If this discussion were a television show, it would probably fall into the “Fear Factor” category: a beloved author goes off and, horrors!, collaborates with another author. Immediately, worst case scenarios fill your mind. What if her style is overwhelmed? What if the stuff I like isn’t there? What if it isn’t good?
We (Kassia, Wendy, and HelenKay) faced our fears and lived to write about it. When Jennifer Crusie announced that she was co-authoring a book with Bob Mayer (who is that? we all said), people wondered how it would all work out. After all, Crusie is one of those authors who doesn’t need help. She’s great just the way she is. And that hasn’t changed. What is different became the stuff of our lengthy discussion. Which naturally does not require you to have read the book first, though if you did, we want to hear your thoughts on our thoughts.
World’s shortest plot synopsis: Lucy Armstrong is brought in to direct some final (and pointless) scenes of a movie. On set is her sister (Daisy), niece (Pepper), and ex-husband (Connor Nash). Also, J.T. Wilder, stunt double and Green Beret. Things quickly get out of control, danger ensues, shadowy figures try to play puppet master, and Lucy and J.T. try to make sense of it all. There are crosses and double-crosses and possibly a triple-cross. Action and romance and alligators (Moot). It’s all there.
W: I began Don’t Look Down with an excitement reserved specifically for Jennifer Crusie’s books and a mantra: Jennifer Crusie has a new book, Jennifer Crusie has a new book, that means romance with subtext, that means dialog that’s funny but really terribly sad, that means the Crusie I-can-fix-everything-big-sister heroine and the Crusie upper-class-but-sick-of-it-all hero. That excitement and the mantra came to a screeching halt on page seven when J.T. Wilder’s POV and Bob Mayer’s writing started. I realized I’d been expecting something that Don’t Look Down never promised to be: a Jennifer Crusie book. What it is, and has always claimed to be, is a collaboration between Crusie and Mayer. That is something we, as greedy and covetous readers of Crusie, don’t have a template for and as such, I’ve struggled to sort out how I feel about this book. The fan-girl in me is a bit disappointed that this isn’t what I anticipated, but the savvy reader in me understands that this is a unique entity unto itself and should be judge for its own merit. Am I alone in this ambivalence?
k2: I walked into this book with the opposite approach: I expected something completely different. My logic, naturally, was sound: Jennifer Crusie is such a strong personality that I firmly believed it would take an equally strong personality to work with her. Thus I anticipated that the melding of the two souls (in a manner of speaking) would be something unexpected. Of course, that begs the question of what I did expect, and I honestly don’t know. But I can see how the truly male point-of-view (or voice or both) is unexpected. I felt the change (and boy aren’t we going to be surprised when we find out that the parts I think are Mayer’s were Crusie all along?), but it wasn’t long before I melded the two voices in my head. Overall, I think the blending of writers was pretty seamless, don’t you?
HK: To be honest, I didn’t go in with the highest of expectations. That is not meant as a knock on the Mayer/Crusie collaboration. Rather, it’s a testament to my enjoyment of Crusie’s style, talent and voice, and my lack of knowledge of Mayer’s work. Frankly, I expected to be tugged back and forth between the voices until I had to throw the book across the room and risk messing up that pretty yellow cover. I expected to dread every word Mayer wrote because his POV would steal precious book pages from Crusie. Going with the “Mayer is going to ruin this for me” attitude – unhealthy and childish, I know – may have skewed my view. The result was a pleasant surprise. Sure, I noticed the changes from Crusie’s style to Mayer’s at the beginning. By that I mean, in the first 35 to 50 pages while the authors introduced us to various characters. After that, the back and forth became seamless and, at points, I thought one may have written the words of the other. Any chance, the issue here might be one of subject matter and not the collaboration? This is not Tempt Me or Bet Me. We have boys, guns, helicopters, action and a guy hiding out in the weeds. Does this end up being more of Mayer subject matter book than one you would expect from Crusie?
W: Yes Kassia, Crusie and Mayer blend in remarkably seamless fashion. Once I got over the jarring reality that Mayer was, in fact, writing a true male point of view and not the man-as-written-by-romance-author that we are used to seeing, I realized his efforts weren’t diminishing Crusie’s. Their voices are distinct, but complimentary. I don’t think it’s possible to randomly open the book and be unclear as to who wrote any particular page, but like HelenKay, I did wonder if J.T’s dialog in Lucy’s scenes was written by Crusie or Mayer and vice-versa. Unfortunately, for me the co-authorship forever entered into the work allowing my attention to be divided between the question of process and the enjoyment of the work. This happened with the subject matter as well, with each action and plot point requiring an assessment of who brought what to the table. Green Berets and snipers and terrorists aren’t Crusie’s signature elements, those all belong to Mayer. Though, likely Mayer’s previous books don’t feature a lot of strong sister relationships, overly-intelligent children, or pop culture icon themes. Crusie has always written very strong character driven stories. Even something like Welcome To Temptation, that has a murder and a bit of a whodunit, is, at heart, a character driven piece. That can’t be said of Don’t Look Down, this work attempts to balance character with an action-adventure plot.
k2: I have to say, with all the guns and knives and jumping and racing and Moot, it was a bit more action than I’m accustomed to, and I think that’s absolutely Mayer’s influence. Being the contrary type, I say it was good for this book. If it were Crusie alone, we would have had Welcome to Temptation redux (I’m not saying this as if it’s a bad thing…). She’s a bit more delicate with her approach to violent death (see: Fast Women or Getting Rid of Bradley). I do think I’m going to reread this book — mostly because I, too, was looking at craft a bit too closely. While I’m certainly not from the write-what-you-know school, I think that having first-hand knowledge of a topic adds something that research never will, and Mayer’s life experience makes this a more visceral read. Case in point: male attitudes toward sex and female bodies. I think most romance writers would have shied away from the scene between J.T. and Althea — I also think the fact that Crusie/Mayer went there freed them to break other traditional hero/heroine molds. Also a good thing. Did you feel that these characters took unexpected turns?
W: The characters’ actions were unexpected as viewed through the genre romance perspective, but the choices that J.T. and Lucy were allowed to make were ultimately best for the plot. J.T. sleeping with Althea is a fantastic example of that. Althea is the plastic woman the traditional paint-by-numbers-hero is supposed to reject because the heroine is embedded in his mind. When Althea shows up naked in J.T.’s bed, he puts Lucy—whom he’d only briefly met at that point—out of his mind, and takes what Althea offers him. For the romantic in me, that was heartbreaking; it wasn’t what I wanted from the hero. However, J.T. having sex with Althea complicated an already complicated situation as nothing else could. It was the right choice for the story. That I respect. Without the traditional hero and heroine paths set before these characters, I did feel as though they fell into traditional male/female roles: Lucy was chatty and had lots of feelings and was surrounded by friends and family; J.T. preferred to act rather than talk or think and he preferred to be alone. Was the male/female juxtaposition exaggerated?
HK: Ahhh, Althea and J.T. Infidelity in romance is a general no-no. Even pseudo-infidelity has a tendency to cause problems. This is the idea that once a reader has identified which male in the book is supposed to be the hero and future satisfying-ending-partner for the heroine, she wants him celibate except for whatever time he spends with the heroine. The general theory is that heroes must be faithful or they aren’t heroic. Having said all that, the J.T./Althea scene did not jump out as a violation. Rather, Lucy and J.T. really aren’t together at this point and, for good or bad, J.T. acts exactly like how I imagine a typical guy would act in this situation. Part of the reason this scene didn’t drag me out of the story and make me hate J.T., is that J.T. is a guy’s guy – macho and quick and smart, but never knuckle-dragging. His character is consistent. What he says, you can see a real guy saying. What he does, real guys do. He doesn’t see Lucy and, in typical romance novel fashion, lose his ability to find every other woman on the planet attractive. Since a male writer created J.T., the idea that J.T. read like a real guy isn’t a surprise, but female authors could take note of the realistic approach taken here and how J.T. doesn’t suffer as a hero because of it.
And, since I like to hog the spotlight…we’ve talked a great deal about J.T. and the collaboration. What about all those other characters? This book takes place on a movie set. We have actors and actresses and movie people and bad guys and a kid and a screwed up sister. Did they ring true and did they all serve a purpose in the plot or overwhelm it?
k2: There were a lot of secondary characters, weren’t there? There were a few times when I had a tough time placing them all on my mental stage, but I’d say those moments were rare (though if I’d read this book over a longer period, it’s possible I would have lost some character threads). Some like pilot Rene LaFavre were just wonderful. I thought Pepper with her cockeyed optimism was well-done (the egg theme [and, yes, I use that word deliberately] resonated); not your typical irritating cute kid character. And Gloom. Even Crawford. Then there’s Moot, my Animal of the Month. Despite the large cast of characters, I thought the authors did a pretty good job of creating individuals, and I appreciated that these individuals didn’t always behave as expected. Even the good characters had bad streaks, and the bad characters weren’t just bad to be bad.
That being said, I was less enthralled with Daisy. She never felt right to me. I kept waiting for an “Oh, yeah, okay, I feel it” moment with her, and never made it there. Oh sure, I know that I can’t bond with every character in every novel, but I felt more connected to Tyler than I did Daisy. He was a guy who took real pride in his work and showed commitment; I couldn’t see what Daisy really stood for.
Answering Wendy’s question about male/female roles being exaggerated, I didn’t get that, but possibly because I didn’t see Lucy as a traditional female character. She was, in my mind, Wonder Woman. I suppose that kind of save-the-world strength is inherently feminine, but clearly it didn’t cross my mind until you asked the question (likewise for J.T.).
HK: Yeah, let’s talk about the women for a second. Lucy was strong, smart, funny, sexy, independent, dependable…and everything else good and wonderful in this world. Sure, she had faults – I think – but her character screamed “backbone” and stability. With the exception of her initial dealings with her ex-husband and the quick fall she takes for J.T, Lucy rarely faltered. Since I kind of fell for J.T, I forgave her for the latter. Then we have Althea and Daisy and Mary and Karen. So may women – so little to do. If Lucy supplied the backbone, Daisy represented window-dressing. Other than providing the egg to produce cute little Pepper, Daisy’s role here isn’t all that clear. Or necessary. But at least I knew which side she played for most of the time. Not so with Althea. After two readings it’s still a mystery what Althea was doing near the end. Was she good? Was she bad? No clue. Between Daisy, mousy Mary and the Althea issues, I have to wonder if there were a tad too many women running around this movie set.
W: Crusie’s stories are always full of women. Look at Bet Me, there’s the heroine Min, her three girlfriends, her sister, her mother, Cal’s sister-in-law, Cal’s mother, the bartender whose-name-I-can’t remember, even Min’s sister had two girlfriends. But, like HK, I did wonder what the purpose of all the women in Don’t Look Down was. Mary the makeup artist and Stephanie the script-writer-assistant-director purpose in the story could have been rolled into one character. But then, maybe the point was to make the reader constantly question what all these characters were doing, as Lucy and J.T. were.
I didn’t warm to Daisy either and I think that’s because how I was supposed to feel about her was never clear to me. I never felt like I was on solid ground with her: was she a good guy who looked guilty, or was she a bad guy pretending innocence to further her cause? As it turns out, she isn’t that black and white, which is fine, but the end result is more murky than gray.
k2: One flaw I find in most fiction is that women characters are either good or bad. Rarely does fiction, especially genre fiction, show shades of gray with female characters. Karen, the helicopter pilot, is a great example of this. If this were straight genre fiction, she, because she’s totally competent and strong, would have been either misunderstood or working secretly undercover. Instead, she was damn good at her job and working for the wrong team. Mary Vanity? To me, plot element rather than female character.
W:: “After two readings it’s still unclear what Althea was doing near the end.” I’m not alone in the sentiment? Good. Actually the entire terrorist plot left me wondering what was going on, who was in on the conspiracy, and why we should care about Finnegan (the shadowy puppet master). I like to think I’m an astute enough reader to follow a plot, but after reading and then rereading, I’m lost on this. Does the action plot lack critical cohesion and clarity?
k2: Ah, I was afraid that we’d get here eventually. What was Althea doing? What was going on? She was a pretty solid character right up until the end, then, huh? I have this theory about some stories — the authors can’t figure out how to end things so they keep going, hoping something will work itself out. This may be a case of “how can we make this worse?” gone wrong. The CIA, the Army, the film crew, the bad guys, the other bad guys, Navy SEALS…and a whole bunch of other things all at once. I would have preferred a lot more explanation about Finnegan and Letsky (here’s hoping it’s Letsky, I’m pinned under fifteen pounds of deadweight feline!) and what was at stake. The pre-Colombian Viagra (which was a funny description) didn’t strike me as a strong motivating factor, but that’s because I didn’t fully get the ins and outs of what was at stake.
And, yeah, I thought it was just me and my tendency to devour books that I’m enjoying. I feel so much better now. Can a book be both totally readable and lacking in plot cohesion at the same time?
W: Absolutely. There are books I love, books I read obsessively, that feature plots that can only be described as: big meandering messes (see Outlander). I don’t foresee Don’t Look Down making onto my short list of books I obsess about. For me, it wasn’t Crusie at the pinnacle of what I love best about her, where all I wanted to do on the last page of the book was flip to the front and start again. That said, Don’t Look Down is a well about average, but, is it totally readable—and enjoyable—despite a lack of clarity?
HK: Very readable in the sense that Lucy and J.T.’s romance threw off sparks, Crusie’s usual intelligent banter rang true, and the pace clipped along. The addition of a strong male voice and the adventure theme all heightened the reading experience. But…and this is a big but…the plot twists and turns, combined with an ending that left me wondering exactly what the heck just happened, keeps this one from rising to the Keeper Shelf level. Still funny. Still clever. Worth reading even for those who don’t love Crusie (I suppose there are some out there who fit this category) if only to see how Crusie and Mayer managed to pull off the collaboration to the point where styles and voices melded together so well. The book did leave me wondering if I wanted more romantic – umm, what would we call this? romantic adventure or suspense, I’m not sure – from Crusie or if I wanted her to travel back to that bar in Bet Me and concentrate on romance.
W: Well that’s what it all boils down to, isn’t it? Are we, as Crusie’s fans, willing to continue reading her romantic adventure collaborations with Mayer, or are we unwilling to accept the change? I’ll read the next Crusie/Mayer book. Don’t Look Down is a page turner, and like Kassia, I devoured it with a single-mindedness. Lucy and J.T. are compelling, and I wanted to see them come together for the very reason that this couple is different from couples penned solely by women writers. In the end, J.T.’s feelings for Lucy satisfy because they are not offered up in the sort of easy capitulation that is so often seen in romance.
What I love so much about Crusie is on display here: sharp witty dialog. The scene where J.T. finds Lucy wearing WonderWear (Wonder Woman underwear) and she says, “You’ll get used to it,” and he says, “I hope not,” is exactly what I read Crusie for. My disappointment with Don’t Look Down is that I wanted more of those types of encounters and less of the terrorist plot. Which is akin to saying this would be perfect, if it were entirely different.
Like HK, the end plot confusion, the simple fact that after two reads, the conclusion of the terrorist story line leaves me in the dark, keeps Don’t Look Down from really winning me over. My hope is that, with the next collaboration, a clear and an unencumbered story will complement the romance versus detracting from it with a lack of clarity.
And your final thoughts, ladies?
HK: As usual, Crusie produced a sharp and witty read. The colloboration with Mayer adds depth and nuance in terms of the male characters and, some may be surprised to find, also in terms of the male/female relationship. It’s not a head-over-heels or love-at-first-sight romance novel. It’s a realistic and building attraction based on some external factors (good looking people) and some internal (integrity and strength).
Being a fan of romantic suspense and romantic adventure, watching Crusie step outside of her box and into macho territory without losing her flair for fashion, all things girlie and humor provided a thrill. My problem here, as we’ve discussed at some length, was with the adventure plot. Some of it worked – the movie set, the “accidents” and the fight over expensive missing objects. Adding in the Russian mob, numerous bad guys, a sharpshooter in the swamp and an ever-shifting “is he/she good guy or bad guy” component without any clean vision of what all of these poeple had to do with each other proved to be a little much. If the difference between a compelling suspense plot and one that’s, well, not-so-compelling is a matter of “what happens next” versus “what the heck is happening” – then this one shifts dangerously close to the latter. For me, the confusion can be forgiven, but I’m hoping it’s a one-book-only problem. We’ll know in about a year when the Crusie/Mayer hitman romance comes out.
k2: Who you callin’ lady? Yeah, I wanted a better ending. Also more clarification. I have the same problem with Neal Stephenson. Will I be buying the next Crusie/Mayer book? Oh yeah. Cash money. I know we’re dealing with two experienced authors, but we’re also seeing a first-time author concept. This is a book that I’ve picked up and started at random pages…and kept reading until forced to pay attention to the husband. No matter who the author, that’s always a good sign in my book.
You can visit Jenny and Bob here and purchase they book here and here.