So I started sticky-noting this book on page 8. (Well, I started on page 12 and then retroactively stickied something on page 8.)
I will sometimes mark up books I own when I feel like it, but I usually prefer to use sticky notes if I find something I really want to reference in my review (they are easier to find and allow me to be more verbose than scribbly margin writing). But I don’t do this that often. When I sticky-note, it’s usually for non-fiction books, occasionally for books that are really, really good, and sometimes for books that are really, really cringe-worthy.
Sorry, Emily Giffin. But Love the One You’re With is not non-fiction, and it’s not winning any awards from me. It forced me to confront some of my attitudes towards chick lit as a genre and how I, as an ace, white man, critique that genre. Not only do I have little experience with chick lit, but I also feel like an outsider when it comes to the target demographic. While I’m certain not all women enjoy chick lit as characterized by Love the One You’re With, I’m also certain some women do (and many of them have written reviews here on Goodreads explaining why). So even as I attempt to deconstruct this book and what I perceive to be its subtext, I don’t want to seem prescriptive or judgemental about people’s reading choices here. Please go ahead and read this if you choose … but that doesn’t change the fact it’s not very good.
My sticky-noting died off a little bit before the hundredth page, for a few reasons. Firstly, I went to have a bath, where it is easy to read but hard to sticky-note. Secondly, my sticky notes would just have gotten really repetitive. I think the book actually improves as it goes on, but mostly Giffin repeats the same types of tropes and clichéd writing that led my initial bout of stickying enthusiasm. Here’s the passage that started it all:
As it turned out, I was right about both Andy and Margot. He was nice, and she was just about everything I wasn’t. For starters we were physical opposites. She was a petite yet still curvy, fair-skinned blue-eyed blonde. I had dark hair and hazel eyes, skin that looked tanned even in the dead of winter, and a tall, athletic frame. We were equally attractive, but Margot had a soft, whimsical look about her while my features were more easily described as handsome.
There’s something about the phrase, “We were equally attractive” that set me off. It’s just so clunky. Do women really talk like that? I went to the trouble of finding a woman and asking her! My friend, who shall remain nameless, agreed this paragraph sounded more like plot device than serious internal monologue. And while I can understand that some women would probably have these sorts of attractiveness comparisons, the way Giffin chose to phrase it set the alarm bells ringing.
See, Giffin is clearly writing to an audience, and that audience is not me. It’s obvious in the way she tosses out little reminders that assume a like-mindedness I can’t muster:
I know for an absolute fact that Leo and Andy met once, at a bar in the East Village. At the time time, it was only a brief, meaningless encounter between my boyfriend and a best friend’s brother…. But years later, after Leo and I had long broken up, and Andy and I had begun to date, I would deconstruct that moment in exhausting detail, as any woman would.
And, a little later in the book, as Ellen talks about how she first met tantalizing ex-boyfriend, Leo:
The thought took me by surprise as I wasn’t accustomed to assessing strange men in such a strictly physical way. Like most women, I was about getting to know someone first—attraction based on personality. Moreover, I wasn’t even that into sex. Yet.
It’s the “as any woman would” and “like most women” phrases that get under my skin. I’m sure some women certainly fit this rather narrow mould that Giffin realizes in Ellen, and perhaps those are Giffin’s target audience. But she does this audience a disservice when she serves up a story devoid of real controversy or conflict, filled instead with stereotypical characters and a pre-packaged plot that has been microwaved to room temperature.
Ellen is one of the most bland narrators I have encountered in a long time. I don’t usually hear a character’s voice in my head when a book is in first-person. But in this case I kept imagining Ellen’s voice as Kristen Stewart’s. Love the One You’re With is actually just an urbane version of Twilight (without the vampires and werewolves and if Bella had chosen Jacob over Edward). Leo is Edward: the attractive, subversive bad boy whom Bella—sorry, Ellen—just can’t help but find so dreamy. Andy is Jacob: the stable, safe, but slightly boring choice, who happens to be from an alien culture (Atlantan instead of Native American). And, like Bella, Ellen is spineless and indecisive, with the personality of an empty box of Tic-Tacs.
Ellen’s marriage with Andy is “perfect” (according to the back of the book) until she runs into Leo one day, a meeting that precipitates a crisis of careers as well as feelings. Andy wants to move back to Atlanta to practise law with his father and have a big, ostentatious house. Ellen doesn’t really want that, or pretends she doesn’t care, or something, but goes along with it because she wants him to be happy. Surprise, surprise, she isn’t happy when she suddenly has to be steeped in Southern Hospitality 24/7 and conform to certain social expectations. Then, she blames herself for her own unhappiness because “he gave me a lot of outs.” So instead of discussing the issue with her husband in a calm manner, she gives more thought to having an affair with Leo.
I suppose there are some legitimate issues that Giffin tackles here. Having never been married myself, I’m only going off what I know from books and romantic comedies, but it seems like resolving differences about where to live would probably be a big deal. Similarly, everyone in the book keeps asking, in one way or another, when Ellen is going to start popping out babies. Again, not something that I can speak about from experience, but I can understand why that would be annoying and even demeaning. So I can see how some women who read this book might identify with what Ellen is going through.
Yet for all the seriousness of these issues, Giffin never actually challenges or critiques them in any meaningful way. Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that a careful deus ex machina and predictable phone call result in a happy ending that just begs “motion picture, please!” Instead of contrasting Margot’s cheerful pregnancy with a more adamant desire not to enter into motherhood, Ellen, in her typical indecisive way, never really commits one way or the other. Giffin tries to tell us that Ellen is a strong, independent person: “Yes, I’m Andy’s wife. And I’m a Graham. But I’m also Suzanne’s sister, my mother’s daughter, my own person.” Ellen’s actions throughout the novel belie this claim, for she seldom forges her own path when another sees fit to offer her one to follow.
I don’t go for the defence that books like this are “beach reads,” are leisure reads, and should therefore get a free pass. Literature, all literature, is powerful, and being something read for leisure does not excuse it from being well-written or thought-provoking. There’s nothing wrong with craving something with more story than substance, but there’s a difference between a book that is light and fun and a book that is just shallow. Love the One You’re With, to be fair, does not land squarely in the latter category—but it dangles perilously close. Moreover, what saves it from this label is not so much any redeeming quality as it is the fact that, like the main character, this book suffers from an incurable case of blandness.