Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Co-Review: The Actor and The Housewife

Shannon Hale has gotten quite a reputation and following for herself. And for good reason. She won the Newberry Award for The Princess Academy, wrote the fabulous book The Goose Girl and one of my favorites, Book of a Thousand Days. A few years back Hale ventured into adult fiction and wrote Austenland, which I also loved. She's also done a graphic novel and has another on the way. She is proving herself to be a woman of genre flexibility.

Her latest book is The Actor and The Housewife and it is a big departure from Austenland and her young adult novels. For one thing, her main character's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays a big role in the book, a membership that Hale shares. The other thing is that her main character, Becky Jack, is already happily married, not on the hunt for romance like in Austenland or a young girl who encounters love for the first time, like in her YA books. This book is more about friendship and what that friendship costs.

Becky Jack is pregnant with her fourth child when she goes to LA to sell a screenplay she has written. While talking to the agent, in walks Felix Callahan, object of Becky's screen crush. He's dashing and so very Hollywood and she finds herself having dinner with him, despite having mocked him to his face while wearing tent-like maternity clothes. She finds him fascinating and he feels the same, so when he shows up in Salt Lake City to see her, she's delighted and surprised. He interprets their connection as romantic and Becky sees it as potential best-friendship. She sets him straight and they go forward, with spousal approval, to be the best of friends.

Don't forget that we tend to spoil endings in our co-reviews, so beware. With that in mind, let us chat, shall we Caren?

Jenny: My first comment is positive. I love how Becky's religion is portrayed. Most LDS people (myself included) are normal people who work normal jobs, raise normal kids, deal with normal life stuff. I love how when she encounters opposition to what she believes she doesn't rant or rail against them, but is able to contradict misconceptions and attitudes with humor. Her faith is a guiding force in her life and she doesn't compromise her values.

That said, what the heck is she doing having a best friend who is a married celebrity hunk? It's just weird to me. I read the book over a month ago and have tossed it around in my brain since then, trying to decide what it was that rubbed me wrong about this book. I believe that women need friends, they need wonderful best friends who are not their husbands. They need people to connect with that build them up and make them happy. I have friends who I adore and love to hang out with that do not diminish the relationship I have with my best friend, my husband. But I cannot even fathom having a best friend, someone I talk to on the phone almost every day and plan get-away trips with, that was a married man. It goes beyond my comfort zone and it rubbed me raw all through the book.

Hale goes to great lengths to make sure the reader understands that Becky loves her husband, Mike, and is absolutely faithful to him and that Felix is only a friend. But she wouldn't have to do any of that reassurance if Becky's best friend were a woman. It's like Hale knows we're going to have a hard time buying the concept so she's working really hard to sell it to us. And what makes them best friends, anyway? I have never had a best friend that I didn't share some commonalities with. Becky and Felix have nothing in common, not beliefs, not lifestyle choices, not family, not education, nothing. But they seem to find enough to talk about for hours on end on the phone. I just don't get it.

I sure hope you have wonderful things to say about the book that make me see it in a different light, Caren, because it's like an itch I can't reach.

Caren: I agree with you about the weirdness of having a male best friend. When the book first started there was so much comedy and delightful ridiculousness that I was really enjoying myself. (The Valentine Ball scene where she is only 4-weeks post-partum and wearing a pink cotton maternity dress with Fred Meyer earrings while dancing with the dazzling tuxedoed Felix was a hoot!) But as the story progressed and their friendship developed, I felt the same way you did. What is she doing?! She should know better! And I agree that with so little in common, how could their friendship really be that deep? The fact that she mourned for him after their first separation made me think that she had her priorities messed up, to feel that much of a loss. But then, later, when they lose contact during Mike's first cancer treatment, she only thinks of him as a passing thought. So that felt more right to me and more like she didn't really need him in his life as much as she thought she did. Maybe "best friend" was less applicable than just "most exciting and glamorous friend." And her other relationships (especially with her husband, Mike) were fulfilling enough that it seemed silly to think that Felix was really serving any special purpose that made it worth the risk.

And what in the world was she thinking going to New York by herself to comfort Felix after his wife leaves him? What happened to the Becky from the beginning who is hesitant to get into a car alone with a man who isn't her husband? There were so many times that she crossed the line that it just made me really uncomfortable. Hale acknowledged the dangers through other characters' perspectives, so I think it was clear that we were supposed to view this as an exception to the rule, but I still wasn't convinced that their relationship was so special that it deserved to be made the exception. I do think that there was enough pain and heartache caused by her relationship with Felix that in some ways you could title this book, "Why married women and men shouldn't have close friendships with the opposite gender." Seriously, who would want to go through that? But I guess another reader who only focused on the positives could easily see it the other way, "Why it's okay and how to make it work."

In your introduction you described the book as being "about friendship and what that friendship costs." But I got a different impression. I felt like Becky's relationship with Mike served as the real meat of the story. I thought it was more about what it means to truly love and honor your spouse (as opposed to the temporary thrill of infatuation), and the joy that comes from facing the challenges of life together. And then, as Becky loses Mike to cancer, the difficult question arises, "When you have been married to your perfect match, the person who completes you and fulfills you unlike anyone else, and then you lose that person; how do you go on? Can you ever love again? Can you ever heal from such a horrible loss?"

Ultimately, that's what I felt this book was really about. It only constituted about the last 1/4 of the book, but once we got there that's where I felt it was really leading to all along. And all the material about Mike wasn't filler or a footnote to the story about Felix, but rather, that was where the real heart of the story lay. Of course, the silly premise of a Mormon housewife being best friends with a famous movie star provided a more interesting and humorous backdrop than if Felix had just been a normal person. But the themes that stood out strongest to me were how mature love is worth far more than fantasy, and the paradox that a strong marriage can make your life so meaningful, but then can almost destroy you when you lose your spouse.

It made me ill when Mike first died to think that maybe she and Felix would end up together in the end, because it seemed like such an unfair conclusion to the story -- as though Mike was only an obstacle to overcome to bring them together. But as the years passed and Becky struggled to find her footing, I almost wanted them to be together just so that she could have some anchor in her life again (even if he could never measure up to Mike). Plus, I was touched that Felix would be willing to give up so much of his old ways to be worthy of her and make her happy, so I almost felt like he deserved it. But in the end, I was happy that they ended just as friends, with the promise that they would be there for each other in the years to come.

Jenny: Yes, Becky and Mike's relationship was the best part of the story. But even when they were going through all the cancer and you knew Mike was going to die, I felt like Hale was deliberately setting it up for Becky and Felix to be together in the end, even if that's not what happened. It felt like it cheapened all the beautiful writing she had done for Becky and Mike. I never wanted Becky and Felix to end up together because then it would make it seem like Felix was introduced into her life to be her spare husband when the first died. I was glad for Felix's progress as a person, but I never once thought they should end up together. There were too many fundamental differences. Plus, I was just mad when I thought that was the direction Hale was heading.

Another thing that bugged me was that I felt like Felix harbored feelings for Becky for years, especially after they made the movie together. They could laugh about the thought of getting together at the end, but when it came down to it, Felix would have married her on the spot if she had said yes. He wasn't the one who had doubts. Was that just me, or did you get that too? And how could they go on being friends when she has now turned him officially down for keeps?

So what do you think Hale's point of the book was? Did she write it to express all the beauties of mature love and the horror of losing your perfect match, like you said? If so, why did she need Felix at all? So Becky could make a movie? So there'd be controversy? So it would be more marketable instead of the story of how much a Mormon couple love each other?

Caren: Yes, Felix would have married Becky if she would have agreed. But the final kissing scene proved to her that she just didn't have it in her to love him that way. And while he went along with the joke, it was clear that he really was in love with her and I suspect won't fully give up on her until she's happily married to someone else. But he showed a sense of maturity too that his love for her was selfless enough that he could be for her what she needed (a close friend) and not insist on what he wanted (lover/husband).

I'm laughing that you got so mad thinking Hale was setting them up to be together that you couldn't get over it when that's not how it actually ended. I think Hale very specifically did not want them together as lovers either for that same reason -- because it would have cheapened (narratively speaking) everything Becky had with Mike. So even though I think Becky was foolish for getting that close to another man in the first place, I think one of the most mature aspects of the story is that it didn't develop into a romantic relationship even when they had the green light. Which brings us to another theme of how ridiculous fictional romance stories are compared to the real deal. According to the fictional story, she and Felix should have been together, so kudos to Hale for not resorting to that cliché.

You asked what Hale's point was and why she needed Felix in the first place if the real meat of the story was exploring mature love and loss. I think she started with the Becky-Felix idea because it was just plain funny. But in true Shannon Hale fashion, her characters weren't allowed to just be shallow pawns for a joke, and in developing their depth and complexity the natural outgrowth was into the deeper and more mature side of the story. So in the end, while the story may belong to Becky and Felix, the heart and soul of it is in Becky's devotion to her husband and children. (Children who did not drive me crazy, by the way, which is always refreshing in adult fiction.) You could enjoy it just as a silly "What if you became friends with your dream celebrity?" idea, or as an exploration of the question "Should a married woman have a close man friend (and vice versa)?", or as the poignant question I already brought up of "How does a person learn to love again after losing the love of their life?" I think it works either way, and I appreciate that she didn't just leave it as a fluff comedy, but explored those deeper issues.

Okay, you got me curious so I went to Shannon Hale's website to see what she has to say about it. She talks about the premise in relation to her dedication at the beginning of Austenland. Do you remember it? I do because it made me smile. It's dedicated to Colin Firth and says, "You're a really great guy, but I'm married, so I think we should just be friends." She says that idea must have been percolating in her mind somewhere because one night she had a dream about what ended up being the beginning of Becky and Felix's story. She also addresses the difficulty of incorporating religion (and mentions that the narrator doesn't share Becky's faith to help keep the objectivity -- did you catch that? I didn't), and of course mentions the controversial idea of whether it's appropriate for men and women to have opposite-gender friendships outside of marriage.

After recognizing the potential this story has to offend on multiple levels, Hale says this in relation to what she hopes readers get out of it.
I hope that readers want to talk about it. I have a lovely dream of groups of readers, women especially, sitting around and talking, heatedly sometimes, questioning the actions of the characters, debating some of the questions raised, what the characters did or didn't do, and the way I chose to tell the story. I hope there are lots of questions, debates, and listening too. And I hope that activity is fun.
Jenny: Well, I think she accomplished just that. It certainly has gotten some debate out of us, hasn't it? I wish I had read what her initial concept was before reading the book. Maybe it would have changed how I read it. I think you're right, that she started out with this question about having a celebrity best friend of the opposite sex and went from there. I've been thinking about this all day and I think that I couldn't get past Becky's inappropriate friendship with Felix and it colored how I enjoyed the story, whereas you could and enjoyed the story despite it. Do you think that's accurate?

Caren: Yeah, I certainly know why you would feel that way. I don't think I completely got past their relationship either, because I just felt kind of anxious the whole time I was reading it. But I really enjoyed her relationship with Mike and that helped carry me through enough so that I can say I liked it, but didn't really love it. Looking back, I remember a lot of humor and clever dialogue in the beginning, but not really throughout the rest of it. And yet, on second thought, that really wasn't the case. But I think the reason why I remember it that way is that I was so uncomfortable with their relationship for the majority of the book that I couldn't just relax and enjoy the humor like I could at the beginning when they were just getting to know each other.

It certainly wasn't my favorite Shannon Hale book. But I will always laugh to myself when I think of the pink enamel Fred Meyer earrings!

Okay, one more question for you. One of the assumptions in this story is that everyone has a dream celebrity for whom they harbor a secret crush. So, do you have one? And if so, who is it?

Jenny: I have to say, I truly related to Becky during that Valentine's dance with her maternity dress and cheap earrings. I have been to enough work events for my husband where I was pregnant, recently pregnant, or just felt like the frumpy mommy of the group while everyone else was glamorous. It made me laugh and squirm at the same time.

To answer your question, I did have celebrity crushes before I got married. I used to drool over Hugh Jackman back in college. When I was a teenager I had a thing for Leonardo DiCaprio. That's embarrassing to admit. I used to have constant crushes on a stream of boys though, and I think celebrities were just lumped in with them. But since marrying my own handsome hunk, no more crushes, celebrity or otherwise. I just outgrew it, I think. There are actors that I enjoy to watch and I'm more likely to watch a movie if they are in it, but it's more because I love their work than I love their looks. How about you? Any celebrity crushes?

Caren: Yeah, I'm in the same boat. The revolving door on celebrity crushes I had when I was a teenager was so plentiful that it would take way too long to list them here! (And don't be embarrassed about Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't think there was a young woman who wasn't in love with him for at least the first five minutes after Titanic.) Not just actors, by the way. Athletes too -- pretty much anyone famous and remotely good looking or enchantingly mysterious was up for grabs. But once I got into college I didn't have as much time or mental energy for it (or money, since our apartment didn't have a tv so any movies we watched had to be in the theater). And with marriage, that silly teenage part of me officially died once and for all. Which was another funny part of this book that I just couldn't really relate to.

Clearly not everyone grows out of it, though. My friend and I went to see Twilight in the theater, and after it was over a woman sitting behind us says as one long sigh of longing, "It gets better every time...." We had a good laugh at that!

Jenny: Oh man, those actors are like twelve years old! How could anyone older than thirty crush on Robert Pattinson? So weird.

Well, I'm a bit bummed that this book didn't automatically become a favorite, since Hale's previous books have always hit the spot for me. You can't win them all.


  1. Jenny, you've already read my review. I felt incredibly reluctant to read this book. My book club is reviewing it in October and I finally came up on the library list at the beginning of September and yet I still almost didn't read it. The subject matter is incredibly difficult to me as my life has been profoundly affected by these types of choices. However, instead of the friendship remaining platonic, it progressed and subsequently ruined relationships.
    I love the relationship Becky and Mike shared and I wish Hale would have shown more of that instead of just telling the reader over and over again how much she loved him. The parts with Mike being sick and then dying were so real. I have a friend whose husband has cancer. It was in remission and then came back and is in remission again. All I could picture was her in those particular scenes.
    I do not think it's appropriate to have close relationships with members of the opposite sex. I still sometimes feel uncomfortable if I'm alone with my BILs or my FIL. There's just too much that can go wrong and even if "nothing happens, we're just friends" is it really worth risking your marital relationship?
    I like the discussion that this book has brought up but overall it's not one of my favorites. I did like the ending though. I'm glad she and Felix had the chance to appropriately explore "what if" and then come to the conclusion that it really wasn't right for them/her.

  2. I just finished this book (I know it's been a while since you wrote this review), and I have a few things to say. First of all, what bothered me even more than the relationship between Becky and Felix is the way Hale portrayed Becky. I think she made her too perfect: she has 4 kids and still manages to make pies. She handwashes dishes. She has the perfect thing to say to her children when their father dies. She makes extra casseroles every time. There aren't enough moments in the book where she has a single flaw. She's witty, intelligent, manages to write screenplays, cook dinner, clean the house, and do the laundry, all while taking her 4 kids to their various activities. Maybe there are people like this, but I just can't imagine it. And on top of all this, she manages to carry on a perfectly platonic friendship with an attractive, rich man, without feeling any attraction to him. That's what bothered me about the book. Yes, Becky has a meltdown after her husband died. Yes, she makes a few mistakes, like rushing out to New York (with a freshly baked pie) to comfort her newly singe, hot friend. But somehow I felt like she wasn't human.

    So that leads me to the next point, which is, there just isn't a situation that can make it okay to have that kind of a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I have seen people try it, and it has ruined their marriages. So I'm not sure what Hale's point was. That yes, sometimes it can work? It isn't worth risking something as important as your husband. No matter how funny the guy is.

    By the way, my crush is Richard Armitage, but I would never ever consider doing anything but begging for a picture with him. Just to post on my blog.