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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sleepy hollow2

Photo: near Brimfield MA
pamela1740, April 2013

I don’t care what anyone says about weddings, or the summer solstice, or the Stanley Cup, or anything else — June is hell. When it comes to my regular reading, and my blogging efforts here, I feel like Rip van Winkle. I’ve missed so much… but I certainly haven’t been getting enough sleep!

These last two weeks are going down in Badass Romance history as the Romance-less Fortnight. It seems crazy, but between major day job deadlines and related work travel, extra weeks of school for the badass daughters, and the onslaught of packing for camp and other summer chores, I think I read — and wrote — less this month than any other time in the last 10 or so years.  Not even comfort reads, or books I was eager to get my hands on could withstand my crazy schedule which has had me falling into bed and falling asleep before I can even turn a single page.

But it’s not like I wasn’t thinking about all the books I wanted to be reading and recommending!  Here’s a short list of what’s been on the top of my TBR, and on the front burner for blogging:

I wanted to be reading Less Than a Gentleman, the new historical (American Revolution – my favorite!) from Kerrelyn Sparks, but instead I’ve been More Like a Slacker Mom, vainly attempting to stay cheery and upbeat as the girls face dreary extra days in un-air-conditioned sweatshops, er.. classrooms, and seem to need different attire and obscure accessories every freaking day (field trips, 4th grade luau (??), concerts, etc.).

I had hoped to finish my review post of Brave in Heart, from Emma Barry (another new historical, this one with an unusual US Civil War setting) but instead I am Cowering in Fear from the chore of twin packing lists for overnight camp.

I had been breathlessly anticipating and planning to read A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant, but instead I am simply A Woman In Need of a Nap.  Sigh.  School finally ends tomorrow, and then I drive the girls to camp in Maine this weekend. First time for them at sleepaway camp: this means next week I will celebrate Liberty with my own personal Independence Day!

I’d Rather Be Reading Romance

A Blog Award for Badass Romance?!

It appears that Badass Romance has been nominated (tagged) for the Liebster Award! Squee!?! Wait, what does this mean?lieber-award

The Liebster is a friendly pay-it-forward getting-to-know-you thumbs up badge for blogs with fewer than 200 followers.  Like other history-minded bloggers who have received this compliment before me, I did some googling to try and figure out where this started.  Seems to be somewhat shrouded in mystery, but it’s German for “dearest” or “favorite” and at least one persistent blogger traced it back to a 2010 German blog, but no one seems to be able to find the original post.

It took me a while to figure out that being nominated is the same thing as “winning,” or more properly, receiving, this award. My blog and 10 others were listed and linked by two other bloggers who recently received the award for their own awesome bloggery.

My sincere and humble thanks to the Urban Book Thief and Rika Ashton for the thumbs-up vote of confidence that this represents. Please check out both of these blogs – a whole lot of clever and creative going on! I’m incredibly flattered, and in spite of my skepticism, I’m game for the good-natured chain letter-ish shenanigans involved in “accepting” the award, which basically means making a long-ass post about it and following a list of eleventy or so evolving rules.  So read on for some deep dark secrets about me, answers to odd questions you didn’t ask, and some genuine inspiration in the form of links to cool new blogs.  And here we go…!

As a recipient, I must:

  1. List 11 random facts about myself.
  2. Answer 11 questions posed by the blogger who nominated me.
  3. Nominate 11 other blogs for the award and link to them.
  4. Notify the bloggers that they are awesome and have won a shiny pink blogging logo.
  5. Pose 11 new questions for my Liebster nominees.
  6. Thank the blogger who nominated me and link back to their blog.

(*Note: Nominees, should you choose to accept this award, you will also have to complete the above tasks. 11 times everything! It’s cracking me up to find that there are Liebster posts from last year where the numerology was only FIVE of everything… sigh.  Prices just keep going up.)

Eleven Random Facts about Pamela / Badass Romance ….in which we learn things we may never have wanted or needed to know:

  1. Bicoastally mixed-up: I am a diehard New Englander but I grew up in California.
  2. I don’t like riding bicycles.
  3. Finally remembered to plant some sunflowers this year.
  4. My first job as a teen was shelving books at the city library.
  5. I have a serious bird phobia, which is why I am not answering the pigeon question, and a seagull once clawed a sandwich right out of my hand at an otherwise lovely beach.
  6. I can’t carry a tune to save my life, but I love to sing along to the radio in the car.
  7. My 5th grade biography project and heroine/role model was Nellie Bly.
  8. Last year on my birthday I went Girls Night Out dancing with friends at a burlesque cross-dressing disco version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Donkey Show).
  9. I secretly LOVE Abba.
  10. dark emMy children think most grownup books show people on the cover without their heads. Or half their clothes. Sigh.
  11.  I think this post by Carolyn Crane about the silliness of blog awards is truly hilarious (with thanks to Alpha Heroes!). I want to give myself the Little CJ Blog Award!

Eleven Answers to Questions posed by the Urban Book Thief and/or Rika (Ha!  I decided I get to pick a total of 11 from both lists.)

  1. Chicken or the Egg – CHOOSE! Chicken. It’s dinnertime not breakfastime here right now.
  2. How did you come up with the name of your blog? I knew what I wanted to call it but it took me a while to summon the nerve to put myself out there with the Badass label!
  3. Which one of your posts/book reviews was the most fun to write? Historical Romance: Lament, or Let it Die?
  4. What did you eat for breakfast today? I’m boring. Coffee, yogurt, granola.
  5. What are you reading right now? UNTAMED, by Anna Cowan. Plus about 4 or 5 other books. I multi-read.
  6. Which book character do you simply love the most? Rhett Butler or Richard Sharpe. Or Becky Sharp. Really, Jane Eyre of course.
  7. Which is your favourite book series? The Oz books by L. Frank Baum, or the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.
  8. Ninjas or pirates – CHOOSE! Pirates, absolutely. 
  9. What mythical creature would you want as a pet? Buckbeak! I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pick Buckbeak, for my daughters who are so sad hippogriffs aren’t real.
  10. What is your favourite song right now? Same Love by Macklemore.
  11. Are you a summer or winter person? I live in New England. You gotta be both.

My Badass Nominees for Liebster Award Winning and Related Shenanigans (this means they are lovely blogs you should check out!):

And finally, Eleven Questions for my Badass Liebsters – go ahead, it’s not that bad to “win” this award. And no dire consequences if you decide to forego “winning” it. But I’m dying to hear your answers!

  1. What is your favorite actual trophy or other award you can put on a shelf or hang on a wall?
  2. Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?
  3. What book is the most recent addition to your DIK shelf?
  4. What book is at the top of your TBR stack?
  5. What book keeps getting remaindered at the bottom of your TBR pile, and do you think you’ll ever get around to reading it?
  6. What language do you wish you were fluent in?
  7. Medieval castle or Mediterranean villa?
  8. What did you eat for breakfast?
  9. How do you feel about time travel plots?
  10. What is your favorite carnival ride?
  11. What blog did you find this week that you love? (time to start thinking about your Liebster nominees!)

the original Liebster tag, before someone tarted up the glossy pink one! Also, Carolyn Crane‘s hilarious Little CJ Blog Award, which I am awarding to myself.  And to all of you!

LiebsterBlog

  littleCJaward3