Love me, love my “primitives.”
I had to give a presentation to a non-profit group recently, on contemporary gender theory and feminism. I pulled a pair of nylons out of my drawer, realized they had foot smudges on them, and carefully pulled them on so that the foot smudges were on the bottom of my feet again.
This scene is reminiscent of a lot of what’s called “chick lit”: a woman doing femininity, but doing it badly. While Jennifer Crusie writes for the same purposes as a lot of chick lit — for a long time she was shelved in the fiction section at my local Borders, same as The Devil Wears Prada — her heroines are absolute failures at femininity. They wear bizarre outfits, don’t want to have children, pack on extra pounds, leave their successful career to try to be an artist, and take in stray dogs. They’re usually a little miserable.
What appeals about the heroine who does femininity badly is that she’s still part of normal society, but I can relate to her. Crusie’s heroines are different. If they could just be a little different — a little more typically feminine or a little more tough-skinned — they could really make it. As it is, though, they’re just barely getting by.
I am a unremitting sucker for this narrative, as those of you who’ve met me might imagine. My daily life is less about smudgy stockings and more about making dirty jokes at staff meetings. (Goats are hilarious, and yet no one laughs at my goats-in-thongs jokes. What gives?)
When I heard that Bantam Books was issuing a reprint of Cinderella Deal, one of Crusie’s books from 1996, I got all sorts of excited. I hunted down a copy at a chain bookstore–
(Side note: I’m so sick of chain bookstores and the way that they organize romance novels. How do kinky threesome trade paperback novels get put in the romance section, while mass market paperbacks by a handful of romance novelists get shelved in the fiction section? Also, why would you have a display of “recent paperbacks of interest” that consists entirely of romance novels set in a corner of the fiction section, and put no copies of the books in the romance section? A THOUSAND INTERROBANGS at whoever thought that was a good idea.)
– and read it on the way home. Delayed gratification, shmelayed shmatification, that’s what I always say.
Here’s the text from the Amazon page:
Daisy Flattery is a free spirit with a soft spot for strays and a weakness for a good story. Why else would she agree to the outrageous charade offered by her buttoned-down workaholic neighbor, Linc Blaise? The history professor needs to have a fiancée in order to capture his dream job, and Daisy is game to play the role. But something funny happens on their way to the altar that changes everything. Now, with the midnight hour approaching, will Daisy lose her prince, or will opposites not only attract but live happily ever after?
The book basically follows that script. Daisy’s in a tight spot; her paintings aren’t selling well, and she’s behind on her rent. Even worse, she keeps adopting cats. When she goes along with Linc’s scheme — which is intended to land him a perfect prep faculty position, one which will allow him the time to complete his novel — it turns out to offer her the perfect life. She poses first as his fiancee, and then, when he lands the job, she even marries him. Linc buys her dream house, that he lets her decorate in her own quirky way; she befriends his students and creates a safe haven for them; someone even starts buying her artwork. Without a loving partnership between them, though, Daisy feels like something is missing.
This book might feel familiar to those of you who read Strange Bedpersons first. Crusie essentially reworked this book to create that novel. In Strange Bedpersons, the woman is an artistic liberal-minded lady, the guy is a Republican stickler for normalcy, and they’ve dated before, making their romantic connection a mite more believable. Of the two, I think I would recommend Strange Bedpersons first. Both books, however, read like Crusie was writing for a formula that didn’t quite fit. Don’t get me wrong — they’re both readable, and features Crusie’s classic banter (think 1930s screwball comedy, a la His Girl Friday or The Thin Man). Still, I find “wacky girl gets a strait-laced guy” less appealing than “wacky girl learns to be openly wacky.” I suspect this has something to do with my own level of wackiness, so your mileage may vary.
The only thing that really left me looking askance at the book was Daisy’s professed interest in painting “primitives.” This is, according to the way Daisy refers to it, a genre of painting. When I did a little research on it, I realized there was a booming business in “primitive” decor, and that there are really whole sub-genres in the genre of primitivism [Wiki]. The paintings that Daisy did were described in the book as large broad swathes of color. Appealing, no? And yet the word “primitives” has been used in a stereotyping and oppressive way. I’ve always avoided using it, myself. Every time Daisy said she wanted to paint primitives, or that she painted primitives, I was a little less sympathetic with her for five or six pages. Feminism has struck again, it seems.
Is anyone out there an art history buff, who can explain the use of the term for the genre? I only gave the Wiki entry a skim; I’m going to research more and try to figure this out. But a cheat sheet would be handy, indeed.
Check out other reviews:
Candy does a lightning review of Crusie’s work at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
A review of Cinderella Deal at All About Romance, including a letter from Crusie to the reviewer.