December 14, 2009
I’m a man, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I like romantic comedies. Notting Hill is my favorite, a picture-perfect execution of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-runs-after-girl-with-the-help-of-his-quirky-friends formula, but I even enjoy the lesser, second-tier jobs like Two Weeks Notice, Runaway Bride, or this year’s The Proposal. I enjoy these films in the same way I like action flicks such as Die Hard or Crank 2: they abide by the genre’s blueprint and let me lose myself in their silly worlds for two hours.
More often than not, the book is superior to the film, so here was my line of thinking: if I like watching romcoms, maybe I’ll love reading them. When the opportunity came for me to get a review copy of Jennifer Weiner’s newest book, Best Friends Forever, I jumped on it. I’ve always considered her to be the voice of chick lit, the one who has intelligently defended these female-oriented works of fiction.
After reading the first five chapters of BFF, I stopped. Being this was her seventh novel, Weiner was being more literarily adventurous, utilizing italicized flashbacks (chapter 1), first person narration (chapter 2), third person narration (chapter 4), and temporal shifts (chapter 5 starts off with childhood memories then dovetails into the beginning of chapter 2). At the same time, the book was divided into reader-friendly bite-sized chunks, fifty-four chapters in 360 pages, an average of six and a half pages per chapter. Everything about it seemed wrong, a weird combination of experimentalism and slickness.
Good in Bed was her first novel, the runaway bestseller that propelled her to chick lit goddess status, and after reading the first few pages offered on Amazon, I could see why. Right from the get-go, we have the first-person voice of Cannie Shapiro, and we discover with her the horror that awaits her, that her ex-boyfriend wrote an essay for a Details-like magazine, titled, “Loving a Larger Woman.”
“I never thought of myself as a chubby chaser,” I read. “But when I met C., I fell for her wit, her laugh, her sparkling eyes. Her body, I decided, was something I could learn to live with.”
“I’ll KILL HIM!”
“So kill him already and shut up about it,” muttered Gabby, shoving her inch-thick glasses up her nose.
Her voice was immediate, it was funny, and I was heartbroken when the Amazon preview stopped at page six. I couldn’t click fast enough to get this book into my shopping cart.
Reading a book is like being in a relationship. In the beginning, it’s all new and thrilling and exciting and you just can’t quite get enough of the compelling characters and their wacky situations. I read the first hundred pages of Good in Bed in two hours. Weiner is a wonderful storyteller, a genuine comic talent: the scene in the weight loss center where the women start chanting for drugs is sitcom gold, the dialogue timed impeccably, one zinger following another. But then like the long middle of a relationship, where the couple knows each other quite well (maybe too well), the same goes for the book. It took me five months to read the next two hundred or so pages.
Part of my difficulty arose from the physical book, its unabashedly feminine cover. In the beginning, when I was toting it around and reading it while riding public transportation or sipping coffee at my neighborhood Panera, I felt righteous and good that I, a man, was reading a book like this. How generous and sensitive of me to reach over to the other side, to attempt to understand the plight of plus-sized women everywhere! At least this is the way I felt when the book was going well, but as my reading slowed, so did my noble conviction. Maybe that wasn’t a smirk of encouragement from that mother of two over there, but rather a creeped-out smile of discomfort. After all, why would a man be reading a book that featured a pair of naked legs on pink bedsheets on its cover? The guy had to be an A-plus weirdo.
Still, I kept going, picking up the book and making myself read another few pages as I ate my lunch. It wasn’t because the book was dragging in the middle. In fact, Weiner does a fine job of pushing the story forward: clashes with family close and far, a crazy trip out to Hollywood, an unplanned pregnancy with further complications. Still, the tropes of chick lit were wearing me down. A lot of it had to do with clothes. Two-thirds into the book, I was still reading about what Cannie was wearing: “I walked home, took a quick shower, pulled on a variation on my standard outfit (black velvet leggings, giant tunic top, lace-up Chuck Taylor low-tops in a subtle shade of periwinkle that I’d bought for $10)…” Or if not what she was wearing, what her friend Maxi was wearing: “She’d changed into a pair of black pedalpushers and a cherry-red cap-sleeved T-shirt, with big black sunglasses and what I took to be fake ruby barrettes in her hair…” Just complaining about this tinges me with shame, as if I’ve become some sort of a male chauvinist, but my feeling on extraneous details of this sort goes beyond gender or genre. Tom Clancy and his techno-gibberish and Herman Melville and his encyclopedic dissertation on whaling annoy me just as much.
Eventually, I got to the last seventy pages of the book, and my reading kicked back into higher gear. In a little more than an hour, I was done, enjoying the brief dose of bleakness in the plot and reveling in the expected happy ending. When I think back, I believe my experience with this novel is no different than what I usually go through with romcoms on the silver screen: the first act is enticing, the second act has a lull, and the third act speeds to its cute conclusion. It’s just that with a book, everything is elongated, especially the middle. Maybe it was just too much of a good thing.
Though I never like to say never, I’m fairly certain I’ll never read another chick lit novel. Instead I’ll stick to chick flicks, and I hope Good in Bed will eventually receive its well-deserved Hollywood adaptation. Weiner’s dialogue is so good that the screenwriter should be able to lift them out wholly and slug them into Final Draft. In the interview section at the end of the book, Weiner is asked who would be a good candidate to play Cannie. She doesn’t have an answer, but I do: the super-talented Melissa McCarthy would make a great one.