younger than the heroine. You don’t see this often in any fiction. Does Alex work in this story? Does the younger man fantasy work?
[WD realizes she’s about to hit a home run, smiles] Rebellious patricians, that’s perfect. Crusie’s heroes are frequently trying to break free of family or expectation. It’s a more subtle journey for a character, but grounded in reality. Alex struggles against what his family would like for him versus what he wants for himself. As character arcs go, that doesn’t have the bells and whistles of an action driven story, nevertheless it’s relatable and hence believable.
The younger man angle is definitely a risk. HelenKay and I recently read a novella set around the thirteen year age difference between a young hero and older heroine. In that case the hero was very young (early twenties) and I found his declarations of love-and-forever difficult to accept because of his youth. Alex, however, is thirty and comes off as a mostly fully-formed human being; he’s flawed, of course, but that only makes him more interesting.
The age difference between Nina and Alex does work because of the practical fears Crusie allows her characters to have. Alex worries that Nina thinks of him as a kid and is intimidated by the life she had with her older, more successful ex-husband. Nina is hyper aware of her forty year old body, doesn’t want to be the wife-of-so-and-so again, and believes Alex deserves someone who’s not a "retread" model. Those are not the standard category conflicts (or usual single title conflicts for that matter) that keep characters apart, those fears and worries are grounded in reality; they are believable. The ten years between Nina and Alex also creates a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between them and it’s one that hasn’t been done over and over and over again.
Is there a younger man fantasy?
[k2, confusing soccer with baseball, feels good about her athletic skill] I have heard tell of a younger man fantasy — they’re so cute before they get beaten down by life. I keep telling the husband that when his warranty expires, I’m getting someone with fewer miles. I didn’t expect him to wear out so quickly. The trick will be get the perfect younger man to buy the house next door because there’s no way that I have the stamina to face the dating world. I can’t imagine a single scenario where the experience could have improved. Dating should be banned in a civilized world.
I think you’ve hit on something key here — everyday, real conflicts tend to be overlooked in favor of "big" conflict. The problem with big conflicts is that they require a lot of skill and imagination to make them feel natural. I know you didn’t warm to Lois McMaster Bujold (I will not give up on this!), but if you get the chance, at least read Chapter Nine (and the surrounding chapters!) of A Civil Campaign — again, a normal, realistic setting: a dinner party. You’ve had dinner parties, and something always goes wrong. Bujold keeps piling on the disasters, but in a way that makes the reader cringe in recognition. You know how it’s going to end, yet it’s a surprise anyway.
Overcrowded space leading to crockpot accidents, voyeuristic dogs, fear of losing your job, finding a career that satisfies you, not your parents — these are the things of real life. I’m not suggesting that bigger-than-life conflict doesn’t have a place in romance, but sometimes it’s given short shrift because the book has inherent limitations (such as length). Domestic fiction is a perjorative applied to romance, but I think domestic matters make for powerful conflict. At least if my family is any gauge…
This is not Crusie’s best book, but it more than stood the test of time and cynicism — which made me very happy — and I think it shows how good romance can be when the author says "Rules? We have rules?"
While I would never speak for Wendy, I will say that this is the rare category worth the price of a hardcover. Which is good as HQN chose to reissue it in that format. The cover is much improved and the reading is excellent — what more can you ask?