Why I haven’t posted about The Actor and the Housewife

I kinda owe Shannon Hale an apology. I read The Actor and the Housewife: A Novel several months ago and then didn’t write a post about it.

That’s actually not why I owe her an apology. I wouldn’t presume to suggest that I should say something about everything even slightly Mormon related that hits the public eye. Rather, it’s that I did post a few comments here and there expressing major discontent with the novel. Those criticism are valid (in brief, they are that she pulls the punches when it comes to the unique Mormon content (I think she could have pushed things about 15-25% more without losing the national audience), she totally martyrs the husband (who is not The Actor, by the way) and doesn’t make him as interesting as he should/could be (and actually shows hints of being), and she totally muddles up the ending.

Or for my more raw reactions, here’s my GoodReads review (I gave the book 2 out of 5 stars):

I knew this going in, but…

So Very Much Not My Thing.

And, sadly, the Mormon elements, which I thought could be interesting, were quite mild and not very interesting.

And a comment I posted on MoJo’s blog:

Just finished this earlier in the evening. Here’s the thing: if you could take some of the angst and down-note ending of this novel and graft it on to Austenland, you’d have a pretty good, interesting, subversive novel. The problem with Austenland is that the heroine in the end gets Darcy and succumbs to his weak sauce pleas (and in a chase to the airport scene). If we’d taken elements to the Felix/Becky ending and used it there instead, then Austenland would have been a devastating take down of Romance Mormon Style or rather that whole thing so many Mormon women seem to have with Jane Austen. Instead, we get the happy ending where the heroine never really has to give up her hope of The Perfect Man. Not really.

On the other hand, as you’ve documented, The Actor and the Housewife is rife with problems (one of the major ones being that the Actor gets all the best lines and the husband gets non-explicit, vaguely asserted sex — if there was ever the time for a bit more explicitness, it’s with this novel where you could balance the Hawt Husband vs. the Witty Brit) and so the ending is just about as weird and anticlimactic as you can get and anticlimactic would have been good if the had been more depth to the characters.

Also: wow is the Mormonism glossed over.

I stand by all that. But as I’ve thought about it lately, I think that I perhaps have been looking beyond the mark. Yes, the novel has major problems. And I still don’t think that from a national market perspective it’s that great of a book. But even with all the deus ex machina and dancing around of things and non-explicitness, from a Mormon perspective, it does have the audacity to deal with opposite gender friendships and takes that idea fairly seriously within a gospel context. Even if I’m not satisfied with the way it’s handled, I have to give Hale credit for tackling the subject. And I do think that the novel is worthy of some critical attention. I’m not claiming that I’ll be the one giving it — in fact, I don’t feel very well-equipped to. But I really shouldn’t have waited so long to point out that, much like Meyer’s Twilight series, Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife very well may say some interesting things about Mormonism and, in particular, about Mormonism in relation to the larger culture. It also may have some interesting things to say about Mormon housewives and celebrity (*cough*HaleandMeyer*cough*).

28 thoughts on “Why I haven’t posted about The Actor and the Housewife”

  1. it does have the audacity to deal with opposite gender friendships and takes that idea fairly seriously within a gospel context

    I want to disagree with you, but I can’t.

    What’s hitting me wrong is that while the *idea* was dealt with, it wasn’t dealt with WELL.

    And again, with Hale as with Meyer, I’m left wondering if they *really understand* the sexual politics of their own stories, or if these are 13-year-old girl fantasies driven by an adult woman’s subconscious frustrations.

  2. .

    What? It may have something to say? What may it have to say?

    Apparently I’m just going to have to read this myself. No one ever finishes saying what they think about it.

  3. Hey, I’m a blogger, Theric. You can’t expect depth from me.

    In addition, the novel is in great demand at my library system and I had to return it so I wasn’t able to give it a second read through.

    I also don’t have the right context — I’m not well read in national market chick lit.

    However, it is rather radical that a Mormon housewife would need, absolutely need contact with a guy friend (who happens to be a sauve, famous British actor) in order to really be happy.

    Things get dicey in terms of how this plays out as the book progresses (too bad the conflict couldn’t have been more about this notion of opposite gender friends and we had to descend in to melodrama), but I did like the absolute double-view of the situation when it comes to outsiders — she’s not attractive and glamorous enough for him to really want to sleep with her, but why would he want to spend time with her if he didn’t want to sleep with her (at some level)?

  4. Apparently I’m just going to have to read this myself.

    Well, it’s not like you don’t have a (dog-eared, marked-up, highlighted, cussed-all-over) copy.

    o one ever finishes saying what they think about it.

    I thought I made myself perfectly clear.

    In any case, there was a post over on By Common Consent about Twilight I just caught yesterday on my reader and there was one phrase that caught my attention and has held it ever since:

    The princess lies, like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some outside source to sweep her off her feet, thereby absolving her of knowing and owning her own sex, and letting him show her the ropes. Twilight carries this even farther, IMHO, because of his chaste restraint. It’s ALL lusty eyes and unconsummated toothless (sorry) insipidity. It bothers me terribly that so many grown, supposedly sexually mature women are blown away by this crap. It bespeaks an undeveloped sexual maturity in the group of women en mass[e], if not individually.

    That. (Bold is mine.)

  5. “it does have the audacity to deal with opposite gender friendships and takes that idea fairly seriously within a gospel context.”

    But it does it in such a bad way!!!!!!! To me, that is worse than not dealing with it.

    I have good opposite gender friends, and I would never kiss them. Ewww!

  6. I haven’t read this book, but… I get somewhat nervous when I read phrases like “13-year-old girl fantasies driven by an adult woman’s subconscious frustrations” and “undeveloped sexual maturity in the group of women en mass[e].” It makes me wonder about the writer’s definition of normative female sexuality. If it’s a definition that winds up disqualifying the mass of women (and their fantasies/concerns) as immature or unhealthy, what’s the ideological agenda that’s driving that definition?

  7. Because what I’m responding to isn’t the book, but rather the rhetoric of the conversation about it. I start with that disclaimer because I want to make it clear that I’m in no way commenting on the book itself. Regardless of the content of the book, though, isn’t anyone else bothered by people saying (essentially) “Women shouldn’t want this, even though they do”?

  8. isn’t anyone else bothered by people saying (essentially) “Women shouldn’t want this, even though they do”?

    I don’t see anyone saying that, much less me. What I want is for A) women to be unashamed and frank about what, exactly, they want and quit trying to wrap it up in some church-standard-like rhetoric and B) the authors (at least Meyer) to please maybe possibly acknowledge that she wrote all that subtext on purpose and C) with regard to Actor and the Housewife, the conclusion was disingenuous and a betrayal to the reader.

    If Stephenie Meyer came out and said, “Yeah, I wrote all that sexual subtext in there on purpose,” I’d be the first in line to cheer her on. I would be her biggest fan. The fact is, I don’t think she did. IF she didn’t, it’s problematic and, IMO, an indicator of how we view female sexuality in our religious culture.

    I’m very clear and up front about what I like and want, and I’ve taken A LOT of heat for it. I would simply like other women to be up front about it instead of cloaking it in pseudo church standards. But they can’t. Because they would take a lot of heat for it.

  9. But what if what (some) women want is veiled sexuality, being swept off one’s feet by an outside force, etc.?

    Clearly something in both Hale and Meyer appeals deeply to at least some women in a way that more explicitly sexual narratives do not. Referring to this kind of preference as “undeveloped sexual maturity” (as in the review you approvingly quote) sounds a lot like belittling readers whose preference is for this kind of literature. That goes beyond saying what *you* like, into the realm of name-calling those whose preference is different from yours.

  10. Clearly something in both Hale and Meyer appeals deeply to at least some women in a way that more explicitly sexual narratives do not.

    Ah, but here we’re getting into the territory where you need to have read the books to speak to the topic.

    With Hale, it’s a structural storytelling problem. I can believe that women would like this story and for it to have ended the way it did. I would’ve believed it and liked it–if she’d set it up correctly, but she didn’t. She set up a romance that, not only did she not deliver, she ripped the rug out from under the reader’s feet for no real reason at all.

    With Meyer, it’s a marketing problem. Why? Because they’re not marketed toward women. They’re written for and marketed at GIRLS, who don’t know anything at all. And let me make this very clear. Again. I LIKED Twilight. I get it. I understand its appeal. I see its crackaliciousness, and oh, is it ever crackalicious.

    What I’m saying is that it’s symbolic of our religious culture’s non-handle on female sexuality and what drives us, and what freedom we do and don’t have to articulate those feelings and wants and desires, and to what extent we sublimate those feelings and wants and desires in order to conform.

    I thought I have been very clear on this point, but apparently not. You may choose to believe that I am belittling others for liking what doesn’t appeal to me, but that is not my intent.

  11. Cop out comment:

    This was a direction I was hoping the conversation was going to go so I’m glad Jonathan responded and there both he and MoJo were willing to go back and forth for several comments because I think that not only do both make good points, but it also shows how difficult the responses to this work (and works like it) can be.

    Certainly, Orson Scott Card’s work creates discussion, but not in the same way Twilight and Meyer’s two chick lit novels do.

  12. Okay, I’m going to have to read this book.

    Hale does have female characters in other books whose sexuality stirs. I think of Enna and her fire-starter powers.

    I read Enna Burning with my daughter, then about 10, and thought it a good foray into female smolder to take with my little girl. Over the last year, we’ve let her read Jean Auel’s series that begins with Clan of the Cave Bear.

    My daughter’s 12 now. A few days ago we went on a hike together and had a good woman-to-woman talk while we looked for the tracks of a cougar that has moved into the canyon. At one point, she expressed her worry that she didn’t feel all the excitement over the Twilight series that her friends did. I told her not to fret about it–I had to force my own way through the book.

    But looking for (and finding) fresh cougar tracks while talking about sex with my coming-of-age daughter felt like how life ought to be.

  13. Hale does have female characters in other books whose sexuality stirs.

    Patricia, Becky (the “housewife” part) does have a sexuality that stirs. It’s there. She practically has to beg her husband for some, you know, attention. (Which is its own set of problems.) I thought HER sexuality was adequately portrayed, if a little dumbed-down, but she’s a mother with a family so that happens.

    The problem is that so does Felix’s (the “actor” part).

    The husband’s doesn’t.

    So all the way through the book, there’s this smoldering chemistry between the housewife and the actor.

    The field was rich with possibility.

  14. Oops. Hit “submit” before I meant to.

    Anyway, the field was rich with possibility and the end negated everything that had gone before. It was like… *giggle* PSYCH! *giggle*

  15. Yeah, I’m talking blind here. I’ll read the book.

    Hale’s women characters have always struck me as important because any chemistry–including fire–that they generate isn’t just tied up in getting the guy and achieving sexual fulfillment. Its potency is also part of how they restore the balance of power and unseat tyranny, the tyrant often being the guy who will never ever get the empowered girl (and in Goose Girl the girl who will never ever get the powerful guy) because he or she is, well, just plain chemistry-less or has turned his and her gifts in the wrong direction–toward self-advancement. These characters rely on deception and manipulation to exert influence and acquire control.

    In Hero With a Thousand Faces (which advances essentially an ego-bound male narrative take on the world but nonetheless offers useful insights), Joseph Campbell distinguishes between the fairy tale and myth this way:

    Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical, macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former–the youngest or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers–prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole.

    While I can’t contribute in a specific, meaningful way to this discussion because I haven’t yet read the book, I can suggest that in the Mormon mythos, the Joseph Smith story lays down this potent pattern for regeneration as opposed to the fairy tale triumph over personal oppressors, which in some important ways Joseph Smith failed to accomplish.

    Where is the female counterpart? It must be established through literature, which I think Hale approaches credibly in other work. I would expect to find some inkling of that energy in The Actor and the Housewife. Is it not there?

    Guess I better just get the book and find out for myself.

  16. Okay, one of the problems I have is that the hype around the book does not match up with the actual content.

    On her website for example,

    http://www.squeetus.com/stage/books_housewife.html

    even prior to publication, there was some interesting stuff about whether people of the opposite sex could be friends. I was really excited and looking forward to the book, thinking it might be good for my husband to read, to help explain why I have friends who happen to be of the opposite gender.

    Well, no, it turned out that it WAS not friendship, but rather was a sexual thing. So a great disappointment.

  17. I’m reading this now–out loud to my husband–and am about half way through. I already have a lot to say about this book. (So does he.)

    Wm, I’m perplexed. You said you think Hale pulls punches regarding explicitness, particularly regarding “unique Mormon content.” I feel Mormonism permeating this novel on every level. So I was wondering if you could explain more what you mean so I can see if I’m missing something.

  18. Since I had to return my copy to the library, I can’t point to specific examples, but I distinctly recall at least four times during my reading where I felt like Hale minimized the Mormon-ness — and I believe once was where garments would come in to play and another was related to the temple, I think.

    The Mormonism that pervades the novel is pretty surface level, insofar as I recall.

  19. believe once was where garments would come in to play and another was related to the temple, I think.

    Yes, and I was LOOKING for her to address that because it would have been so EASY.

    (I’ll be doing that in MAGDALENE, though, never fear.)

  20. Oh. Well, so far (as said, only half way through here), there have been only passing mentions of e-mail (a social staple of my own semi-housebound life) and–OMG–Becky talks with Felix on a corded phone.

    A CORDED PHONE. I can’t believe any woman with small kids could actually succeed at carrying on a (perhaps more meaningful than either party knows) conversation with ANYBODY on a corded phone, especially a significant other of any hue. If we were talking a woman fully aware and able to carpe diem with any style, she’d so need a cordless phone.

    Or an iPhone.

    Something.

  21. The hub and I are nearly through this book and have been enjoying it spectacularly. From time to time, the kids have listened in, too. I so stand by my earlier remarks that this book is steeped in Mormonism, though it’s a depth of Mormonism that’s definitely raslin’ bars on the frontier.

    Also, the “opposite gender friendship” (alas, for this spayed and/or neutered phrase!) is just the steeple on this funny temple of fertility (heh heh). I’m waiting for the end, so my opinion isn’t fully formed, of course. But IMO to this point, that Becky doesn’tfeelthemuchanticipated/sleepwithFelix/marryFelix doesn’t mean life isn’t engendered in a big way, and all around.

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