I said in Whatcha Reading about reading Lavender’s Blue, “In some ways my brain feels like I am putting on clothing from two jobs ago that fit but feel strange and familiar at the same time.”
Now that I’ve finished it and sat with my thoughts and tried (several times) to write out a longer impression, I agree with my earlier assessment that it is both strange and familiar, but disagree with the idea that it fits. By the end, this book did not fit me well. Both Carrie and I read this book, and we both had a lot of thoughts about it. So you get both of our opinions!
For me, the familiar parts felt like a favorite old sweater: there were zany characters and chaotic, sometimes snort-worthy dialogue. There were some genuinely emotional moments, and scenes that sometimes felt like a welcome meta-commentary on larger concepts. The heroine, Liz, is in a familiar mid-life point where she’s trying to make people, especially her mother, recognize her as an adult and let go of the expectations placed on her, or the reputation that landed on her, as a teenager.
Even with elements that I was happy to experience again, other parts made it harder for me to fully relax into the story. Alas, those parts are legion. By the end I couldn’t ignore them. They stuck out of the seams and scratched at my consciousness, pulling me out of the story and into a lot of discomfort.
And that’s where I think my struggle to articulate lies: I don’t think the characters are located in the Present World so much as a very close facsimile that is near enough to be recognizable but also blithely ignores aspects of setting and history that I could not ignore. The town of Burney itself plays a role, and a lot of the quirks of Burney are also played for laughs because aside from the myriad family dramas, no one is peeking under the surface to examine the structural rot.
For example: the characters live in Ohio in a very small town with extremely well-defined economic and class lines that also appears to be Entirely White. How many red flags is that? The reason why part of the town is destitute is that the ruling family moved their cardboard factory to Mexico putting local people out of work. But this and most of the ‘quirks’ of Burney are played for laughs – there are two known cardboard museums in the world, don’t you know, and one of them is in Burney.
The book’s world and all its characters are in a reality that is really REALLY close to the one I’m living in, with folks dealing with alcoholism, autonomy, social pressures, and the performance of strict gender roles and accompanying expectations. The “Being a Woman in the World is Hot Bullshit” themes of Crusie novels are all present.
But alongside the real and familiar, there is a yawning lack of awareness of the other problems that coexist alongside them. Few of the real and terrible structural and institutional biases that exist in both the book world AND my world are acknowledged much in the book’s world, if at all. That absence is not comforting. It’s not an escape. The absence is screamingly loud for me, and paired with barely a cursory acknowledgement (and one Black side character, who, lucky for her, doesn’t live in Burney) of the social and political forces that are clearly still active in that world, was disorienting.
And then there’s the part where Vince, the hero, is a cop.
I’ve been chasing my tail about whether or not the plot falls apart if Vince isn’t a cop. As a mystery, it makes sense to have a character who has legal authority; Vince actively wants to solve the mysteries and hold the correct people responsible. He’s constantly in conflict with “the way things are in Burney” with a side order of “the way things have always been done,” which is part of that whole universe of structural and political mess that is glancingly acknowledged but not really interrogated in a meaningful way.
Could the story work if Vince didn’t have the authority to arrest people? Probably not.
Did Vince need to shoot the tires out of a car full of teenagers who were driving so recklessly that he had to stop banging the heroine and go answer the 911 call?
NO. HE DID NOT.
That’s not really interrogated either. Eventually Liz, who witnesses the whole thing, comes to the conclusion that he knew when to regain control of himself?
I was not reassured. I can’t go back in time to when I didn’t approach cops as romance heroes with trepidation. My brain doesn’t shut off like that.
So I am a different reader and not all of my brain could relax into the story. There were a few too many points of cognitive friction caused by too many elements that the book sails past but that caused my brain to skid to a complete halt. The charming and witty and emotional moments were not enough to counterbalance my feelings that this book was not a good fit for me. I can’t blithely accept White communities without questioning how they got that way. I can’t maintain equanimity with a cop hero who is mad that his trip to bonetown was interrupted by a 911 call for reckless driving and for that reason he shoots two of the tires during the resulting traffic stop. I can’t mellow my way past a cop hero who is tired of everyone else in town looking the other way when they might possibly be held accountable, but who takes advantage of everyone looking elsewhere when he shoots the tires out of a car during said traffic stop.
I had an altogether uneasy engagement with the story because it was in part appealing to a reader perspective I don’t have anymore. I read it with a knot in my stomach that grew and solidified, and since I finished it, I’ve been thinking about all the jagged edges that I couldn’t move past.
Carrie: Full disclosure, Jennifer Crusie was my romance gateway author and Bet Me is on my top five favorite books list. On the other hand, Bob Mayer’s style has never been my jam, mostly because the military and law enforcement cultures that his heroes usually come from is, at best, not my personal catnip (although I can see why some people adore these kinds of heroes) and, at worst, utterly devoid of any kind of structural analysis.
Also full disclosure, I personally am not a big fan of romances that involve a murder, no matter who writes them, because the tonal switch from “corpse” to “banging” gives me whiplash, even when the book is very well written. That’s a lot of baggage and expectations for me to be bringing to the book, and some of it is purely a matter of personal taste that is beyond the control of any author.
But y’all, this book is a lot, and not in a good way.
Plot twists appear out of nowhere. Some are delightful; some are simply bizarre. Characters are established as having certain quirks and characteristics only to act completely differently later on – not even for plot reasons, just…because?
This inconsistent characterization becomes a huge problem with Vince, who early on is said to have “an anger problem.” Jesus Wept, y’all! You know what is NOT ROMANTIC? A cop with an anger problem. The horrifying scene in which Vince shoots out a teenager’s tires is apparently intended to reinforce that while also showing that he has some self-control.
There are a lot of problems with how Vince, and the tire shooting in particular, are portrayed, and no, Vince saying that he has a code doesn’t fix it:
I hate traffic stops…no one likes getting pulled over and even if they did nothing wrong, it’s still an anxiety producing event. More so for others. Minorities, women. I have a code about that. I only pull over people in those groups if it’s a safety issue. A real one. There’s enough shit in the world. People don’t need more.
The problem from a purely writing perspective is that other than the tire thing, there is absolutely no evidence that Vince has an anger problem. It’s mentioned once and then never again. In fact, one of Vince’s most attractive qualities is his continual state of calm competency. He is also characterized as someone who wants to fight corruption and nepotism, but he uses those same things to his advantage frequently. He’s frustrated that in Burney things aren’t by the book, but he goes off book all the freaking time. So is Our Hero a sensitive, calm, competent, morally upright but non-judgemental guy who you would trust with your life, or is he Dirty Harry? I don’t think anyone knows.
Also, I want to warn adult children of alcoholics and abusive parents that we are evidently supposed to agree that Liz needs to protect and assist her emotionally abusive mom who is also a recovering alcoholic. Her mom might not be drinking anymore, but all the traits typical of a practicing alcoholic are in full play – emotional manipulation, shaming, deflecting, lying, blaming others, making excuses, massive guilt-tripping, and just basically making Liz’s life hellish.
This is not a good person. Liz doesn’t owe her shit. The storyline about Liz and her mom actually hurt my heart. Fuck anyone who tells you that you owe your abusive parent who is still actively abusing you an ounce of time or energy. And yet again, we get weird inconsistencies with the writing. When Liz finally lays down some boundaries, were we supposed to think that’s what she should have done back in Chapter One? Cause that was not showing up in the text, people, far from it.
Sarah, your comment about Burney being almost but not quite our reality is SPOT ON and makes so many things make sense. It’s the same approach that a lot of historicals take – a warped view of a semi-reality.
With all that said, Jennifer Crusie has not lost her ability to write fantastic dialog that snaps in the style of those movies from the 1940’s – think The Desk Set, His Girl Friday, My Man Godrey, The Lady Eve (some of these movies are referenced in the book). I will re-read her chapters many times, because I am helpless in the face of moments such as Liz explaining the lyrics of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” to a first grader. Many aspects of this book that I loved about Crusie’s of yore are here: found family, a woebegone dog, a heroine with a “thing” for something (diners and T-shirts), hilarious scenes in which multiple people talk at once, a great appreciation for food, and a kid who needs protection.
Part of the problem with the book is that it’s marketed like a romance novel, and it’s mostly structured like a romance novel, but it’s actually the first book in a rom-com trilogy, hence a lot of dangling plot threads at the end. I did read the sequel, Rest in Pink, and if anything it’s even more messy than this book is.
Sarah: Usually by the time I reach the end of writing out a review, I know what grade I want to give. I read this book in a single afternoon, and I kept having to put it down to deal with the alienating feelings of reacting very strongly to events that the characters weren’t bothered by at all. Even while I write this paragraph, I’m still thinking about grading, because so many factors influence my evaluation: the small moments I enjoyed (“Birdhouse in your Soul” was a very apt choice for some quirky realism, I agree) versus the moments that collectively formed a rock in my stomach, where I was hoping for an entirely different set of emotions (WHY is literally NO ONE in this book substantially more alarmed that Vince shot the tires out of a young person’s car?!) (During a traffic stop?!!). (WHY.)
This was so hard for me to grade. What do you think? I found parts of it enjoyable, but they can’t counterbalance the parts I found alienating and horrifying.
Carrie: I was thinking D+.
Sarah: Yeah. Let’s land there.