Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Defense of Books About “Relationships”

This past weekend, in a move very out of character for me, I read the New York Times Sunday Book Review. As a romance novel enthusiast, the Book Review always seems to me a little, well, elitist, for lack of a better word, and certainly out of touch with the reading preferences of the mainstream. For example, my most favorite authors, the sublime Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Nora Roberts have more than 70 New York Times bestsellers between them, and have won an astonishing array of awards over the years, but in my research, have amazingly never had one of their books reviewed by the Times.

What compelled me to read the Book Review last weekend was Douglas Brinkley’s review of Jodi Cantor’s nonfiction bestseller, The Obamas. Though I have not yet read the book myself, and am not particularly political (on paper I should, in fact, belong to about 3 different political parties, so diverse are my views), Michelle Obama has always fascinated me. The reports on her as the backbone of her family, and the not-so-quiet force behind her husband’s success have always likened her, in my mind, to the women in my favorite romance novels; the strong, self-sufficient women who marry the men of their dreams, are fun and interesting mothers raising beautiful and well-adjusted children, run successful businesses, wear designer clothes, and always - always - find time for a Monday morning manicure. Anna Spinelli from Sea Swept is one of these women, as is Phoebe Sommerville from It Had to Be You. I would like to be one of these women. But I digress.

In a review that managed to be, strangely enough, both complementary and condescending,  Brinkley managed to summarily dismiss the book as a new, and inferior, genre of literature enjoyed only by women, that he christened “chick nonfiction.” The subtext of the review is that if a work of nonfiction centers primarily on a marriage - on its highs and lows, joys and sorrows, and the excitement and great adventure of sharing your life with another; particularly in the fishbowl of the political arena - rather than strictly on policy decisions and high-level meetings, surely, only a “chick” could possibly enjoy it.

I can’t help but think that if the same book had been written by a man, the New York Times Book Review would be praising his brilliance, sensitivity, and his astute observations of a complicated marriage. But I digress again.

This review both infuriated me and compelled me to read the book as soon as possible because, in my romance novel-worshiping world, there is nothing better than reading a book about relationships. Yes, I do prefer reading about fictional couples to real-life couples - its far more fun to read about the aforementioned wonder-woman than it is to read about a real-life person and find out that she is not wonder woman after all - but I have been known to indulge in some (gasp!) nonfiction from time-to-time.

Some might think that my opinion plays right into the reviewer’s hand, as I am both a woman and someone who loves reading about relationships, but to them I say, what exactly is wrong with that? Yes, stories about relationships tend to be fodder for the fiction genre, but the reason they are is because the idea of the “relationship” is so fundamental to our non-fiction world.  I doubt that romance authors would be able to write such compelling novels without their own life experiences with relationships, both personal and professional. In planning for the series of books I hope to write, most of my ideas stem from my real life as well. I think it is both short-sighted and narrow-minded to assume that just because a book is about a “relationship” it is less worthy of a place of honor in literature. Maybe Brinkley should travel back in time to let Jane Austin, James Joyce and Marquez know that their books are merely “chick books”. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for those conversations.

And to Brinkley’s subtext that only women can possibly enjoy a story about the relationships that influence politics I ask, how many men do you think enjoyed both 24 and The West Wing? Certainly the decisions of memorable characters like Bartlet, Lyman, Bauer, and Palmer were all influenced, both positively and negatively, by their relationships. Should we call these shows “chick shows”? I think my husband and my dad, fans of both shows, would answer with a resounding “no.”

My point is, in a world where interpersonal relationships are the foundation of all of our actions - in business, in politics, in our personal and professional lives - what could be more real than a book about just such a relationship? Political leanings aside, The Obamas is about a relationship between two people who have supported each other, raised 2 seemingly well-adjusted children, and all the while managed to keep their marriage thriving while navigating the pressure cooker of American politics. Sounds like the makings of a great romance novel to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I already read that one. Twice. Try Nora Roberts’ All The Possibilities or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ First Lady if you don’t believe me.

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