Minerva 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.