Review: Strange Bedpersons, by Jennifer Crusie

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I originally posted this review in 2009. Last night I re-skimmed the book, and found I only had to edit the review a tiny bit.

My Take in Brief: Only recommended for anal retentive Jenny Crusie fans, and then only for the completionist satisfaction.

Heroine and Hero: Tess is a hippie do-gooder. Nick is an ambitious yuppie lawyer.

Conflict: See heroine and hero, above.

Plot: To make partner, Nick needs to appear “settled”, so he needs a date for a weekend affair at a rich conservative writer’s country home. Naturally, he chooses his outspoken, Republican-baiting, commune-bred ex-girlfriend with whom he constantly bickers to make a good impression. There’s a subplot involving plagiarism that is even more stupid, another one that makes a depressing case for Churchill’s famous claim about maturity requiring conservatism, and a secondary romance between, essentially, Richie Rich and Pinky Tuscadero* that allows the author to deploy every cliché in her terrifyingly large arsenal (*showing my age, I know. If Pinky rings no bells for you, think Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny)

Word on the Web:

Mrs. Giggles, 74

AAR, Colleen M.,  A

Laurie Gold, C-

Bookish Reviews, B+

Trashionista, 4 out of 5

For fun: Dear Author’s “If you like” on Jennifer Crusie

My Review:

SB was originally published as a Silhouette in 1994, and reissued in paper in 2003 and then again in January 2009 in library edition hardcover with a cutesy cover you could use in place of Ipecac if you had to (see below). when I bought this in 2009, my Kindle edition was 4 bucks. Today the Kindle edition is $1.61. Thanks to AQ for the original covers below!

200901_strangebedpersons

This was the second book in a row that I began reading and felt as if I started in the middle. When we meet them, Nick and Tess have dated and split up, and he is knocking on her apartment door while she hangs with her EYE-talian friend Gina. Note the wink to romance conventions with the use of “grovel”:

Nick knocked again. “Tess? You want me to grovel? I’ll grovel. I’ve got a great grovel. You’ve never seen my grovel; you left before I could show it to you. Come on, Tess, let me in.”

Gina slumped back into the couch and jerked her head toward the door. “If you’re thinking about swapping your bod for money, go answer the door. He’s still loaded, right?”

Tess nodded. “I haven’t checked lately, but knowing Nick and his affinity for money, he’s still loaded.”

“Marry him,” Gina said.

“No,” Tess said.

“Why not?”

“Well, to begin with, he hasn’t asked me,” Tess said. “And he’s a Republican lawyer, so my mother would disown me. And then . . . ” Tess frowned as if in serious thought. “I always thought it would be a good idea to marry somebody who wouldn’t try to pick up the maid of honor at the reception. Call me crazy but –”

“Since that would be me, you got no worries,” Gina said. “Marry him.”

“You don’t know Nick,” Tess said. “He could seduce Mother Teresa.” She cocked her head toward the door and listened for a moment. “And it doesn’t seem to be an option anymore anyway. I think he got tired and left.”

She tried hard not to be disappointed. After all, she’d had no intention of opening the door anyway.

Still, it wasn’t like Nick to give up that fast, dangerous hallway or not. He must not have missed her that much after all.

Damn.

There are so many things I love about Jenny Crusie’s writing of romance. I love the humor and wit, of course, and the sexual tension, and the characterization. Politically, I love the egalitarianism, the liberalism, the positive construction of femininity and masculinity. When people ask me how I can teach and write feminist theory and still read romance, Crusie is one of the first authors who comes to mind. (Tess, rather than being a statuesque blonde, is Crusie’s trademark “warm and round”. And she has short red hair.)

But no amount of political affinity in the world will make me like a book if I cannot like the leads and cannot figure out why they do the stupid things they do. And besides that, this is the rare Crusie in which it feels like the heroine is one of those category cardboard liberals, whose “ideals” are so many strawmen, just waiting for a hero with a blowtorch.

Tess says, “Life is more than great sex and a nice car”, and when her friend Gina replies “Not much more”, you can be sure we are supposed to agree with Gina. Tess eventually does: in the end, she basically abandons her objections to Nick’s large income and larger home in return for a coat of colorful paint.

Crusie’s heroines often walk the line between being strong and being bitches, and Tess definitely goes over to the bitch side. On the reread, I noticed how often she “scowled”, “frowned”, was “indignant”, or “depressed”, expressed  “disgust”, or spoke “derisively”, “skeptically”. For example, her comment in the above quotation regarding the groom seducing the bridesmaid has no basis in Nick’s character (he’s true blue). When even the hero describes her as “tactless and undignified” you know you have a piece of work on your hands. She dumps Nick because he refused to have sex with her in a public parking lot. Equally irrationally, Tess decides to try to get a job at a posh private school (which, conveniently for the author, puts her in the path of Nick’s rich clients) and has no problem using old boy nepotism —  normally one of the main targets of true liberals — to do so.

Nick is underdeveloped, and, like Tess, he is a cardboard figure: he’s not ambitious for “bad” reasons: no, he’s making up for a financially precarious childhood.

There are some interesting, but unexplored, themes about the purpose of literature (the famous writer says to Tess “You’re probably one of those fools who thinks literature should be life-affirming”) and about whether it’s better to be Dr. Jeckyll or Mr. Hyde (naturally, Tess prefers Hyde because he’s “unpredictable”. I bet he would have done her in the parking lot!). But not enough to save the day from the impossibly retrograde premise (that a lawyer in 1994 must be “settled down” to make partner) or silly plagiarism subplot (Tess thinks the hippie who told her a story 30 years ago has copyright on it) with a highly improbable “twist” you can see coming a mile away.

Is this book worse than the average category? No, of course not. But I grade on a curve and the curve is not kind to authors who have written some of my favorite romances. Since this is a very early Crusie, there is some historical interest in seeing the germs for later ideas.

One thing that really interests me about Crusie is the way American wealth is characterized. In each of the categories I have read this week, there is a questioning or outright rejection of the pursuit of wealth, and not fantastic Steve Jobs wealth, but simple things like living in a new house with a three car garage or making partner. In this book, Nick thinks to himself that there is a difference between “ambition”, which is ok, and “naked ambition”, which is not, but it’s hard to tell what the difference is in any terms other than money. The theme in the 4 Crusie categories I have read seems to be that it’s bad to be ambitious about wealth and status, bit other kinds of ambition are ok.  Also, in this book, the wealthy — but not the middle and working classes — are highly conscious of propriety, of manners, of protocol, of mores. And yet, you have them rudely insulting the heroine, for example, at the dinner table. In my experience, the wealthy are not more personally conservative than other classes. If anything, less so. On the other hand, direct public insults to invited guests would not occur. There’s no need.

19 responses

  1. Is this the one with the Cinderella story? If so, I remember reading it as a category romance. I used to inhale categories, so to remember any particular story means it must have made an impact on me at the time. Still, I’ve reread it as a standalone, and I enjoyed it as a bit of farce, but it was disappointing to discover I didn’t enjoy it as much as I must have the first time.

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  2. I dislike this book quite intensely. But this baffles me:

    Tess says, “Life is more than great sex and a nice car”, and when her friend Gina replies “Not much more”, you can be sure we are supposed to agree with Gina.

    Erm, I’d have said the opposite. Perhaps the interpretation depends on whether one projects Theromancegenre or Recentcrusie onto it.

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  3. This is the one Crusie book so far to leave me cold. Totally unsympathetic leads, a soggy storyline, and exaggerated stereotypes. It was just so…blah. Have you read Getting Rid of Bradley yet? That one may be my favorite.

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  4. Kat wrote:

    Is this the one with the Cinderella story? If so, I remember reading it as a category romance. I used to inhale categories, so to remember any particular story means it must have made an impact on me at the time. Still, I’ve reread it as a standalone, and I enjoyed it as a bit of farce, but it was disappointing to discover I didn’t enjoy it as much as I must have the first time.

    Yes, I neglected to mention that. The feminist/lefty revisioning of the Cinderella story was the basis of the plagiarism allegation.

    2010 UPDATE: Kat, I may have been confused when I answered your comment. There is another Crusie, The Cinderella Deal, which is a modern retelling of Cinderella.

    RfP wrote:

    Erm, I’d have said the opposite. Perhaps the interpretation depends on whether one projects Theromancegenre or Recentcrusie onto it.

    It’s funny you picked up on that. I hesitated a long time on that claim. I (think I) know Crusie’s usual politics, but I believe that in this book, the message was that wealth should and does win. This may not reflect the author’s personal beliefs and and may even be different from what the author intended to convey.

    JenB wrote:

    This is the one Crusie book so far to leave me cold. Totally unsympathetic leads, a soggy storyline, and exaggerated stereotypes. It was just so…blah. Have you read Getting Rid of Bradley yet? That one may be my favorite.

    Glad I am not the only one. GROB was next on my list. Glad I have something to look forward to!

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  5. I remember reading this one and liking it okay but it certainly isn’t Crusie’s best work. I’m still thinking Bet Me for that, with Manhunting, Welcome to Temptation, Faking It (oh, the list goes on…) to follow but not necessarily in that order.

    What I do remember about this book and which I liked was the banter between the characters which is signature Crusie. It was early early Crusie and perhaps it helped that I picked this one up in a second hand book store with the original (and very ugly) category cover – it really dated the book and I suppose that helped me get over some of the more obvious issues.

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  6. I read this years ago and I’m usually a Crusie fan, but didn’t much like this one. I am looking forward to her new one with Bob Mayer – but then I would. :-) LOL

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  7. This is my least favourite Crusie book, and I think I only have a couple left to read. I really couldn’t warm to the main couple, although I didn’t mind the secondary romance.

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  8. On the other hand, having once been, like Gina, the Italian girfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, outright insults to invited guests would not occur. There’s no need.

    Speaking of that situation, one of the things I actually can’t remember seeing well done in a romance novel (my memory can be iffy at times, though so bear with me) is an across the tracks romance with a realistic dinner/party/what-have-you scene that underscores cultural and class differences. Most of the time you get a scene like something between a cross of a Gary Marshall movie and a Marx Brother’s comedy. Stereotypes abound, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a story that gets right the exquisite awkwardness of being in that situation.

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  9. I seem to recall a historical or two with that sort of situation – an Anne Perry novel, Weighed In The Balance, has a scene with the common born private investigations agent William Monk attends a weekend away at Lord Wellborough’s country house. He is ostensibly there as a ‘gentleman’ and a friend of one of the guests, but finds that despite being well spoken and well dressed, the yawning gulf between the social standing, experiences and expectations of himself and the other guests is greatly hindering his ability to investigate.
    There’s a dinner party scene which is exquisitely frustrating and uncomfortable for him. Which is in no small part due to the relatively benign attitudes of the other guests to this ‘interloper’ in their midst.

    As to the Cruise, it’s my least favourite. Couldn’t work out what exactly she was going for, and Tess lost all sympathy when when she castigated the hero for not wanting to have sex in a parking lot.

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  10. Angela wrote:

    Speaking of that situation, one of the things I actually can’t remember seeing well done in a romance novel (my memory can be iffy at times, though so bear with me) is an across the tracks romance with a realistic dinner/party/what-have-you scene that underscores cultural and class differences. Most of the time you get a scene like something between a cross of a Gary Marshall movie and a Marx Brother’s comedy. Stereotypes abound, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a story that gets right the exquisite awkwardness of being in that situation.

    I agree with you. I am glad @ FD has provided a fascinating sounding exception, but it’s all too rare.

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  11. Oh, bummer. I really like this one, although frankly, I do agree with everything you said in the review. I don’t know if I gave it a blanket pass since it’s early Crusie and also an early Crusie category, but nonetheless I have a soft spot in my heart for it. Why? Oh, who knows. Maybe it was the very Marx Brothers-esque dinner scene at the end. In a billion years nothing like that would happen in real life, but it made me giggle anyway.

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  12. I’m so glad that you directed me back to this review, Jessica – I totally agree. In fact, given how much I usually admire the ideology of Crusie novels (one that sees marriage, procreation, and svelteness as non-compulsory for romance – unlike some/all of the Julie James I’ve been reading lately), the politics of this one struck me as stereotyped to the point of being sinister. To be left-wing, in Tess’s case, is to be immature and impulse-ruled, incapable of filtering one’s conversation out of sympathy or propriety, and unwilling to see other people’s points of view. Eurgh. And the “left-wing” ideals laid out by CinderTess were a silly, simplistic mockery of true progressivism, while Nick’s “right-wing” politics were even less fleshed out, leaving us to conclude that conservativism largely consists of not wanting to be caught indecently exposing oneself and having a general commitment to polite conversation at dinner parties. It’s not a fair or complex portrait of either position, but it is also one which left me (died in the wool progressive that I am) feeling manipulated into uncomfortably siding with Nick on virtually every occasion. Not to mention the fact that the tutoring – the thing that drives Tess’s life and the whole plot – is never represented, and thus seems as arbitrary an enthusiasm as anything else in Tess’s existence.

    Didn’t care for it.

    By the by, did I name Bet Me as one of my favorite Crusie’s in your more recent post? I did like that one, but I really meant Faking It. God, that’s a good one. As far as I’m concerned its basically flawless.

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  13. @Ariel/Sycorax Pine:

    And the “left-wing” ideals laid out by CinderTess were a silly, simplistic mockery of true progressivism, while Nick’s “right-wing” politics were even less fleshed out, leaving us to conclude that conservativism largely consists of not wanting to be caught indecently exposing oneself and having a general commitment to polite conversation at dinner parties. It’s not a fair or complex portrait of either position, but it is also one which left me (died in the wool progressive that I am) feeling manipulated into uncomfortably siding with Nick on virtually every occasion

    Yes, yes. I kept wondering why she was being so hard on Nick. If you don’t like him or his values, let him go! It’s not like he was an addict or a compulsive gambler or someone who needed “fixing”.

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  14. It has been years since I last read Strange Bedperson’s. So many years that I didn’t even recognise the same 2 characters revamped with a paranormal storyline thrown in for good measure and delivered in the form of Maybe This Time. I have never enjoyed this book because of the reverse snobbery from the heroine but it still remained a keeper for me (I have the original Silhouette) as it was still quite distinct from other category romances being published at the time.

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  15. Looking back on my first comment, I realize that it is filled with grammatical errors, but the most hilarious (telling? Freudian?) of them is “died in the wool progressive.” A subconscious lament for the status of progressive politics?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately that I want more romances where there isn’t a gap between what the heroine thinks is the right course of action and what the reader is set up to understand as the right course of action. When the protagonist is clearly wrongheaded – even because of a misunderstanding – it makes it difficult for me to respect him/her, and I am decreasingly interested in reading romances where I can’t respect the hero and heroine. I think the problem with Strange Bedpersons was that this gap was too wide.

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  16. SB was the first Crusie I read. I was looking for a category romance with a fairy tale theme for a course I was teaching on Women and Literature, and someone recced it for me. I liked it well enough to keep reading more Crusie (though I ended up using a Nora Roberts book that was more readily available in print).

    I had never seen a heroine in romance like Tess before. I was just coming out of an intense period of reading Regencies, and my category experience before that consisted mainly of Janet Dailey and the much-missed Beverly Sommers. So whatever SB’s limitations are, it did succeed in bringing me back to contemporary/category romance, and it did offer up a heroine who was very unconventional.

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  17. I’ve been reading Crusie since she first published her Harlequin Temptation, Manhunting. The only category I didn’t purchase when it first came out was Sizzle (I couldn’t locate it anyway at the time, but found it several years later secondhand). I loved all her early categories because they were so clearly different from most of the categories being published–the humour, the strong female characters (both the heroine and her friend), the great dialogue, the positive portrayal of progressive ideals, etc. So that pleasure from the past still colours my feelings today about these early books.

    The reader is clearly supposed to like Tess and admire her “free-spirited” and progressive ideals–that many don’t–is of course a problem. Still–although the plot and ideological positions in Strange Bedpersons are confusing — Crusie never vilifies progressive or liberal or feminist positions. She does want us to admire and respect certain progressive and feminist ideas. And when she first began writing these categories that was not always true of other romance writers–I read more than a few categories that actually attacked feminism and positioned “liberated” women as difficult, unpleasant anti-heroines.

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  18. @Kate: A lot of people do really love this one. You are in good company!

    @Vassiliki:

    So many years that I didn’t even recognise the same 2 characters revamped with a paranormal storyline thrown in for good measure and delivered in the form of Maybe This Time.

    Oh, I plan to read that. Interesting!

    @Ariel/Sycorax Pine:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately that I want more romances where there isn’t a gap between what the heroine thinks is the right course of action and what the reader is set up to understand as the right course of action.

    This is a really good point. I agree, it is frustrating.

    @Wendy:

    So whatever SB’s limitations are, it did succeed in bringing me back to contemporary/category romance, and it did offer up a heroine who was very unconventional.

    to me, it feels like her heroines are still somewhat unconventional. I think anyone but Crusie might have hard time writing these women, as Kathryn put it:

    @Kathryn:

    I loved all her early categories because they were so clearly different from most of the categories being published–the humour, the strong female characters (both the heroine and her friend), the great dialogue, the positive portrayal of progressive ideals, etc.

    @Kathryn:

    I read more than a few categories that actually attacked feminism and positioned “liberated” women as difficult, unpleasant anti-heroines.

    Oh, I agree. And this is still there to some extent. I do feel there is a critique of feminism in Crusie as well, but buried much deeper.

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