Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
“You really should write the cheater’s guide to love,” a friend says to Yunior, the primary character running through the stories in Junot Díaz’s new collection, “This Is How You Lose Her.” Yunior doesn’t, but Díaz has. “This Is How You Lose Her” traces Yunior’s very rocky path to the understanding that women are people whose dignity and feelings matter as much as his own — as opposed to interchangeable cogs in the supply line of sex.
Yunior, who figured prominently in Díaz’s celebrated debut collection, “Drown,” isn’t as endearing as the title character in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” his Pulitzer-winning 2007 novel — but then, who is? Yunior is a reluctant adult, prone to selfishness and preoccupation with his own sufferings, like many people in their 20s trying to sort out how to live. Much of his romantic blundering stems from the male examples surrounding him in his youth: a father who made the kid wait in the car while he went on “pussy runs” and a handsome older brother, Rafa, who went through girls the way most teenage boys go through kleenex. One of Yunior’s girlfriends reports that her friends blame his infidelity on his background: “I cheated because I’m Dominican and all us Dominican men are dogs and can’t be trusted.”
Born in the DR, raised in a New Jersey housing project and destined to be a Rutgers-educated university teacher, Yunior, like his creator, inhabits a world where ethnic, religious and national identities mix and match. He dates Dominicans, Colombians, a Cubana, “negras” and the occasional “whitegirl.” The familiar tropes of immigrant literature dictate that this sort of thing leads to a “divided self,” a man who bounces painfully back and forth between his roots and his chosen way of life.
Díaz doesn’t go there. Just like that nerd supreme, Oscar Wao, he sees no reason to view his literary passions as alien to the community in which he grew up. He claims mainstream culture, for all its lingering racism, as his own, fusing Spanglish with references to Herman Melville and “Star Trek” while telling stories about hospital workers and law students. Such is the centripetal force of Díaz’s sensibility and the slangy bar-stool confidentiality of his voice that he makes this hybridization feel not only natural and irresistible, but inevitable, the voice of the future.
What holds all this seemingly disparate stuff together is love and desire — for his “boys” (buddies), for his brother, for comic books, for Samuel Delany and James Joyce and Pablo Neruda, and above all for the old neighborhood and for Santo Domingo, whose crazy traffic Yunior describes thus: “the entire history of late-20th-century automobiles swarming across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks and battered buses, and an equal number of repair shops, run by any fool with a wrench.”
But while expansive and inclusive affections are well and good in most areas of life, when it comes to romantic love, they often lead to catastrophe. Yunior, though a player of note, is a failure in matters of the heart because his heart remains uncharted territory. In the book’s final and most accomplished story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” his fiancée discovers evidence of fifty (!) dalliances in his email trash can and dumps his ass. He can’t get over it, is submerged in a depression “so profound you doubt there is a name for it. You feel like you’re being slowly pincered apart, atom by atom.”
The linked-story structure of “This is How You Lose Her” does keep it from offering complete satisfaction. Why, you can’t help wondering, does it stop just shy of being a novel, given that so much of its effect is cumulative? Most of the stories depict the same character, with minor variations, making his way to maturity. Some of these depend for their impact on their predecessors. “The Pura Principle,” for example, about Rafa’s mortal battle with cancer, follows several earlier stories that show him using women in one way or another, including his own mother. Finally, in extremis, he is the needer instead of the needed, and he picks a girl who uses him, as if he’s lost the ability to conceive of a relationship working any other way.
Yunior’s less of a hard case, but he has a long road to travel before he grasps that to trust he must first be trustworthy — or, as he puts it, what a “chickenshit coward” he’s been. Yet while Díaz strongly implies a continuous narrative line extending through the collection, he seems hesitant to fully commit to it. (Hmmm.) At the end of “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior sits down with a bound copy, compiled by his ex, of the printouts of all the incriminating emails and other evidence of his cheating. (He dubs this “the Doomsday Book,” and she mailed it to him with a note saying “for your next book.” You can see why he calls her “a bad-ass salcedeña.”) It’s a single, damning tale instead of a bunch of miscellaneous transgressions, and this finally prompts the necessary breakthrough. I can’t help wishing Díaz had made “This is How You Lose Her” into something similarly unified.
However, call this a quibble, as the reader can more or less do the work herself. If this collection occasionally stutters, more often than not it sings. It has wizardly character sketches like this: “My mom wasn’t the effusive type anyway, had one of those event-horizon personalities — shit just fell into her and you never really knew how she felt about it. She just seemed to take it, never gave off anything, no heat, no light.” It mourns all the opportunities for tenderness human beings pass up in the pursuit of vanity. It manages to be achingly sad and joyful at the same time. Its heart is true, even if Yunior’s isn’t.
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
"Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie
Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower. Read the whole essay.
"A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant
A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex. Read the whole essay.
"Black Silk" by Judith Ivory
A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say. Read the whole essay.
"For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale
A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society. Read the whole essay.
"Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner
A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ... Read the whole essay.
"Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen
Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight. Read the whole essay.
"The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal
A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency. Read the whole essay.
"Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time. Read the whole essay.