July 19th, 2012


Revisiting The Boyfriend School

I had a pretty good day yesterday. I'm enjoying my nice, cool house. I did a couple of rounds of grocery shopping, so I'm well-supplied with food (I'd been running painfully low), and it's mostly good, nutritious food. One thing I like about summer is all the summer fruit, and I've got cherries, strawberries, peaches and grapes, which should take care of my sweet tooth for a while. I've been working on my PR plans and have a few good leads. I started proofreading the latest book, doing my usual reading aloud thing, and instead of reading a chapter and then taking a break I ended up plowing through a lot of it without stopping because I couldn't put it down. There's something about this book that sings to me, which really shows up when I read it out loud. I don't consider myself much of a wordsmith. I write for story, not for beautiful prose, but there are some bits I think are unintentionally brilliant. I didn't do any crafting to shape the words intentionally, but somehow the words I used to convey the story came out really well, if that makes sense, and that popped out to me when I was reading out loud because the words rolled off my tongue. It's so cool when something like that happens. My subconscious must have been firing on all cylinders. I just hope I'm not the only person who reacts to this book this way. And on top of that, I got a couple of pieces of sort of good news. Really, it's more a case of not-bad news, but in a situation where that's actually really good. It involved learning that a couple of doors are definitely still open, which is better than learning that a door has been closed.

Maybe that explains why I was pretty functional this morning and even had some energy, even though I forgot to drink my breakfast tea. I went downstairs to get my mid-morning cup and found my breakfast teacup still sitting beside the teapot. I somehow didn't notice that I never brought it to the table. No wonder breakfast went more quickly than normal.

I was in a bit of a mood earlier this week, and I was between library trips, so I found myself reaching for an old favorite book, The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird. If it had been published ten years later than it was, it might have been lumped into the chick lit genre, but as it was, when I read it in the early 90s while I was struggling to make myself write romance novels, I had that "this is what I want to read and write" tingle. I got it from the library then, and it was totally out of print at that time. I did a happy dance in the aisles of Half-Price Books when I finally found a copy. While chick lit was going strong, they reissued it in trade paperback with a slightly chick-litty cover, and I bought it at a booksigning for the new book she had coming out. My editor at that time was friends with her, so she'd been warned about me before the signing, which was good because I had one of those trembling violently moments in which I could barely speak. I hadn't yet read that copy, and it's been a while since I re-read that book, so I gave it a whirl.

The story is about a photographer for a shoestring Austin weekly newspaper during the bust years of the 80s who gets assigned to cover a romance writers' convention. She goes in with the smugly superior attitude that's pretty common to reporters writing about the romance genre -- those silly books for silly women -- but gets schooled pretty quickly when the first writer who speaks to her is a jaded ex-journalist. The ex-journalist and her friend, a medievalist whose bestselling historical romances allowed her to escape the confines of academic life, take our heroine under their wings and teach her about the genre, making her actually read some of the books before she writes about them. Then after the conference they support her when she decides to try writing one. She just has one quibble: She doesn't believe any real woman would fall for a romance hero. Real women want nice men with integrity who treat them well. They point out that she rejected the nice guy with integrity they set her up with. As she plunges into writing, she feels like something's holding her back. And then she meets a mysterious stranger who seems to have stepped right out of the pages of a romance novel, and it changes her life.

It's hard for me to be objective about this book because it almost seems like this book was written just for me. I was living in Austin during the period in which the book is set, and I worked for a weekly newspaper one summer. I lived on the edge of the neighborhood where the heroine lives, and so I knew all the places she went. Her post office was my post office, her library branch was my library branch. Plus, I've been to those romance conferences and I know those people (in fact, it turns out that my guess for the inspiration for one of the characters was correct, based on the bonus material in the back of this edition. The speech patterns brought to mind someone totally different from the character who was described, and now I know why). I'm not at all like the heroine and probably would have made different choices than she made, but her life is enough like some things I've been through that I could identify with her. With all that, I can't help but love this book, but I do still think it's a great book beyond that. It has a twist to it that means it becomes a totally different book the next time you read it because reading it with the knowledge of what's really happening changes the story. I love books that do that (something to add to my literary bucket list). It has some fairly profound things to say about love and attraction, fantasy and reality. And it probably explains why it was such a struggle for me to write romances. I've had a lot of crushes, some pretty deep and intense enough that they were easy to mistake for love, but I don't think I've ever been truly in love -- not even in a "real world" way, let alone that earthshattering romance novel way. I'm not sure it's possible to write about that experience with the depth and intensity you need in a romance novel if you haven't experienced it. I can only write about what I wish would happen, and I'm not sure that carries the same weight.

One thing that was interesting from the perspective of reading it now was the way the romance genre has changed. There's something the writers warn the heroine that she shouldn't do in a romance that's now practically required. Sex has become much more important, and not even the flowery, euphemistic kind. The money factor is also very different. In the 80s, a category romance writer could have easily been driving a Mercedes. Now, I'm not sure you could do that just on categories. They don't have nearly the reach they once did. I suspect Amazon had a lot to do with killing that genre. The appeal was the convenience -- you subscribed to a line and every month got a shipment of books that were along the lines of what you liked, so you didn't have to go through the hassle of going to a bookstore. Now you can go online and pick and choose exactly the books you want and have them delivered -- or if you have an e-reader, you can just have them downloaded instantly. The subscriber numbers were dropping drastically when I quit writing for Silhouette more than a decade ago. I wonder what's happened recently -- or have e-books given the category romance new life? I know they've got a longer life now. They used to be on the shelves for only one month, but they stay forever in e-bookstores. Even my old ones are available again.

I would recommend this book to those who like the "smarter" chick lit (that's about something more than dropping designer label names) or for those who have a love/hate relationship with romance novels -- where you like the idea but often find them frustrating. It's also really, really funny.

There was a movie version of this book, with the title changed to Don't Tell Her it's Me (though on the DVD they're apparently calling it The Boyfriend School) that was pretty awful, though I'm not sure if my perspective was skewed because it wasn't exactly like the book I love. Sarah Bird wrote the screenplay, but I still thought it lost whatever charm the book had. For one thing, the setting was changed, for no apparent reason, and I thought that Austin was practically a character in the book. For another, the casting was all wrong and they needlessly changed a lot of critical details about the characters. And it included the "rom com dash" in which the heroine has to make the mad dash across town and publicly humiliate herself, which is definitely not in the book. The movie also mostly takes the guy's point of view when the book is from the woman's perspective. Even the description of the movie spoils the big twist in the book, so if you have plans to read the book, stay away from the IMDB listing or the DVD's Amazon listing.