Hello everyone and welcome to the second of our AAR blog columns. The basic idea is that we’re going to choose a book every month and have a hopefully-not-too-lengthy discussion about it. We’re still Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer. We hope you’ll enjoy reading our thoughts, and we hope you’ll think about reading along with us next month.


This month’s title is Getting Dirty by Erin Nicholas. The third book in her Sapphire Falls series, it features a city girl and a country boy essentially conspiring to drive each other nuts. Sapphire Falls is just the sort of place Lauren loves and Travis is just the sort of farmer she goes for, but she’s terrified of sacrificing her career and her freedom by settling down. So instead she convinces him to help her remember everything she hates about small town life. He fails.

AJH: Y’know, even writing that plot summary makes me kind of want to shout and shake people.

Elisabeth: Ha! I take it you didn’t like this one much.

AJH: Well. It’s probably not a book for me, put it that way. I don’t think it sucks or anything. It’s genuinely engaging, funny and sexy, and there were lots of things that interested me about it and some of the ideas it explored. But … I … yeah, I struggled. How did you find it?

Elisabeth: Frankly, I struggled with it too, which surprised and disappointed me because I’ve read this author before and had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, the characterization, particularly of Travis, felt wooden to me and I thought the plot was contrived and uninspired.

AJH: It’s kind of … almost Kafka-esque isn’t it? Like the first 60% of the book is this invented scenario that takes place entirely in the heroine’s head as she tries to stop wanting to stop liking things she blatantly likes. I found that really hard to invest in because it felt so bizarre and unreal.

Elisabeth: Well, and she’s a scientist and an entrepreneur and a real smarty-pants, right? But she has this notion of how behavioral conditional works that is…bafflingly wrong? I mean, I know her area is agriculture, not psychology, but she’s 30 years old and very successful? This seemed like the scheme of a much younger, much more naive person. Someone like Travis, in fact. Though he is immediately skeptical of the whole thing.

AJH: I suppose it was meant to be a screwball comedy type set up? Except, yes, you’re right, the goofiness pulled against the essentials of her character and kind of undermined her. Which is a shame because I quite liked her when she wasn’t behaving like Miley Cyrus on LSD.

Elisabeth: It’s even worse when you’ve read the first two books. She’s so sharp and interesting and ambitious. Plus there’s this whole context of the town and female relationships in the other books that weren’t as strong in this one. This close-knit, rather appealing place turned into a caricature of itself.

AJH: I confess, I do naturally pull against idealised depictions of small town life because … well … while I understand the appeal, I also kind of instinctively feel that the sort of communities we’re so desperate to return to or preserve or whatever are communities comprised almost entirely of straight white people reinforcing very typical gender roles. That’s a personal thing, to a degree though. Inherent expectation of exclusion that makes these sort of books, uh, challenging for me.

Elisabeth: That’s an interesting observation. And it’s true that I’m not sure there are any people of color in this book either? Or many of the others, come to think of it? At least, I don’t remember any.

AJH: I wasn’t keeping score, but it felt like a very … homogeneous community, however charming it was supposed to be.

Elisabeth: I guess the only rejoinder I can make is that, well, rural America hasn’t had it particularly easy in recent years. I spend a fair bit of time in rural Virginia because we like to spend time driving around to little towns looking at antiques and hiking and doing the quaint things urban people do when they go to the country. But it’s impossible not to notice just how hard-hit these communities have been economically. And I do find a lot of used romances when I visit them. The difference between those communities and Sapphire Falls is that, yes, it’s a functional community, but it’s also a prosperous one. As much as the hero-heroine relationship is important in books like these, I think the vision of a prosperous small town is just as fulfilling for some readers.

AJH: That makes a lot of sense and I appreciate that there are social and geographical complexities here that I’m just not getting as a limey. I guess I just don’t see why that fantasy of togetherness always involves drawing together very specific types of people. But, at the same time, as you say, it’s very much catering to the ideals and needs of a reader who is not me. And “I wish this was less like it was” is a damnably unfair criticism to make of anything. I suppose, more broadly, I found the book’s relationship with stereotypes a little bit incoherent. Like it couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be challenging them or overturning them.

Elisabeth: Well, I think one reason why this book seemed somewhat incoherent is that it was, I think, trying to answer some of the questions you raise about small town romance. Because Lauren isn’t straight. She’s bisexual. And the author goes to some pains to make the reader aware that this is unfamiliar to people in town, but generally accepted. I think part of what this book suffered from was a little bit of trying to do too much. Trying to portray real, small town people as they are, but also trying to make it clear that they’re more sophisticated than Lauren thinks and cover all this ground of how it’s okay to be content where you are, but also wish for more and want community, but also want adventure and achievement. It’s a little bit dizzying.

AJH: Yes. I actually liked it when the book really got into those ideas and I was very impressed at how it resolved (or didn’t resolve) those complexities. But we’d had 60% of Kiss Me Like It’s Aversion Therapy by then, so there wasn’t really time to get into the good stuff. Or what I perceived to be the good stuff.

Elisabeth: Yes.

AJH: By the way, given that portraying bisexuals in fiction appears to be actually impossible to do well, how did you think Lauren’s bisexuality was handled?

Elisabeth: I don’t think it was handled badly, to be honest. I think the author deliberately tried to avoid stereotypes of bisexuality, but also let the character be herself. She’s a brazen, sexual woman. But not in a way that made it seem like she was out to bang the whole world, which can sometimes happen. But Lauren also seems to feel like the biggest threat to her career and independence is these manly farmer men because she likes them best, which seems to devalue the previous relationships she had with women and the more urban metrosexual type guys she was meeting in Chicago.

AJH: It’s really bloody difficult. I mean it’s not like bisexuality is one thing – it’s not like all bisexuals are attracted to all gender identities equally at all times. And just because Lauren is more attracted to farmer types than women doesn’t make her less bisexual. But, at the same time, because bisexuals don’t get written about enough, I would agree that her romantic and sexual relationships with women felt very slightly devalued. On the other hand, I did like how comfortable Lauren was with her sexuality. More importantly, I also feel demanding a writer portray only politically and socially useful versions of bisexuality is even more problematic than the awkward (and often unsatisfying) ways bisexuality intersects with the expectations and conventions of the romance genre. Not that I’m any sort of judge or expert, but I feel this wasn’t by any means a terrible representation of the impossible fictional bisexual. Just for me, I thought it was brave and I appreciated it. But, you mentioned you found Travis wooden?

Elisabeth: I did. I’ve gotten to the point in my romance reading where I prefer both main characters to be fully formed. Travis felt more like a method of alternately challenging and upholding Lauren’s choices than an actual person. And while that made him a creative accessory to her story, that’s not really what I’m looking for out of romance. Even though he was sexy and supportive, especially at the end.

AJH: I’m less troubled by that, I admit. Obviously I’ve come from romance from various other genres, so actually finding women centralised in a narrative is still an intriguing novelty to me. I’m a fan of Jennifer Crusie for example, which tend to be very much about the heroine, and the hero is a kind of … yes … an accessory, as you say. Though not in a bad way. Within that context, I wasn’t really expecting Travis to have the same nuance and interiority as Lauren. Although I do find romances more romantically compelling if the characters are equally detailed. Mainly I was peeved that there seems to be some kind of rule that you can’t portray a manly man without denigrating less manly men. Like that dude ONLY has shampoo in his bathroom. That is how manly he is.

Elisabeth: Well, let’s talk about how the men in this book act then. Because some of the things they say to each other when women aren’t around made me rather uncomfortable, even as I acknowledged that it was probably realistic. Let me see if I can find an example.

AJH: Is it this? It’s quite a long conversation so here’s the gist:

“I’m just waiting for the perfect chance to show her how wrong she’s been with all of her assumptions,” Travis said. He caught the T-shirt Drew tossed to him in one hand.

“You’re waiting for the perfect chance to make a fool of her,” Tucker clarified

[…] “Grandma wouldn’t approve of you embarrassing a lady,”

“Grandma wouldn’t approve of Dr. High and Mighty’s attitude either.”

“That’s probably true,” Tucker said of their grandmother. “But you can’t humiliate the good doctor.”

The thing was he probably could. But he wouldn’t. “Nah, I’ll… surprise her.”

[….]

“I figured you’d just fuck her and show her who’s best,” Tuck said and then swigged the rest of his water.

Elisabeth: Yes, that’s the scene. Jackie Horne of Romance Novels for Feminists did a post on a similar topic not that long ago where she wondered if men really talk like this when they’re together. Because it feels like stuff no one should say. But my experience being around a lot of guys growing up would suggest that they do. I guess the question is: how realistic do you want to get?

AJH: I think it’s … complicated. I mean, yeah, men say horrible things about women, especially young men who’ve never, y’know, actually noticed that women are human and live in the same world as they do. I move in over-educated liberal circles full of women so I’ve honestly never really been even on the outskirts of this sort of conversation since I moved down south. It makes it kind of easy to forget it’s a thing that really happens. I think what trips me up about scenes like this, though, is that I have trouble working out whether the author is genuinely trying to flag up some of the more subtle and invidious ways rape culture functions – rape culture microaggressions if you will (in the fact these are both nice guys, one of them at least is presented as an object of fantasy and aspiration, yet they’re cheerfully talking about punishing a woman through sex) – OR the writer has decided to present male characters talking this way because it’s supposed to be the way men talk. Does that make sense?

Elisabeth: It does. And I think that from the other attitudes presented in this book –that ambitious, career-oriented women are awesome, that bisexuality is a normal expression of human sexuality–we can guess where she falls. But I don’t think that the text provides any obvious cues that the language these men use here is sub-optimal.

AJH: Yes, it’s difficult. I mean, I don’t think fiction has to automatically be didactic. I know some authors and readers prefer that anything negative is explicitly challenged and shown to be wrong by the text. I’m quite happy for all these complex social intersectionalities to exist as they are, but that particular exchange felt jarring. I think that’s why for me it read like an “oh men talk like this” throwaway. Regardless of the intent or awareness behind it. Travis is definitely not one of those “I will assault you until you get to like it” heroes and everyone keeps going on about how gentle and sweet Tucker is. So it just felt inconsistent to me, rather than … challenging. But I could be reading it ungenerously. As you say, this is how some men talk – even apparently decent ones.

Elisabeth: I think the inconsistency is really the trouble here. As I said, I’d read this author before and this just didn’t feel like the best example of her work. The first book of this series, Getting Out of Hand, featured an uber-nerdy scientist hero and I really don’t recall it being this ambiguous. Actually, it was super charming. Whenever he made out with his heroine, he would get these amazing epiphanies and write chemical formulas on her arms. I was hoping for more of that. Oh well, not every book can be a winner.

AJH: That sounds completely adorbs. I can definitely see things to enjoy about this author’s work. I loved her dialogue and I also really liked Lauren in principle, if not always in practice. I think it was just this book in particular not quite working for me, although I’ve really appreciated talking about it. It’s full of ambition and boldness, even if it doesn’t quite come off.


We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Getting Dirty.

And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Against the Dark by Carolyn Crane. Thanks,

Elisabeth and Alexis