Sunday, September 22, 2013

Invested . . . and Repaid

In a previous post, Metabuddies and High Expectations, I mentioned that I was reading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. And I mentioned that I was getting very invested in the book because I wanted to see its central message driven home: That a man and a woman who care deeply for each other do not have to become romantic partners eventually in order to maintain their relationship.

And it struck me to realize a large portion of the audience may have been hoping for the opposite.

People always want to see the guy and the girl get together. They get invested in the relationship and truly believe that for it to end happily ever after, they have to kiss and rejoice and get married.

But I wanted to see it happen the other way around. Because it mattered so much to me that the friendship between Becky and Felix as described in this book would not be portrayed as having to end in romance in order to show its true strength. It's hard for me to even communicate how much I needed to see the book end the way I believed it should.

And the thing is, society tells us over and over again that sharing love of this strength indicates more than a "friendly" attraction--that friendly love is always lesser (rather than differently flavored), and that love of appreciable strength is automatically romantic or sexual or both. So sometimes when the characters began to doubt the nature of their bond, I understood why. I understood why people follow the scripts they've been fed and don't try to examine the nuances of their feelings. I understood why people around them--including the characters' spouses--wondered if their being married was the only thing preventing them from getting together. Were they avoiding a "full on" romantic relationship for the sake of their marriages, or were they truly extraordinary friends regardless of what "obstacles" kept them apart?

I was terrified reading the book. As I haven't been in a long time. I don't mind admitting that.

I was so terrified that we were going to get to the end and everything was going to scramble downhill in a culmination that everyone but people like me would be cheering for.

I didn't want to see that happen. And I cried so many times reading this book--not only because of the terribly difficult things the characters went through in their lives, but because I was practically praying that the story narrative wasn't playing a dirty trick on me--wasn't trying to groom me to root for their romance. Because no. I did not want that message taken away from me. I did not want to be told that all sufficiently close friendships between straight men and straight women end up romantic eventually.

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you how it ends. But I am going to tell you that every thought and interaction read as authentic to me, so the progression to the end was completely believable. I was amazed at how well Shannon Hale was able to make me connect to her protagonist, especially because of two things that normally alienate me a bit:
  1. The entire book, despite being an intimate account of a woman's thoughts, was written in third person. That usually creates some necessary barriers and distance. In this case, it did not. (Though I should be used to that with Shannon Hale. Most of her other work is in third person; it must just be a preference of hers, and it certainly doesn't get in the way of connecting with the characters!)

  2. The protagonist was conservative and religious. I am neither. And yet, Becky didn't have to keep her religion and beliefs out of the story (and just wear them as badges on her person like a name tag) to avoid annoying me. Her beliefs about marriage and God were seamlessly stitched to everything she did without reading at all as preachy, and it wasn't just an aspect that was tacked onto her as a character; she observably operated through these beliefs and cultural expectations, and believably understood certain events as evidence of God in her life without the book reading like it was trying to send that message to readers about their own lives. (In fact, Shannon Hale has stated that she never tries to answer moral questions or send messages definitively; she's content with people getting what they get from her books without her saying she strove to put it there to send a particular message.)
I've been allotting one hour a day to reading (wish I could spare more, but I can't), and yet yesterday when I finished this book I went beyond that because I needed to know how this resolved. I felt very raw about it. The book was not plot-driven at all; it wasn't really about "I have to see what happens." I needed to know whether this book would contain an undoing--a backtracking on the message that I saw woven so eloquently throughout the rest of the story. And let me be clear: I didn't think the protagonists getting together romantically at the end would necessarily undo that; I just desperately did not want to see any "and looking back it was obvious all along that this was never REALLY just a friendship at all." I did not want to see any narratives claiming that what Becky and Felix had was definitively romantic from the start, nor did I want to see it downplayed as if what they had could ever be called "just" a friendship.

I'm happy to say that no such devastating message was embedded in the story, and I survived the ending of the book only to immediately add the title to my list of favorite books. (That doesn't happen much anymore. My standards are really stinking high.)

I love Shannon Hale. I want to hug her. Or at least be on a panel with her someday when I'm a successful published author. ::wink::


  1. Great read, and suddenly I'm driven to read the book.
    Have a Great Day!

    1. I hope some people do read it because of this post. :) I'm sure it's not for everyone but I was captivated.

  2. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't see it this way. Judging by the negative crit - they say it was "an emotional affair" =(

    But I agree, I often hope for friendship books like that where sex isn't the highest expression of love - whichever flavour it is.

    1. Kind of bugs me that people would look at someone else's relationship and say "No, that's 'an emotional affair' and therefore it is betrayal" or something like that. Especially since it is fictional and you have access to the thoughts inside Becky's head, and you can see how her love for her husband is different from her love for the actor. In some of her supplementary material, Shannon Hale talks about how she believes betrayal is different for different couples; that if your wife feels betrayed by something, that changes what it is, whereas if she's okay with it, it's fine. Everybody has to be allowed to negotiate their own boundaries.