REVIEW: “Every Boy’s Got One” by Meg Cabot
CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge
Finished 14 Mar 2010
You know those authors that you loved once upon a time, only to come back to them later and find yourself feeling a little ashamed of your previous devotion? Meg Cabot is one of those authors for me.
I got into her novels as a young adult, before the Princess Diaries movie came out, and in my own defense at that point they were actually not so bad. My favourites were the Mediator series and 1-800-Where-R-U, which featured supernatural themes combined with a light romantic undertone that completely hooked me for several years. I still own almost all the Mediator audiobooks.
However, as I got older, I began to notice things about Cabot’s novels – particularly those that were primarily romance – that bothered me, and the more I read the more convinced I was that the books I’d loved as a teenager were flukes. Eventually, I swore off her novels (uh, repeatedly…guilty pleasures are hard to break, apparently) but when I picked this one up in a library book sale, I just couldn’t resist.
The premise of the story is simple. Boy meets Girl. Boy thinks Girl is an idiot. Girl thinks Boy is an ass who doesn’t believe in love. Cue external crisis that forces them to work together. Hate turns into searing passion, they elope, end of story.
Look. I’m the first to admit that Meg Cabot has her genre down pat. That right there is a classic example of a romantic plot arc that I’ve used myself from time to time. Unfortunately, her books are thoroughly transparent and seem to just repeat the same elements in different order. Even were this the only book of hers I had read, however, I would still have taken issue with her characters. For one thing, Jane Harris is…well, kind of an airhead. She’s set up to be a successful career woman with an internationally-famous comic strip (WonderCat), but she doesn’t act like it. She’s ditzy, obsessed with romance, makes stupid assumptions about people and is – in my opinion, at least – generally a nice but unsympathetic character. Maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on her if it wasn’t for the fact that I am getting so sick of women in mainstream fiction (and I include films in this as well) being touted as “independent, feminist characters” when they are in reality simply the same old stereotypes repackaged for a new audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person (or character) being interested in shoes/shopping, a fan of Britney Spears, or prone to romanticism, but with Cabot it’s clear that this is not just a character who happens to be this way – the same tropes are repeated throughout her novels. It seems that this is what Cabot thinks all women are, and it comes across as gimicky, trite and, frankly, insulting. I simply could not connect with this woman at all.
Fortunately, Cabot is an equal-opportunity stereotyper. The Love Interest, Cal Langdon, is gorgeous, erudite, intelligent, rich and damaged. His divorce left him heartbroken and unable to trust anyone of the female persuasion, so to satisfy his, ahem, manly urges he dates models. Models.
In short, Langdon is the man every girl like Jane Harris dreams about, and you just know that, after our lovely heroine sinks her claws into him, he becomes putty in her hands. I will be frank and say that I can never really understand those plots which require two people to fall in love instantaneously and permanently; it seems rather far-fetched and, if not impossible, at the very least pretty unlikely. Perhaps I simply haven’t been meeting the right kind of men…
As far as the plot goes, well, many if not all of my favourite books in the world (to name the top three in no particular order: The Vintner’s Luck, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Possession) tend to feature romance as part of, if not the entire plotline. What makes these books stand out from more commonplace works like Cabot’s novels is, in my opinion, they create people. They don’t rely on bad sexist jokes and generalizations to appeal to a wide audience, because the thing that is of central importance to them is the characters and their lives. They also set them against a larger context: Sobran and Xas against the vineyards and 19th century France; Pelagia and Corelli amidst the horrors of the massacres in Cephalonia during WWII; Maud and Roland against a thrilling literary detective story and the lives of two fictional authors in Victorian England. What this does is gives the characters a world to inhabit, a reality outside of themselves which allows them to gain a greater depth in comparison. Cabot does not seem to have mastered a means of doing this, and in fact goes out of her way to strip the world down to just the main cast of characters and their love-lives, in this case by using first person diary and email-log entries to tell the story. I am not a fan of the epistolary novel at the best of times, but even I admit she pulls this off fairly well, if somewhat implausibly. The trouble is, it just doesn’t give that richness of backdrop that I enjoy.
Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare Every Boy’s Got One with literary fiction since it is not a literary novel, nor is it pretending to be. I will reiterate what I said before about Cabot knowing her genre (“chick-lit” – oh how I despise that term) very well and providing me with hours of reading enjoyment in the past, even against my will. However, I also think it’s rather ridiculous to suppose that there can’t be such thing as a well-written romance novel. Saying a book is a “romance” shouldn’t require that little cringe, or a disclaimer (“It’s not like that! It’s just about these two people…and they fall in love…and…”), and my point in comparing Cabot with other books I have a deep respect for is to demonstrate what, in my view, such a thing might look like. Unfortunately, fun as they undoubtedly are, fluffy books like this one perpetuate unnecessary stereotypes both about the sexes and the genre itself, and as such I find it difficult to read them anymore without both my feminist and writerly sensibilities squirming with embarrassed distaste. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the novel itself.