Warning: Spoilers ahead! Also, a long post.
I’ve been reading Shannon Hale’s YA novels to my daughter, now 13, for four years. The Books of Bayern are wonderfully emotionally textured, edgy enough to challenge my daughter, and filled with lots of girl power to encourage her to consider her options. Hale’s attention to language attracts my interest sharply. I’ve come to trust her writing as a source of fine language and narrative prowess for my daughter’s developing mind. We snatch up her YA novels whenever they come out.
But I wasn’t interested in Hale’s adult novel, The Actor and the Housewife, until this discussion on AMV. Complaints that the novel’s readers registered there piqued my curiosity. Just before William’s not-necessarily-a-review, Kevin Barney put up this post reviewing the church’s article on emotional infidelity that drew a lot of comments. In January, a BCC-er linked to this article in Slate on opposite sex friendship. The stars seemed to align. I decided to drop other projects and pick up The Actor and the Housewife, see what was what. To make the narrative journey more interesting, I read it aloud to my husband Mark, who during our married life has done such gracious deeds as taking the kids outside so I could talk with male friends or helping me understand the man-side of baffling conversations. I have included in this essay bits of our discussion of the novel as we read it.
We had a rough start. The Actor and the Housewife opens with a flash flood of “spiritual signs” and unlikely coincidences that seemed to strain the storyline. The banter between the main characters–Mormon housewife Becky Jack and movie star Felix Callahan–seemed at times to flip over into barely tolerable giddiness. Sometimes the dialogue felt downright immodest, as in a scene where Becky tells her husband Mike about her first encounter with Felix. In the wake of the recounting’s excitement, Becky and Mike wind up in bed.
Mark: Mike’s insistence on Becky’s femme fatale powers affects him.
I think I was expecting a story and language more along the lines of Hale’s Bayern Books–lovely, deep, connected all around and through, each book a satisfying environment in itself. The tenor of the language in Actor and Housewife was so different, so abrasive by comparison that Mark and I wondered at times if Hale disliked Becky.
Patricia: This reads like a script. And the witty dialogue seems contrived and irritating.
Mark: [Hale] is taking the book where she wants it to go.
Only my previous experience with the author’s writing made it possible for us to suspend our early judgment and trust that Hale would take us someplace interesting. I began relaxing into the story when passages like these appeared:
“In a way, it almost feels like falling–” No, she wasn’t going to say it. “There should be a new term–falling in friendship or something like that. I wish there was a word for it! The English language is seriously flawed “¦ (56)”
“I wish the English language gave us a better option. “˜Pals,’ “˜chums,’ “˜buddies’ “¦ but a word that implies the sudden and unusual nature–like “˜metabuddies’? (56)”
The “no language for this” issue surfaces repeatedly as Becky tries to relate her new experience to what she knows but can’t make it fit. Through wordplay, Becky and Felix finesse the relationship, negotiating a space for its existence and continued development outside what the usual language of friendship allows for. Language and relationship–for me, an absolutely dynamite combination.
Mark (speaking of the Valentine’s Dance scene where Becky and Felix go outside into the night air so Felix can test his theory that he’s falling in love with Becky): Becky wants to “get out there” and remain chaste. How can she make it work? She “goes outside” with Felix.
As the story progresses, the matter of social expectations and limitations–lines–where they are and whether or not Becky should cross them–arises frequently. As Becky follows her instincts and her heart across her lines toward Felix while maintaining her lifelines to Mike and her kids, the flash flood turns into a deep, sinuously flowing river. For this reader, the current became fully compelling.
Mark: The reader is not in control here. The writer is. Hale takes us through a series of emotional states. By the break-up, the writer is exerting powerful control.
(By “break-up,” he means the point in the story where Mike expresses his misgivings about how deeply involved his wife and her movie star buddy are becoming. To save her marriage, Becky and Felix break up.)
As the story continues, Becky’s iconoclastic nature becomes increasingly apparent. As she follows her attraction to Felix, she makes leaps of faith that shake up friends and extended family members, all of whom express their doubts about the relationship which they either expect or hope will fail. Why would they expect or hope for the worst? Because the friendship’s failure would confirm their own moral takes on the world. The family get-together where Becky discovers her siblings are betting against her is one of the most important parts of the book. There we begin to see just how deeply the Becky-Felix dynamic affects others’ lives as, watching the relationship intensify, Becky’s mother, her brothers, a sister, and a sister-in-law either manifest or confront their own social fears and limitations, including and especially, the fear of attraction.
Mark: As much as Becky loves her Mormon world, she has a hunger for something else–not instead of, but in addition to. She has complete confidence in her social lines. But she’s experimenting with various individuals to see “Can I make this work within the social universe where my children and husband live?”
Patricia: Becky and Felix’s relationship changes both their worlds.
Mark: Their relationship ends up relegating her older, primary relationships to supporting roles.
Patricia: She tries including the bishop. He draws his line, re-thinks, changes. Change is a main current in the book.
Mark: She was successful at integrating Mike.
One of the amazing elements of this book is how Hale makes Mormonism sexy. This isn’t a matter of imbuing the book with only erotic energy but rather with life-begetting fertility operating within a Mormon moral context. More than once, Felix calls Becky “a goddess” and clearly means it. Likewise, he alludes to her physical fertility. But the fertility language doesn’t just remark upon Becky’s childbearing prowess. Body and soul, Becky is a fountain of happy fecundity.
Mark: She is powerful as a demonstrably fertile woman, terrifyingly brave to outsiders. Her character as a character is more developed than Felix’s. More than Celeste’s also. Celeste is supposed to be the demonstrable paragon. But what is she in the face of this Becky power over her husband? Celeste submits to the goddess. She keeps what she can, relinquishes what she can’t hold on to.
Patricia: By virtue of their more open marriage, Felix and Celeste are completely vulnerable to the “cheeky [Mormon] minx” (12).
At the book’s outset, Felix and Celeste are statistics in Europe and Britain’s demographic winter. Felix is hardened in his aversion to children and to fathering them. This means that, philosophically, emotionally, and sexually a kind of sterility exists in Felix’s erotically charged bond with Celeste. Following their involvement with Becky and her family, this cultural sterility leads to the collapse of Felix and Celeste’s marriage.
Mark: Becky could have Felix but doesn’t. Celeste can’t have Mike.
Some readers complain that the story is unbelievable, a fact Hale herself has fun with toward its conclusion: “[S]eriously, who would buy a Mormon housewife as a romantic comedy heroine (320)?” But Hale uses the device of extremity to frame up the story firmly. If there weren’t unlikely extremes in the tale–the Hollywood scene vs. the Layton, Utah scene; Mormon housewife vs. famous actor–it might come off as “too Mormon.” Yet via extremities, Hale brings Becky’s brand of Mormonism into relief. Otherwise, the lines Becky draws and crosses wouldn’t show up nearly as vividly.
Mark: This is going to take everybody somewhere they haven’t been. Is Hale working at illustrating a future archetype?
Some readers lament that Felix gets the best lines, making less stellar husband Mike look boring by comparison. Me, I was amused by but not terribly impressed with Felix. Nor did I find Mike boring. Mike’s lines of dialogue are understated but impressively brave, since in a practical yet courageous way he navigates new seas he finds himself sailing as he opens his home to Felix. Why does Becky love Mike? She just does. At first sniff she knows they have compatible pheromones and their genetic prospects are excellent: “His pheromones practically danced down my gullet and straight to my ovaries” (289). This line goes to the fertility motif woven throughout the book.
Mark: The best lines support the Becky character and they support the relationship. It makes sense that Felix has charismatic lines.
Patricia: I want this to be a more beautifully written book, but it’s a screenplay.
Mark: The book is dependent on and devoted to that device.
Felix appears to have the male lead in this made-for-a-novel screenplay. As it turns out, he can’t rival plain ol’ Mike, either his pheromones or his stolid Mormon stance. Even after he dies, Mike exerts influence on the story and gets in Felix’s way, though many might wish that, when alive, Mike could have competed more compellingly against flamboyant Felix. But it’s Becky that provides the narrative’s driving force. That neither Mike nor Felix as characters are as developed as is Becky’s character is hardly surprising. The story is really about a Mormon woman and her “indomitable Mormon willpower” (214). In Hale’s stories, male characters commonly act in supporting roles, standing back as the strong female leads do their thing to keep the world in balance, plying extraordinary gifts separately and in alliance to unseat tyrants and preserve their families.
No tyranny overtly menaces the storyline of The Actor and the Housewife, only doubtful imperatives of social conventions and expectations bent on circumscribing the relationship. Yet the language wrestles to pioneer a narrative trail for a definitely outside-the-usual mingling between two unlikely soul mates and their at-odds worldviews, thus directing its energy into deep space exploration. In entering The Dance with Felix, Becky Jack, married Mormon mother of four, bravely goes where not very many Mormon mothers–maybe not many women at all, and with reason–have gone before. Given the outcome for most of the story’s characters–more life for everyone all around–she does it with style, holding open prospects for everybody.
It’s important to the story that Becky and Felix not follow the usual romantic comedy script and become fully sexually entwined. In my opinion, the reason is pretty simple. Becky is fully Mormon; Felix is fully not. For Becky, family is everything. Felix has estranged himself from even his mother. By the end of the book, Felix, at nearly fifty years old, is only just coming to accept the prospect of being a father and “[settling] into [his] adult skin (301).” By standards not just embedded in Mormon culture but also in other family-oriented societies, his social arc is way behind Becky’s. But mainly, the idea that what she does and whom she does it with will affect prospects for others fully informs her sensibilities. “Others” here include her children, whose lives are rather dramatically affected by her relationship with Felix; her husband, who must face his own fears and take his own leap of faith; her mother, who worries; her siblings, betting one an other that their doubts will be confirmed; her friends, who have their own lives to work out; and her church community, which at times behaves less than elegantly in response to Felix’s presence, an actual problem that exists between the church and the not-church communities. Finally, there is Felix himself, so caught up in following Becky into “whatevership” that he makes himself vulnerable. She is careful not to take advantage. With her out there taking such chances, the agency and narrative prospects for everyone whose lives touch hers hangs in balance. Fertility–not merely sexual fulfillment and not simply physical ability to bear children but also life-begetting, possibility-multiplying, world-building spiritual and emotional abundance–is the name of Becky’s Mormon game of risk.
Mark: The whole point is to prepare the Mormon reader to approach the point of agency. Readers experience their own fears, doubts, expectations–all of which will be broken by this iconoclastic Mormon character.
Or not. Some readers, seeing Becky cross lines they themselves have taken pains to hold in place, will find the story unacceptable. Many there be that have experienced worry, heartbreak, or the destruction of their families in situations that will uncomfortably resemble the arc of The Actor and the Housewife’s storyline. To such people, the premise of the novel–that some men and some women can work through the confusion and intricacies of attraction–including sexual attraction–to establish positive, productive metafriendships might well come off as unbelievable, perhaps even painful. This book isn’t trying to bully its point across, only to prompt thought: What if …? The Actor and the Housewife is not for everyone, a fact Hale acknowledges and accepts. I suspect that only a relatively small audience will find the novel to carry a stronger punch than can either an unconvincing and quirky romantic fantasy or an irresponsible and/or dangerous love story. Yet The Actor and the Housewife’s intent is to be more than either-ors allow for. I found it neither this nor that, but something else altogether different: a remarkably courageous work that chips away at the horns of social and spiritual dilemmas.