And I'm Nobody's Motherfucking Hen!

Last weekend there was what seemed to be a big Nora Roberts movie marathon happening on the Lifetime network. I wouldn't have paid much attention to it but our book club just read Nora Roberts' Savor the Moment, which is book three of her "The Bride Quartet" series.

Book Club doesn't usually veer toward such overtly mass-market material, though we have read some non-traditional choices in the past: a Mary Morrison "urban fiction" pick was eye opening in its depiction of anal cleanliness and Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind helped get us up-to-speed on how the rapture is going to happen. Everyone enjoyed reading those two books, even if we all did so in a sort of anthropological way.

Then there's Nora Roberts.

The theme of this month's picks — whoever is picking comes armed with three choices that the club decides on — was shit that Lori's aunts read. One of Lori's aunts loves Nora Roberts. A majority of us wanted to see what Nora Roberts was about. We ended up reading Nora Roberts.

I'm always up for an anthropological Book Club pick because I imagine that I'm doubling up on my personal edification. With Mary Morrison, I wanted to know what exactly all those folks on the subway were reading. With Left Behind I figured it was finally time to wrap my mind around Kirk Cameron's worldview. So Nora Roberts — same deal, you know?

The thing with really popular titles is that I guess I assume that they're fun to read. Whether it's salacious sexually or salacious Armageddonly, I just took for granted that some books were "page turners." Not that all books' pages shouldn't be easily turned, but some pieces of writing are slogs, you know?

Anyway, I sort of assumed this Nora Roberts book would be filled with gossip and sex and maybe even intrigue — I assumed I'd be above it all and say something along the lines of, "Oh, well, of course it was trashy, but I'm a guy who doesn't mind sorting the recycling, so of course I appreciate it on some level," etc., etc.

And then I'm reading it, and I'm like, "Dude, where's the sex?" and, "Dude, where's the conflict?" and, "Dude, why do I feel so fatigued while I'm reading this, because this beautiful mass-market mega-popular tour de force is just kind of . . . well, bad?"

This is not to say that The Bride Quartet series isn't an inspired idea. It revolves around four best friends who start a wedding company — because nothing is more exciting to romance readers than weddings, right? This particular business is a full-service wedding factory and each lady has a special skill, whether it's planning, flowers, photography or cakes. They use those headphone/microphone thingys and use abbreviations like "MOB," "BM" and "SMOG" — that's "mother of the bride," "best man" and "stepmother of the groom" (don't worry, I had to ask, too). It seemed so superficially accurate it was hard not get wrapped up in their world.

The four friends also live on a big estate in Fairfield County. The "tribe" — that's what they call themselves — eats lots of wedding cake and drinks a bunch of white wine. All consequence-free. Total mass-market gold, lady reader wank fantasy catnip.

So yeah, it's an inspired concept: Weddings! Besties! Connecticut! Think a cross between Sex and the City and The Baby-sitters Club. You could make years of Lifetime movies from this stuff.

Laurel McBane, the cake maker, is the focus of this book. I guess part of my problem with the book was that Laurel McBane is so unlikeable as a character. She's this joyless, single-minded, type-A pastry chef who even though she doesn't work in a bakery still gets up at four a.m. to make stuff.

Another part of my problem with the book probably stems the lack of sex. I don't mean that I need a Harlequin-level of sex — whatever that level is, I don't know, maybe every ten or fifteen pages or so? — but I just assumed romance novels had more of this.

The three sex scenes in Savor the Moment are dispensed of quickly and efficiently — sort of half a paragraph each. Almost like they're placeholders for longer, steamier scenes.

The sex in Savor the Moment is somewhat like the road trip scene where the tribe sets out for their Hamptons beach house. The drive — 2 1/2 hours without traffic from Greenwich to Southampton — is boiled down to "Everything changed when they cut east of New York and started across the skinny island. She lowered the window, leaned out. 'I think I can smell the water. Sort of.'" And suddenly they magically appear in the driveway.

Dude, have you ever driven from Fairfield County out to Long Island on a summer weekend? It sucks.

A world of besties who never have to bother with beach traffic. Add that to the fantasy.

Perhaps traffic is not the point. Perhaps the sex isn't even the point. The other part of the fantasy I can discern is that all of the men they interact with are really sweet! Perfect, in fact! Gentlemanly, too! Always — always — taking it slow! The only time one yells is when naughty old Laurel McBane is trying to ramp up the sexual tension on page 49:

"What the hell's wrong with me? I'll tell you what the hell's wrong with me." She planted a hand on his chest to push him back a step. "You're irritating and overbearing and self-righteous and patronizing."

"Whoa. All this because I wanted to pay you for a cake I asked you to make? It's your business, for Christ's sake. You make cakes, people pay you."

"One minute you're fussing — and yes, the word is fussing — because I'm not eating the kind of dinner you approve of, and the next you're pulling out your wallet like I'm the hired help."

"That's not what — Goddamn it, Laurel."

"How can anybody keep up?" She threw her arms in the air. "Big brother, legal advisor, business associate, motherfucking hen. Why don't you just pick one?"

"Because more than one applies." He didn't shout as she did, but his tone boiled just as hot. "And I'm nobody's motherfucking hen."

Romantic hijinks ensue: "And she fixed her mouth to his in a hot, sizzling, frustrated kiss, one that gave her heart a jolt even as her mind purred: I knew it!"

So that's basically — basically — the extent of the conflict between Laurel and Del — or "Delaney Brown of the Connecticut Browns"; the next 250 pages feature the inexorable march toward (spoiler alert!) wedded bliss.

By the time they drove out to Long Island, part of me wanted Del to get on the phone from the beach and just cut loose on the ladies, "You stupid little children, I told you to take the Throgs Neck, not the Whitestone!" Something, anything, to make it slightly more edgy.

Maybe literature doesn't always have to feature conflict — but, gosh, books can be so boring without it! Without conflict there's just Fourth of July softball, working out in the gym and — once at least — tremendous morning sex. It's like listening to your officemate talk about each of her friends in very great detail. Except you've never met them because they live in another state. And they have really boring lives. And it's only 3:45 and you can't go home yet. You're left with ample time to ponder whether Nora Roberts is being sarcastic or ironic with the title.

I don't totally understand what "character development" means, but people use this term all the time and I know that you have to throw it around if you're trying to seriously critique something.

I also know that when critiquing writing people love to talk about how important it is to "show don't tell" — I don't know that I completely understood this either — until I read Savor the Moment, that is. I guess that counts for something.

Unclear? Take look at this opening sentence from chapter eight: "It was strange and interesting to go out with Del as a date rather than one of the group."

Isn't this exactly the type of sentence that editors everywhere love to circle in big knowing red ink? Like, "Don't tell me it is 'strange' and 'interesting,' show me!"

And if you do decide to tell and not show, isn't it particularly bad to default to words like "strange" and "interesting"? If you must tell, can't it be something like "Although it made her feel like Michael Jackson's publicist to admit it, Laurel McBane felt a not-entirely-unpleasant twinge in her tummy when she went with Del as her date rather than as one of the group." Or something. I don't know. But, jeez, "strange" and "interesting" must be some of the laziest of words you could choose.

I think ultimately I was struck most by how much Savor the Moment read like a first draft. The other thing about using a line like "It was strange and interesting" is that it reads like someone who has been scribbling ideas for a story. That's the kind of note someone might jot down and then expand on later or sort of fleshed out at some point. I figure that writers know to do this before they submit a draft to an editor. I assume that a writer who gave a shit would make this idea more intriguing somehow, or at least attempt to express it in a more creative way.

Then again, if you don't care about spending much time on a piece of writing, you just go with that line. You can also feel comfortable composing page after page of dialogue — just absentmindedly hitting open-quote, closed-quote, inserting words, any old words, lulling your mind with how people "sound." Dialogue seems easy to type, especially when it's impertinent dialogue — I bet you can write it while you watch TV — you don't even have to look at the computer screen . . . I imagine Nora Roberts plowed through multiple DVDs of 24 or even the American League Division Series while she wrote a bunch of the dialogue. And don't get me wrong, dialogue is fine — I'm sure it helps you imagine how the characters interact with each other — but stuff like that happens in a first draft, not a finished paperback.

Jen confirmed the hunch about Nora Roberts' writing regimen when she read the New Yorker profile about her. Apparently she just holes up with cigarettes and Cheez-Its and starts writing. And keeps writing. And then hits "send" and it's done with.

Part of me thinks this is great — just get it out there — click print and go! Why sweat details? Write and move on to something else. It's impromptu. It's expansive. It's like The Fall's discography. Nora Roberts and Mark E. Smith should get together and do business seminars.

And yet . . . couldn't Nora have spent a little more time working through the idea? Reading writing like this is just fatiguing. You get bored by impertinent details. You get antsy when you start to think that a writer is just checking the word count every ten or fifteen minutes. Writing like this is not fun to read. Writing like this makes you reconsider the notion that It's Not Important What You're Reading As Long As You're Reading. Read one of these and see if you still agree — I bet you start to think that it's better to hunker down with season four of The Wire than read. Even go see a romantic comedy — at least with that you can still appreciate that a lot of effort probably went into it.

Posted: June 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

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