Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

betme.jpgMinerva Dobbs knows that happily-ever-after is a fairy tale, especially with a man who asked her to dinner to win a bet. Even if he is gorgeous and successful Calvin Morrisey. Cal knows commitment is impossible, especially with a woman as cranky as Min Dobbs. Even if she does wear great shoes, and keep him on his toes. When they say good-bye at the end of their evening, they cut their losses and agree never to see each other again.

But Fate has other plans, and it’s not long before Min and Cal meet again. Soon, they’re dealing with a jealous ex-boyfriend, Krispy Kreme donuts, a determined psychologist, chaos theory, a freakishly intelligent cat, Chicken Marsala, and more risky propositions than either of them ever dreamed of. Including the biggest gamble of all-true love.

Wendy:  The spine of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, identifies the work as a novel—not a romance—and in my local behemoth bookstore, the work is shelved in the literature section.  That’s fine, St. Martin’s can call Bet Me whatever they like and Borders can stick it with the graphic novels if they so choose, but none of that changes this book from what it is—a romance.  And it’s the best contemporary romance I’ve read since…the last Jennifer Crusie novel I read.

Crusie is a smart and deft writer who effortlessly wields subtext and draws the reader in with the deception of simplicity all the while layering and weaving a complex story.  Her dialog is razor sharp and witty, forcing every turn of the page and wringing out emotion for characters that are richly drawn, yet humanly flawed.  Or, as Crusie writes when the hero of the novel, Cal Morrisey, attempts to describe his future love interest Min, “She’s a good woman, apart from her rage.”

The engine that drives Bet Me is, of all things, a bet.  Crusie maneuvers the story right up to this predictable romance cliché, dares the reader to follow what could be a reheated telling of this construct, then veers off the oft traveled path.  Where other romances have wrung a plot from a bet truly made by one party and unknown by the other, leading to an obvious black moment of revelation and betrayal, Crusie’s bet is overheard by the heroine, Min, but actually not made by the hero, Cal.  While the bet is the ticking clock of the book, it is not the central conflict, but rather one of many.  Here again, Crusie layers conflict (both internal and external) upon conflict onto her characters. Cal and Min face scheming exes, well meaning friends, their respective histories, their families, and finally each other on the road to love.

The book’s true charm lies in its look at the modern day fairytale; the book starts with Once upon a time and ends with, They all lived happily ever after.  Along the way any number of theories (the previously mentioned fairytales, modern psychology, and even chaos theory) as to why two people come together and stay together are laid bare and abandoned as Cal and Min come together seemingly because the Universe would have it so.

Bet Me’s pacing makes it nothing short of impossible to put down, despite a plot that is slightly thin.  If there is a complaint to register against this book, it is that one of the last scenes of the novel swerves from the otherwise intelligent and fresh storytelling, to trod down a too-familiar path wherein every character in the book (or so it seems) shows up at Min’s house to confirm the consummation of Min and Cal’s union.

The charming storytelling and organic humor more than make up for the book’s minor imperfections.  This book has scenes filled with laugh-out-loud dialog – like this exchange between Min and her mother: “No carbs,” her mother called after her as she went into the dressing room.  And no butter.”  “I know you stole me from my real parents,” Min called back.  “They’d let me eat butter,” – and ends with a conclusion that isn’t forgone, one which the characters must fight through obstacles to reach and ultimately leaves the reader satisfied.

HelenKay:  Like Wendy, I finally found this book in the literature section at Barnes & Noble.  Thanks to an alphabetically-challenged clerk, Bet Me  was right next to The Stranger by Albert Camus.  It’s hard to imagine two books, or two authors, who are more different.  Shelving Bet Me outside of the romance area, while probably part of some overall promotion plan, is a mistake.  Bet Me is a romance.  Not just a romance, but a light and fluffy romance, in the best sense of those words.  One driven by humor and a simple misunderstanding between the characters.  Bet Me is cute and funny and works because Crusie draws strong and interesting characters then has them deal with real world problems in a real world way.   

The heroine, Min, is imperfect.  Her life is imperfect.  Her cat is imperfect.  Her looks are imperfect.  She is a woman other women would like to have as a friend.  She grapples with the insecurities women of all sizes deal with on a daily basis.  The internal voice that says: not pretty enough; not slim enough; and not enough everything. The reader bonds with her because of her imperfections and because she tries to fight off her attraction to a seemingly perfect man, Cal.  She knows, in the end, he isn’t her type and what woman hasn’t had those feelings float through her head two or three or fifty times. Part of what makes Cal, our hero, so likable is that he acknowledges Min’s imperfections then grows to love them.  By any objective standard should he end up with Min?  Well, no, but he can’t seem to help himself.  That fairy tale idea of loving people for who they are, not what they look like, weaves its way through the story.

Crusie’s strength is in her ability to draw characters you want to know then pace the story so that it is impossible to put down.  The relative ease with which Crusie injects humor highlights not only what a genius she is at romantic comedy but how sub-standard other writers are at the craft.  There is nothing manipulative about the comedy here. The humor flows from rich writing and leaves you thinking the other romantic comedies you’ve read were forced. 

Despite the strength of the writing, there are two major problems in this book.  First, the external conflict driving the book is the infamous bet.  The question of whether Cal made it or not hovers dangerously close to the line between real conflict and pseudo-conflict – conflict that could be resolved if the hero and heroine took five seconds to have an actual conversation.  The other issue is the portrayal of the extended families.  Both Cal and Min come from dysfunctional backgrounds and the mothers of each dipped into the standard "my mother is cold and unfeeling" category.  These secondary characters worked, despite their one-dimensional aspects, until the end of the book.  In general, romance writers need to accept the fact that parents of 33 year old unmarried women do not come running when they find out their baby girls are having sex with nasty bad boys.  No, no and no.  This part of the story reads a bit like a romance from the early 1980s.  The background of this book is that Crusie wrote it years before and had it repeatedly rejected.  She hit a dry spell in her writing recently and her agent told her to dig it out and read it again.  Crusie then re-wrote it for her current publisher.  With that history, it’s possible this part of the story is a throwback to earlier times.  Unfortunately, it reads that way too.

HelenKay’s response to Wendy:  Sounds as if the bet issue wasn’t actually an issue for you at all.  Part of the problem with this book – to the extent I had one – was the contrived and nothing-new-here feeling to the plot.  Crusie’s incredible writing talent, her humor and her pacing carry her through and make the read very enjoyable.  But, in the hands of a writer with less talent than Crusie – and that’s most of us – I have to wonder if this could work at all. 

And, Wendy, anyone who reads your blog should be familiar with your general disdain for epilogues and prologues.  Chapter Seventeen of Bet Me  is an epilogue dressed up as a chapter.  Kind of surprised you didn’t have any problem with the global wrap-up of what’s happening with these folks in the future.

Wendy’s response to HelenKay:  Well, HK, no the bet wasn’t an issue for me.  Here’s why:  it was one conflict amongst many.  Had Crusie attempted to hang all the conflict on the bet, well, then, yes, I would agree that a conflict that can be resolved with a conversation is in fact, not a conflict but rather a lousy plot point.

If anything Min and Cal’s central conflict is their own stupidity and mulishness about one another.  Look at this exchange between Cal and his good friend and restaurateur Emilio:

“Morrisey, I think you just met your match,” Emilio said.

“Not even close,” Cal said who was grateful to be without her for the moment.  “This was our first, last, and only date.”

“Nope,” Emilio said.  “I saw the way you looked at each other.”

“That was fear and loathing,” Cal said and opened the door.

“God you’re dumb.”

That sort of conflict can’t be resolved with a conversation, it can however, flesh out a book for 400 pages.  As to that, I agree with you, it’s hard to imagine another writer, one without Crusie’s proficiency with her craft, pulling off such a thin plot.

HK, dear, what you call a mislabeled epilogue I call the conclusion of the fairytale.

Grade from Wendy:  I was all for this idea of handing out grades until right this second.  I say, A-, for the following reasons: the plot is thin, there are elements wherein Crusie is derivative of herself (anyone familiar with her work will recognize the Dove Bars and Diet Coke mixed with Rum), and because, as much as I liked Bet Me, I like other Crusie titles better.  Speaking of which…

Grade from HelenKay:  B+   The thin plot stops this from getting into A territory but the pacing and characterization earn high marks.  This is a must read if you enjoy romantic comedy.  Those expecting steamy will be disappointed and should know going in that while the sexual tension is strong, the sex scenes are very limited. You would, however, be safe buying this for Aunt Gertie for Christmas.  And, for the record, the last chapter is an epilogue, not matter what Wendy says. 

You can visit Jennifer Crusie here and purchase this book here or here.

25 thoughts on “Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

  1. I love this book. One of my favorites from last year. So I’m with Wendy on the grading of this one. Not perfect, but d*mned good.
    Just as an aside, though, it really irritates me when romance novelists hit hardback and their books are suddenly labeled with the words “A Novel.” This label can be found on Amanda Quick’s books, along with others, and it annoys me. It’s as if the publisher is saying, “Yes, she writes romance, but we know you won’t pay hardback prices for romance, so we’re going to call it A Novel and hope it gets shelved in the Fiction/Literature section.” I’m not sure why this annoys me so much, except it looks as if publishers are trying to distance themselves from the “romance” label the moment an author begins selling well enough to justify hardback publication, and that somehow seems insulting.

  2. I liked this book, but didn’t adore it. The secondary characters were a bit too quirk-a-delic for me. The various buddies of the protags were mostly caricatures–I remember Min’s friends not by their names but by their idiosyncracies…”barracuda” and “fairytale twit.”
    And you’re spot-on about the pair of Ice Queen mamas, too.
    But the pacing IS fab, and I do love the hero, even if Min’s “hi, I’m bitter and cynical, have some?” does tend to grate after a bit.
    Great review. Looking forward to more.

  3. Hey Ellen, now that you’ve seen what we’re up to, do you still want your name in the hat?
    Selah, I’ve actually read Bet Me twice now. The first time around I was more troubled by the secondary characters, though not by Min’s friends as much as the exes David and Cynthie. That duo annoyed me until I realized their one of their purposes in the story was to annoy me.
    Min’s friends, as well as Cal’s, are quirk-a-delic, but each group, as a troika, could represent the id, ego and superego. Just a thought.

  4. Ohhh, I loved this book. Any and all imperfections didn’t even register with me; someone made a note a while back on Smart Bitches about Min’s mom being kind of a caricature, but personally, she reminded me of a comedic version of my own mother.

  5. If I could dig out the tape from the luncheon speech Jenny gave to RWA, uh, year before last? She talked about taking this book – which was originally a short contemporary (I think) and expanding it into a full length single title. She went for the “cheese” on purpose. (And I’m quoting her correctly. *g*) It’s a great tale on where this book came from and how it came to be. Of course, I don’t read Cruise because I can’t get beyond *hearing* Cruise, and so when I try to read her I can’t find the characters unique voices – I only find hers because I’ve heard her speak too many times, LOL!

  6. You know how hard one needs to look to spot imperfections in Crusie’s writing? I’m guessing you have to be doing a review instead of just reading for fun to pick anything out. Her humor and pacing are inspiring. Like, need-to-deletee-my-book-and-start-over inspiring. Sure, some of the plot points didn’t work for me and the stereotype terrible mother thing gets old – maybe, like Candy, the moms felt a little too real – but it’s hard to read this book and not want to read more Crusie.
    Alison – The idea Crusie went for cheese on purpose could explain my feelings about this book. This one does have a fluffy feel to it. Again, love the writing, but in another writer’s hand I think this would have flopped.

  7. I loved the book in spite of its faults, which were myriad: the stupid “almost” bet, the ridiculousness of Min’s mother treating her like a teenager, the corny everyone-comes-running ending and the dopey epilogue-disguised-as-a-last-chapter, just for starters. Only Jennifer Crusie’s wit, snappy pacing, and sparkling dialogue made this mess worth reading.
    I’ve really got to hand it to the woman: this “awful” book has been sitting on my keeper shelf for months and I’ve read it four or five times. Honestly.

  8. This was my first ever Crusie, and it hooked me but good. I really did enjoy it overall – loved Cal and Min and the humor.
    I do agree about the plot being a tad on the thin side and wishing Cal and Min would just sit down and hash out the whole bet issue. Too, I agree with HelenKay about the families of Cal and Min being a big over the top. Their respective mothers almost came off as cartoon characters in their extreme issues (Min’s mother’s obsession with Min’s weight and Cal’s mother’s ice-queenishness). Too, I got a tad bit annoyed by Min’s over-obsession with her own weight, especially after it became clear how Cal felt about her.
    All in all, though a fabulous introduction to a fabulous writer for me.
    And a great first review. I like your Ebert and Roper-type responses to each other.

  9. Brenda – I had the same reaction. And, thank you for backing me up on the epilogue! Wendy refuses to see the sweet light of reason on this one.
    Alison – I spelled her name wrong about 50 times while doing this review. I thought about emailing her and asking her to change it to make my life easier but figured that was going one step too far.
    Lynn – I love when people agree with me. Now, just between us, you agree the last chapter is an epilogue, right? I’m figuring if I put enough pressure on Wendy on this issue, she’ll crack.

  10. This was my first Crusie, but like others, I didn’t LOVE it, the way a lot of other people did. Her voice is good and engaging, but I felt that it was too contemporary romanceland for me–the overweight heroine with a mother who harps about her weight? Actually, for me, Cal was bland and didn’t ring on the register for me. Bet Me sort of felt like a chick-lit novel that had romance elements crammed into it in order to fit inside of the romance genre. But the dialogue was fresh, but not as “snappy” as AAR people saw it–maybe because I talk like that all the time. *G*

  11. I liked the book but also like other Crusie titles better. As for the bet conflict being able to be resolved by a conversation, I’d only suggest that real people carry on simple misunderstandings for a long time simply because they never have a conversation about it. I thought it was realistic–and it gave me something to scream at the characters about while reading.

  12. Oh, I should mention that I’ve read and loved ALL of her category work. (In fact, I aimed for Temptation after reading Getting Rid of Bradley! It’s her single titles that I can’t read. I’ve tried. I’ve bought everything but Bet Me in hardcover even – so I’ve given her a whirl in a big way!!

  13. I’ve got your back, HelenKay. That last chapter is completely an epilogue. It sums up every character’s future, tells what happens months and years down the road. Ties up all of the loose ends in a neat, tidy bow. Isn’t that what epilogues are for?
    Evangeline and Alison, the Crusie book that everyone else *loves* but that I can’t seem to get is Welcome To Temptation. So I can see how some people find her stuff hit and/or miss. I have all of her series titles on my TBR pile but haven’t dived in yet. Looks like Getting Rid of Bradley might be a good place to start.

  14. Now see, I loved Welcome To Temptation. I’m just wondering how much arm twisting I’ll have to do before, HK agrees to put in on the to be reviewed list.

  15. No twisting necessary. We can add it to the pile – which is getting bigger by the minute, btw. So, umm, does that one have an epilogue too? Just curious.

  16. Welcome to Temptation is still my Crusie favorite. Perhaps in part because it was my first Crusie and the first contemporary romance I’d read in a long time. I was blown away and it brought me back to reading romance.
    Bet Me was a lot of fun though. I still have to work through her category backlist.

  17. I have read all her books and though this wasn’t my favorite (WELCOME TO TEMPTATION was), I still really enjoyed this one!!

  18. I did have “Strange Bedpersons”, but wasn’t able to find the inclination to read it. *G* I’ve been gravitating towards the one about the con-artist family thought.

  19. Hey, how come nobody told me that this was a great book? Seriously. It’s been buried in my to-be-read pile for, like, forever. Would it be too much to ask that someone say, “Hey, ding-dong, read the !@#$ book already!” One Saturday, one perfect Saturday, and a book later, and I’m ready to talk about this title. Plot thin, yes. Very category, I’d say. I think the mothers are stronger characters than you give them credit for — Min’s mother operates from fear, Cal’s mother operates from distaste at his lack of perfection, his refusal to play along with the status quo. He’s her dirty little secret.
    I liked the friends, liked the fact that they formed a family, and am now thinking of doing my next rave on the buddy aspect of Crusie’s works. We often talk about the female relationships in her hovels, but what about the male relationships? This book really drove that notion home for me.
    As for the thing that HK tries to call an epilogue? Clearly a final chapter that wraps up all the loose ends. I break out in hives at the thought of epilogues, and not a single raised, red bump appeared on my skin. Therefore, not an epilogue. Any time you need me to clear this sort of thing up, just say the word.
    PS, Welcome to Temptation????

  20. Hey, how come nobody told me that this was a great book?
    Because we’d have to first assume that you hadn’t read it. Since you breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, just like the rest of us, I figured you already read it.
    Isn’t Bet Me great? I’ve read it about eight times. Doesn’t loose anything on the re-read and most romances can’t make that claim.
    I just love it. Love Cal. Love Min. Love the barfing nephew. Still don’t like everyone showing up after they have sex, and that still doesn’t lessen my love of this book.
    HK and I continue to debate the last chapter (the one that is not an epilogue). She won’t budge, even though she’s wrong.
    Welcome to Temptation pick a date and I will show up ready to discuss. As you can see, I’ve been waiting a long time for it.

  21. We have a date on the official PBR calendar. And you were right: I live, I breathe, I adore Jennifer Crusie. I failed miserably. I will do penance. Hmm, Fast Women counts as punishment, right?

  22. I understand that they are going to re-release The Cinderella Deal. Now I can read it without applying for a loan.
    I get about as close at it comes for me to Rabid Fan Girl with Crusie.

  23. Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

    When I signed on to Paperback Reader, I inserted a clause in my agreement to the effect that there would be a team review of Welcome To Temptation during my first year of employment. In retrospect, I probably should have…

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