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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10 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Girl: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post all morning and whether it’s different for a single, or married/attached woman to read romance. I can only try to think about this through the lens of my own experience. I, middle-aged and single, with a quietly satisfying career and no children, read romance as much as my best friend, who has a super-prestigious career, too many children, and a lummox of a husband. We read romance very very differently. So, my initial response is bland and boring, “it depends.” It depends on why you’re single, or married, whether this is what you’ve chosen and committed to (I think singlehood is a commitment, just as marriage is), whether you’re dissatisfied, or feel trapped by your single/married state. Your reading will only reflect your feelings.

    When I re-discovered my love of reading romance a few years ago and my super-woman pal saw me reading them, she requested a few. I handed her, yes, Chase’s MR. IMPOSSIBLE and Crusie’s BET ME. Three sleepless nights later, she appeared at my door, harried and eyes dark-circled, like Oliver Twist with his bowl, “Some more, please.” Three e-readers later, she reads romance, interestingly enough, with a frenzy that I, single, middle-aged female, do not. For her, it is clearly an escape from the stress of her life, and whatever romance the lummox doesn’t provide. Now, isn’t that a judgement about a married person reading romance?

    It comes with the territory of reading romance, whether you’re single or married, the stigma that somehow you’re compensating for a lack of romance, or physical intimacy, or whatever. Which is why I think it’s so important to defend, as George Eliot called them, these “silly novels by lady novelists” and analyze them and judge them just as one does any other form of literature, on merit and interest and what they say about the human condition. And to shrug away the nay-sayers.

    • pamela1740 says:

      “It depends” is a totally valid answer. Of course Miss Bates is right about this, and perhaps it really is a very thin epiphany. As always, you are generous and kind, yet cut to the chase with much more clarity than I was able to muster.
      I know it’s stretching the yarn quite thin to connect the contemporary setting, my visceral reaction to the personal ad Craigslist connection, ambivalence about the choice to be single, and the stigma all romance readers may be subjected to. It may have been something about Carrie’s musings about her single state. I bring different versions of myself to every book, and with this one I found myself feeling somewhat irritated to be presented with this alternate reality in which a single woman finds true love via Craigslist. Obviously we all choose to be in relationship or be single for deeply complex and personal reasons, and some of us may not have chosen to be as we are. I know it comes with the territory, but it still bothers me that people will make all kinds of assumptions about romance readers, and these assumptions frequently involve the notion that we are desperate for one thing or another that we’re not able to have “in real life.” Perhaps I was wondering if an author who is single would ever have crafted a plot that hinges on two desperate people risking stalkers and creeps in’the saddest corner of the city.’ So much else about the book rings true, but this didn’t. I know it’s a big part of what is daring about the book, but I began to wonder if I was feeling especially cranky about it, or more sensitive to the desperate single woman trope, as a not-desperate but occasionally restless resident of single-land.

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    What a great post! I think the tension you note between reality and fantasy is a big part of why this novella provoked so much discussion (and thanks for the link to mine!). I see this with a number of newish contemporary authors, who are deliberately trying to write more “realistic” characters. But then they may include elements that read as pure fantasy (which is how I felt about quite a bit of Rivers’s novella, certainly the ad and that she answered it, and that no one in her life really freaked out about that).

    I find this blend really interesting, partly because it explores a tension at the heart of the genre itself: many people read it for a fantasy “escape,” but also want real emotions. I think it relates, too, to a view of the genre as being, in part, a place where women’s fantasies, as opposed to men’s, are explored, depicted, given importance. But. When a writer is blending those two modes, especially in contemporary romance where the “real” parts are close to many readers’ lives, it’s hard to do successfully. I find many books like this I read are taking interesting risks that don’t entirely pay off (but that are still worth reading and doing). And I also think it may make for a much more variable reader response, because what the reader brings to the book, the way she is filling in its gaps or interpreting what is real/fantasy, may be even more significant a part of the reading experience than usual.

    I’m middle-aged and long and happily married, and I find the reason I read romance varies from day to day: fantasy, escape, an emotional ride, quiet happiness, a real look at women’s lives (now or in the past), a chance to join a discussion with all the amazing people I’ve met online. Luckily there are books in the genre to meet all those needs!

    • pamela1740 says:

      Many thanks for hosting the ‘seminar’ on this book which helped me think through my sort of chaotic response to it! I do feel a little bit like the person who turned the paper in late, since I am not yet prepared for the Gaffney discussion and I’m still catching up here with the Story Guy….
      I love that you note the online romance community and the chance to discuss why we read and what we like, as part of the great appeal of reading romance. I know that other forms of genre fiction also have strong online discussion communities, but perhaps because romance readers frequently grapple with various ways the stigma of women’s fiction is expressed, I think the discussions are especially robust.

  3. I find that as a singleton, my romance reading has become more…fraught? the closer my age has ticked to 30 (I turned 29 two weeks ago!! O__O). Where before it was pure fantasy–simply because all of the characters were older than me–the worries of the late 20something/early 30something heroines in contemporary romance now hit too close to the bone, lol. The worries of New Adult do as well. In the same vein, I still gravitate towards romance and women’s fiction because it is the only place where women’s fantasies and worries and anxieties–which play a role in my life–take precedence.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Fraught is a wonderful way to describe the weird inner dialogue I found myself having with regard to Carrie’s behavior as a middle aged single woman! What was she THINKING, I kept thinking. I think you are on to something in terms of our age/stage of life perhaps affecting our reading choices more significantly than marital status…

  4. As a married lady, with too many kids, but a wonderful husband, I have to say that I don’t specifically read romance to escape–at least no more than I use any kind of reading to escape. It’s a terrible cliche, I know, but I really am married to my true love, and often I find in romance a kind of remembering. A romance that I can get lost in evokes those delicous frissions that happened when we were first falling in love, the frissions that still happen when he smiles at me just so, or when he makes me laugh even when I want to smack him. So I read romance not so much to escape my husband, but to get all those delightful sensations he can evoke from me, only in book form. 🙂
    As for contemporary vs. historical, I agree that the fantasy aspect is much easier to sustain in historicals. The conflicts in historical romances also seem to have higher stakes than in contemporaries. There are definitely contemporaries that I enjoy, but my default is to reach for a historical first.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I know what you mean about the way that a romance can evoke a fantasy that is deeply connected to a specific memory of a current or prior relationship. And – hooray for historicals! What was that about the death of historical romance, about two months ago…? Guess not!

  5. MacPudel says:

    Chiming in as a happily married, middle-aged female here. I really don’t confuse fiction with reality. I love romance and the HEA. I love detective novels and the HEA equivalent. I enjoy YA romance, second-chance-at-love romance, etc. and my main concern is that it be well executed. Obviously for fiction to happen, the characters have to be someone that’s not the author. Sometimes the author hits an off-note, whether with a historical misstep, sometimes, as in this case, with a failure to get insufficiently into the character’s head.

    But can I make this about me now please? I am getting tired of HEAs that involve having a baby. Is that because I don’t have children of my own? I’ve just read my zillionth romance with an epilogue showing the couple and their beautiful baby integrated into their family. Are there no other dreams a couple can fulfill? Couldn’t the couple be sailing across the Pacific together in the epilogue, or putting the finishing touches on their dream home? In this case (Shades of Grace by Barbara Delinsky), the woman is 43 years old, she already has a daughter by a previous marriage who’s 24, and she gets pregnant the *first time* she has unprotected sex. I am not anti-baby. I just think the HEA is just as valid without showing the fruits of their love. Just like romances with infertility always include a miraculous pregnancy. To invoke Jane Eyre again, would that have been a better book with an epilogue showing Jane holding Rochester’s baby? I think not.

    In response to your observations, Pamela, romance is not written only for those seeking their own HEA, or for an alternative to their drab existences. If the reader is missing part of the idealized equation (Prince Charming, or the inevitable beautiful healthy baby), she might feel left out at times, but I think it’s just lazy writing.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I’m so happy to hear your take on this. It’s so true that even at its best, on a macro level romance is mostly reinforcing very traditional social and domestic arrangements, with marriage and procreation the most common HEA. I’ve been seeing some interesting discussions recently about privilege and the romance genre, in relation to disability and/or other manifestations of difference. Sometimes I do wonder why I prefer to read books that — on the surface at least — appear to “overcome” or marginalize singlehood. And it goes without saying that disability is nearly always presented as something to be overcome. Childlessness is likewise more often than not portrayed as a lack, also to be overcome or “come to terms” with. Even the word childless – well, you get the point. So child-centered.

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