Sex and the Single Girl: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

Do single people read romance stories differently?

I can hardly remember the last time I read a contemporary romance. So when I started seeing all the buzz on Twitter about The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers, I was mainly letting it flow around and by me.  But many bloggers and authors I really admire and respect just kept saying such amazing things about this novella.  Literally dozens of 5 star reviews on Goodreads. And then there was a giveaway (an easy one, that didn’t involve rafflecopter, thankfully!) … Well,  I was intrigued enough to toss my twitter handle in, and I won a copy — or more accurately,  a download. It’s a Loveswept e-release, currently available for only 99 cents, but still – free is pretty fun.

And it turns out, The Story Guy is … well, pretty damn fun, if you’re in the mood for a well-written quick read featuring “…a good guy with a bad story doing something stupid.”

The Guy: Brian Newburgh, bicyclist-thighed federal contracts attorney; lonely and looking for love but with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a relationship, he begins a quirky (or bizarre, depending on how you feel about personal ads) series of semi-anonymous, semi-public, time-limited weekly encounters for “kissing only.”  In trying to decide whether to label Brian a badass or not, I’ve decided he’s kind of an alphabet soup hero — he shows both his alpha and his beta sides during the course of this unusual courtship. He’s a Story Guy — if you like his story, you may think he’s kind of a badass for loving so fiercely, and he’s got a protective kinda possessive streak that shows to great advantage when we see him act with ruthless tenderness in a big “reveal” scene near the end of the book.

The Gal: Carrie West, self-assured and accomplished librarian with goals and ambitions, at 35 she feels overly single watching her friends pair off and start thinking about babies. She’s an interesting combination of self-awareness and denial, and because the entire story is told in her voice, there’s an interesting play between her authenticity and unreliability as a narrator.

The Tropes: Angsty, Tortured Hero With Secret; Sexy Librarian; Epistolary Romance (IM’ing, texting, phone sex); Love At First Sight; Sexy Stranger.

Yes, there is a lot of Sexy in this powerful little book. The eroticism is a key element of this couple’s journey of mutual discovery; it feels authentic and integral, though I confess to a preference for the sexy conversations and encounters with perhaps fewer descriptions of sensory details (all five) involving gussets and moistness.

The Setting: A large Midwestern U.S. city with a federal building, nice parks with pergolas, and a great library system.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads:

The Story Guy (Novella)

In this eBook original novella, Mary Ann Rivers introduces a soulful and sexy tale of courage, sacrifice, and love.

I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only.

Carrie West is happy with her life . . . isn’t she? But when she sees this provocative online ad, the thirtysomething librarian can’t help but be tempted. After all, the photo of the anonymous poster is far too attractive to ignore. And when Wednesday finally arrives, it brings a first kiss that’s hotter than any she’s ever imagined. Brian Newburgh is an attorney, but there’s more to his life . . . that he won’t share with Carrie. Determined to have more than just Wednesdays, Carrie embarks on a quest to learn Brian’s story, certain that he will be worth the cost. But is she ready to gamble her heart on a man who just might be The One . . . even though she has no idea how their love story will end?

A story about the power of stories: Carrie is a children’s librarian, and there are numerous wonderful references to formative texts and the impact of fiction and childhood reading, from Where The Red Fern Grows to J.K. Rowling. Brian is a man with a “story” — when things get tough, GBF Justin exclaims, “When I said you should go for Story Boy I didn’t realize he was a Russian novel.” The idea, though, is that in taking this risky step with a stranger, Carrie is opening up her own book for Brian to become a chapter that has the potential to be written in boldface, or poetry, or, as Justin explains, a “life highlighter,” a “big ol’ paragraph of neon pink.”

Although it is admittedly almost too cute for words, I especially loved when Carrie finds out near the end of the book that Brian (for reasons that make sense, but are spoiler-ish) has actually been attending a read-aloud storytime at the city library. Rivers weaves together the several layers of this storytelling metaphor in ways that are compelling and clever.

I can’t say enough about how much I admire and appreciate a book that is itself in love with books, composed with the kind of careful prose that strongly divides readers — some will say it’s too effortful and consciously writerly while others will love it for this thoughtful attention to craft, like a deliciously artisanal wine …  I’m happy to have writers this creative and challenging working in romance.  Sometimes I like artisanal prose and sometimes I enjoy writing so fluid and lovely it just allows me to have the experience without deconstructing the sentences. For me, Rivers was able to strike the right balance, even with the first person narration.

Hero and/or Martyr? As I mentioned, many authors, reviewers and romancelandia thought-leaders have been buzzing about this book. There is a challenging and comprehensive discussion going on over at My Extensive Reading – if you’ve already read The Story Guy, or you don’t care about spoilers, don’t miss out on the amazing conversation Liz is hosting in the Comments. The truth is, I feel many of the important themes and issues raised by this unusual book have been eloquently and sufficiently articulated there, though the discussion covers the full story, including spoilers, so be warned.

It’s actually difficult to review this book or even tell you much about the discussion without getting into spoiler territory.  Although it’s Carrie’s first-person present-tense POV throughout, the conflict and plot hinge on Brian’s familial and emotional history, and the way in which he has managed and compartmentalized his life. His back story is raw and sad and authentic, and readers seem to be divided about whether his restraint is an act of heroism and sacrifice, or a dysfunctional case of misplaced martyrdom. He’s beautifully written, because we mainly hear from him directly, in the form of dialogue, or through Carrie’s eyes. The best parts of the book are the conversations, and Carrie’s minute observations of Brian’s emotions and physical presence.

“It’s what I want. This man and his faraway gaze and rare dimples and gripping hands and voice so sad it called out over all the other sad men’s voices in the city’s most desperate corner. I think I’m wrong to want him, as if I am taking him away from where he knows he should be. I feel as though I’ve picked him out for myself, and with the tenacity and willfulness of a child, I’ve decided nothing else will do.”

Single White Female I’m having a more complicated response to Carrie herself.  I think it’s because from the first pages of this book I had to suspend SO MUCH disbelief about this 30-something woman’s willingness to answer the personal ad. Has anyone been talking about Craigslist in connection with this book?? Because to me this is the part that seems the most fantastical.  The Wednesday-only, kissing-only thing is clearly kind of a fun fantasy, but the mechanism of a faux Craigslist site — ‘the city’s most desperate corner’ — kept bothering me.

I’m wondering if it’s being single that makes this element more problematic for me. It’s true that I am always slower than a turtle in terms of adopting new technologies, and I have resisted Match.com and eHarmony and PlentyofFish in spite of the many many friends who have encouraged me in that direction, even offering to “do all the work”  (eg. write and post a profile) for me. Let me just say firstly that, like Carrie, I don’t have many single friends — I’m surrounded by the happily (or unhappily, in a couple of cases) paired. But of my single friends who, also like Carrie, venture into the online dating world, are well-educated, professional, smart, sexy, in their 30s and 40s and read a lot of books, I don’t think any of them would consider following up on a Craigslist personal.

Single White Female

Bridget Fonda and Steven Weber in Single White Female (1992)
via allmovie.com

I stumbled over this – it only works as a plot device because it’s precisely NOT a matchmaking site and Brian’s only posted his cryptic ad, not a profile. There is a pretty detailed description of the site that makes it clear it’s based on Craigslist. But there’s a vulnerability in being middle aged and single (frankly, at my age, Carrie and Brian both actually seem young, but they’re not immature). Maybe I am just a risk averse wuss, but I kept thinking Whaaat?? I had to keep telling myself that she was just at a low ebb, goofing around reading the ads, clicked on his photo and fell in love with his looks. But. Still. Craigslist criminals can look fetching too, people! And frankly, it’s not just Carrie’s safety I was tripping up on — she becomes at times uncomfortably pushy in her pursuit of Brian and is clearly partly attracted to his sadness and vulnerability. The book skirts around the edges of the creepy, unsafe, stalker-y territory it has relied on for this central plot device, and this is something I’m still wrestling with.

So. Carrie speaks of having few epiphanies, but when she does, it’s internalized to become part of her identity.  It turns out reading this wonderful novella has prompted an epiphany of sorts for me as a reader of romance.

I’m still puzzling this out, but I am beginning to wonder if my general avoidance of contemporary romance is connected to my being single. And (very) middle-aged. I haven’t done any research (yet) and I don’t know how the romance readership demographics are organized relative to various subgenres. But I realized that even though I was at times completely immersed in The Story Guy, and at other times I was pausing to admire the writing, something about it just didn’t take me where I want to go as a romance reader. And that this has nothing to do with this particular novella, and everything to do with its contemporary setting.

Juggling, Leaning In, and Work/Life Balance Aren’t Romantic The Story Guy, like all contemporary romance, is simultaneously too real-world and mundane (eg. “contemporary” with my own harried lived experience) and too fantastical for me. Reading about Carrie whiling away her evening waiting for a new message to pop up, or thinking about how thinly Brian is stretched to manage his work and the other demands on his time — that’s all too close to home for me. So the real-world contemporariness gets me into a place that’s very familiar, which means I have too much trouble going along with the various unlikely coincidences and circumstances through which our H/h meet, resolve their conflicts, surmount all obstacles, and reach their HEA.

It’s not that I’m not rooting for them, it’s just harder for me to enter into the fantasy. In a historical romance, or paranormal, or even an occasional 50 Shades clone erotic billionaire story, if it’s done well I’m already immersed in an alternate reality, and while I do care about historical authenticity, I can more easily let go of rigid adherence to questions of plausibility, plotting, and coincidence.

Miss Lonely Hearts? Shame of a Single Romance Reader? I don’t have time/space now to take this up fully, but my response to Carrie and her Craigslist gamble — which tapped some ambivalence about being single and the online complexities of contemporary courtship activities — got me thinking about the issue of reader shame again.  I talked about this in a different context last month. Is there more/different stigma attached to reading romance for women who are single? We may be reading for many of the same reasons (pleasure, fantasy, escape, immersion, imagination, emotional satisfaction, id vortex,  HEA guarantee, etc) as people who are at other points on the relationship spectrum (dating, divorced, married, living together, hooking up, you name it…) but do we feel that our reading habits may be judged differently? How do I feel about the baggage that comes with friends who I know are thinking that I read romance so much of the time as some kind of “poor substitute” for a relationship?

To be continued…. and I would love to hear your thoughts on this as I ponder a future post.

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Wharton Holiday: Pictures from a Literary Side Trip

This gallery contains 25 photos.

In honor of summer vacations, a leisurely look at The Mount, the house Edith Wharton designed and built as her summer retreat, for writing, reading, and small house parties with good friends. Wharton may be sort of an odd fit for a romance blog, but I’ve always been fascinated by her. Neither her fiction or […]

Brave in Heart: A Contradiction Too Great for One Man to Bear?

A Civil War Romance in Which we find Many Intriguing Contradictions

The Hero: Theo Ward, dutiful son and attorney-at-law; justice-seeker on the side of right, abolitionist but not activist; mildly henpecked, professionally and emotionally stalled until a second chance at his failed romance galvanizes his enlistment as a Union officer.

Falls For:  Margaret Hampton, principled and devoted teacher, pragmatist and secret romantic.

Brave in HeartBrought To You By: Emma Barry, in Brave in Heart (July 2013 e-release from Crimson)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Theodore Ward is a man of deep passions and strong principles—none of which he acts on. So Margaret Hampton ends their engagement, breaking both of their hearts in the process.

Years after their estrangement, ardent but frozen Theo attempts to reconnect with Margaret. She is no longer trusting of the idea of romantic love, having become pragmatic and wary during decades alone. But with the drumbeat of the early days of the Civil War in the background, how can she refuse?

The courtship that results is hasty, reckless, and intense, fueled by contradictions between Theo’s willingness finally to change and Margaret’s fears about the future. Two smart, stubborn, fiery people will need to overcome the hesitancies of their hearts and the perils of battle if they’re ever to find happiness.

The Setting: Middletown, Connecticut, at the start of the U.S. Civil War, 1861 through 1863. The setting alone is going to get this book noticed within the histrom community, and Emma Barry has been eloquent in framing her enterprise in the long shadow of Margaret Mitchell, in spite of the fact that GWTW is not a romance, and Brave in Heart is not set in the South.

It’s a bold move to set a romance in a decidedly unglamorous wartime, and especially so when there is no plot device to put the couple together at the front (eg. working as spies, battlefield hospital, etc). In historical romance these days, when war is a major theme, it’s nearly always Napoleonic and it’s usually in the hero’s past, not his present. The history here is well-researched and authentic and the details of their lives as lawyer and teacher and members of the educated and privileged class of Connecticut society are skillfully rendered.

GWTW regimental ball scene, replica lobby card, via posterplace.com

Barry’s evocation of a Northern community on the brink of what we (but not they) know to be the massive and protracted trauma of the Civil War is moving and poignant without ever patronizing. I truly loved the opening sequence set during a ball in honor of departing Union regiments, with its heightened emotion and feverish sense of enthusiasm staving off grim realities and dread of what’s to come. The writing itself has an old-fashioned density and dignity that enhances the Victorian-era atmosphere, without making use of overt dialects or overwhelming the narrative.

The Tropes: Second Chance at Love, War Bride, Mother in Law Issues, Love Letters, Ordinary Heroes

Brave but not Badass: “Ardent but frozen” is a great tagline for Theo, asserting a hero who is by definition contradictory.  I couldn’t really figure him out and as a result I’m finding this a challenging book to review as a romance.  Let’s start with ardent: I badly wanted to connect with Theo as a man driven by strong emotion, but reluctantly concluded that, for me, this was a case of telling not showing.  He’s described as impassioned. I just couldn’t feel it, except maybe in his letters. He’s frustrated, with himself and with his life; he has strong political principles and inner yearnings to be an actor on a larger stage. I’m not sure these frustrations make him come across as passionate, though ardent is an interesting word choice because it suggests someone more youthful (even adolescent?) than a man in his late 30’s.

And how about frozen? We see him freeze up — and give up — in the Prologue when Margaret breaks off the original engagement, but WHY is he frozen? I couldn’t get past the fact that he’s 39 years old and the broken engagement happened two years prior – he would have been 37. What happened during almost two decades of adulthood to make him so passive and deferential to his mother? We do learn early on that the death of his father has caused his mother to rely on him and keep him close, but he seems to have almost no discernible personality beyond his politics, his love and admiration for Margaret, and his frustration with his own lack of backbone. I kept wishing that the Prologue had been long enough to help me understand what makes Theo tick, and why he has chosen to live such a narrow life for so many years. I just needed more back story to understand his pressures and priorities.

Arrested Development? Perhaps if Margaret and Theo had been written as younger characters — in their early 20’s, say — the romance might have made more sense to me.  Theo in particular comes across as a much younger person, flailing around trying to figure out how to match his actions with his dreams and fantasies. There are several references to the years he has suffered since the broken engagement, so it might have made more sense if they had been estranged for 10 or 12 years, rather than 2, which doesn’t really seem all that long if you are nearly 40. Because the wartime separation is part of the novel’s main story arc, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to  note that Theo suddenly enlists in the Union army immediately following an unsatisfying encounter with Margaret in which she gives him a reprise of her original rejection and dressing down.  At this point his thought process more resembles that of an “I’ll show her!” adolescent than a seasoned lawyer of 39 years. It also doesn’t come off as the bold, ruthless action of a man in control of his destiny — it feels reactive and hectic, rather than badass. Also, I know authors have little or no control over cover images, but this one, which uses sepia tones beautifully to convey the period, really misleads with its photo image of a young woman who looks decades younger than Margaret’s 37 years.

An Unusual Romance Hero: I’m very sympathetic to arguments for getting rid of rigid alpha/beta hero classifications, and Theo makes a strong case for the inadequacy of these definitions. He’s one of the most passive heroes I’ve ever encountered in romance. As I mentioned, I’m finding it challenging to sum up my response to Theo — on the one hand I appreciate the intellectual challenge of encountering and enjoying an unusual hero who’s not an up-in-your-face alpha. I also like Barry’s willingness to construct a hero who is hard to love, but not in the usual bad boy ways, and I do think Theo works quite well as a portrait of a young man riven by inner conflict, still seeking to live an authentic life in accordance with his beliefs as well as with his family’s (his domineering mama!) needs and expectations.

If I’m being honest, though, Theo’s To Be or Not To Be angst just irritated me for much of the novel, and, like Margaret, I kept wanting him to man up. Here’s how Margaret describes her man to a younger friend, during the wonderful ballroom scene where she re-encounters him for the first time since breaking the engagement:

He is a passionate man, but he submits, I think, too much to the desires of others. He…doesn’t achieve moderation. I grew weary of his inner intemperateness and his outward capitulation. It’s a contradiction too great for one man to bear.

The Age of Innocence

Ardent but frozen? Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis as Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, via moviemail.com

I need to pause here to savor this language, with its old-fashioned restraint and cadence masking the ruthlessness of the judgment rendered. Barry’s gift for replicating the tone and flavor of period dialogue and prose is unique and tremendous.

Back to Theo — his quest for love, identity, and authenticity put me in mind of another 19th-century passive hero — the tragically trapped Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s masterful The Age of Innocence. So I am intrigued by all this, but not immersed in the romance. Neither hero nor heroine captured my heart in the way that larger-than-life characters do when I am reading a captivating romance in which the principle focus of my experience as a reader is the anticipation of their every interaction, and the ultimate HEA.

The fact that Brave in Heart, as a work of genre/romance fiction, ends with an HEA, is satisfying on one level, but doesn’t match my experience of these characters or this couple.   It just wasn’t a good sign when the hero refers to the heroine as a nag within the first chapters of the book — and not in a jokingly affectionate way.  This may be authentic, and how real people think, but it felt jarring and caused me to repeatedly question whether Theo and Margaret really liked each other.  She thinks he’s a mama’s boy; he thinks she’s demanding and impulsive. In a romance, I’m not sure I want to spend much time thinking about how the couple will probably drive each other crazy once they start actually having to live together.

A Successful Contradiction of Expectations: What this unusual book did achieve quite brilliantly was to evoke the experience of reading an authentic 19th-century story, and this in itself is quite captivating. Theo survives the great battle of Fredericksburg (again, I’m asserting this is not a spoiler since we know the book will have an HEA), but most of what we hear about his experience of the front is about surviving and enduring. I haven’t said much about Margaret as the heroine, but she, too, is a figure of stoicism and yearning, and I didn’t see her as impulsive or demanding. Her one truly impulsive act was breaking off an engagement with someone she appeared to love but not like very much. But what’s so interesting about this kind of protagonist — whether hero or heroine — is that it suggests the ordinary heroism to be found in endurance, perseverance, and constancy. The ability to love someone in spite of their fears and unredeemed flaws can also be an act of heroism.

In some ways this trope in particular reminds me more of mainstream fiction, or a 19th century novel.  It’s almost as if Theo and Margaret are literary characters from a period piece who have been given Romance H/h roles to play, and they do so somewhat awkwardly. In historical romance there is a strange alchemy that happens when the sexy times take us inside the bedroom for steamy sizzle without breaking into anachronism or allowing the characters to become ahistorical.  I can’t figure out why the love scenes felt uncomfortable, since there is indeed heat along with a sense of intimate discovery, and both characters remain fully authentic. For some reason I just felt like I would have been OK with letting this hesitant couple have their privacy! These contradictions kept taking me out of the romance itself, but may have served to enhance this novel as a work of nuanced historical fiction.

Bring Back the Epistolary Novel! Finally, the most distinctive feature of Brave in Heart as a romance in the style of a 19th century novel is its reliance on a long separation and correspondence between hero and heroine. The epistolary sections of the book are fiercely and beautifully written, and these passages where we hear the characters narrating in first person were the most effective in pulling me in and allowing me to connect with the genuine romance between Theo and Margaret. I am delighted to be reminded of how affecting an epistolary novel can be, and also how difficult to write an entire novel within the constraints of this format.  But if anyone has a chance at reviving this old-fashioned and challenging literary form with authenticity and verve, I’d venture to say it’s Ms. Barry, and I hope she may indeed consider it.

Brave in Heart is available today from Crimson Romance, and is available in the usual formats and places. I received a generous e-ARC of this novel from the author, for an honest review.