Jonathan Eaves is 40 years old, married, lives in Cheshire and is far too fond of beer for his own good. He writes predominately for fun but only because no-one seems willing to pay him for it. He did once make a failed attempt to wrest the comic fantasy crown from Terry Pratchett with his novel Rude Awakenings. Reactions to the book were mixed. Some people merely disliked it whilst others actively hated it. Consequently it deservedly bombed but, undeterred, he’s currently working on the sequel which only goes to show that some people never know when to quit…
Strange Love (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chick Lit)
By Jon Eaves
Okay, before I start, I am aware that the term ‘Chick Lit’ is sometimes frowned upon these days. The Genre-Formally-Known-As-Chick Lit is now called Women’s Contemporary Fiction, or Women’s Commercial Fiction or Women’s ‘something else beginning with a C’ Fiction. But my wife still calls it Chick Lit, and she reads bucket loads of the stuff, so if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.
In any case, I’m talking about a very particular type of Chick Lit. The cover will invariably be pale pink or baby blue. The title will be written in a curly, a whirly or even possibly a squirly font. There will, without exception, be a smattering of either silvery stars or shiny red hearts or, in the worst case scenario, purple butterflies. The cover illustration will be a stylised colour drawing of the thin, pretty heroine wearing deep red lip gloss and very pointy shoes. And, underneath the title, there will undoubtedly be a pithy (read cheesy) strap line along the lines of ‘Abigail thought love was a four letter word’ or ‘Could a little white lie really ruin true love?’ etc. By now I think you will know exactly what sort of book I’m talking about…
Due to what amounts to a borderline addiction on my wife’s part, there are hundreds upon hundreds of these books stacked upon bookshelves around the house and heaped in piles at the side of the bed or by the toilet. Much to my amazement Ally will regularly read 2 or 3 a week and often re-read one that she may only have read a month or so previously. Subsequently I have often struggled to understand why such a busy, intelligent, capable woman would waste so much of her precious weekend reading such… rubbish. I know that I am partly to blame for my wife’s virtual dependency on these books – whenever it’s my turn to do the weekly shop and I happen to spot such a tome, particularly when it has one of those ‘£3.99, Sainsbury’s Book Club’ stickers on the cover, I’ll pop it into the basket, knowing I’ll get not only a couple of brownie points for my thoughtfulness, but also an extra hour’s kip on a Sunday morning because Ally will be reading and therefore won’t feel the need to nudge me in the ribs with her elbow and tell me it’s time to get up. But even so!
To her credit Ally generally just ignores my jibes over her choice of reading, occasionally responding by casually accusing me of reading what she sneeringly terms ‘Boy Trash’. Boy Trash consists mainly of contemporary military or espionage action thrillers and its authors would include Andy McNab, Lee Child and Jack Higgins. I would have to please guilty to my wife’s accusation, but I maintain that, when it comes to any measure of literary merit, ‘Boy Trash’ is way beyond the pink and fluffy style of ‘Chick Lit’ which my wife devours each Saturday and Sunday. How can you possibly say that, Ally says sweetly, when you’ve never even read a single one of my so-called pink and fluffy books?
She has a point, of course, not that I’m prepared to admit it. But the next time I’m sat on the loo I suddenly feel the urge to pick up one of Ally’s books, just to read the blurb on the back, you understand, nothing more… After all, how can I, a sixteen stone, beer-drinking, rugby-loving middle-aged bloke with a paunch and a beard, possibly be interested in a book called (and I’ve slightly changed the name here, to protect the innocent) the Institute of Romance. It’s not a new book – I’ve seen it knocking around for quite some time – but it is everything that I cannot abide in the genre. It has silver and pink stars on the cover. The stylised illustration shows the red-lipped heroine in a gondola being paddled by an inconceivably handsome gondolier. The strap line asks ‘Are you ready for romance?’ and there’s even a cherubic pink (of course!) cupid on the back cover. But possibly the most offensive thing of all is that the hole in the O in the surname of the author is, wait for it, heart-shaped.
‘God, will you take a look at this?’ I cry, brandishing the offensive volume once I’ve finished in the loo. ‘What can you possibly get out of reading this garbage?’
‘What are you talking about?’ my wife replies, somewhat disinterestedly, it has to be said.
‘This! The Institute of Romance!’
‘Well, why don’t you read it and find out?’ she challenges me, obviously fed up with my near constant criticism of her reading tastes.
Now I’m usually quite up for a challenge – I once broke my arm after having been challenged to get from one end of the local tree-lined park to the other without putting a foot on the ground; I was 37 at the time – but, frankly, this is a step too far.
‘No way,’ I say, quickly discarding The Institute of Romance and grabbing the latest testosterone-filled Wilbur Smith in its place.
However, all too soon Ally’s challenge starts to gnaw away at me. Wherever I look, there’s The Institute of Romance, staring at me, using all of its feminine wiles, daring me to pick it up. I resist, of course, but the temptation is strong. And it’s getting stronger by the day…
It’s not long before I come to the realisation that it’s inevitable that I’m going to have to read one of Ally’s books, but I’m determined that it won’t be The Institute of Romance, so I find myself looking at the back covers of other pink and fluffy paperbacks, trying to find something that might possibly appeal.
In Do You Remember The First Time? by Jenny Colgan, 32 year old Flora wishes that she could be 16 again, and still know what she knows now, and, hey presto, that’s exactly what happens; in The Playground Mafia, by Sarah Tucker, Caroline Gray is suddenly thrust into the adult playground politics of her young son’s new school… but neither Flora nor Caroline hold the same sort of attraction for me as Kirsty!
Who’s Kirsty? you ask. Kirsty, of course, is the thirty something journalistic heroine of, you’ve guessed it, The Institute of Romance. Yes, I finally succumb to reading the back cover; ‘If you think Casanova was a bad boy, just wait until you see what Cupid has in store for Kirsty…’
Aaagh! No I can’t, I simply can’t. But of course I’m going to, aren’t I? It’s predestined, fated, bound to happen, so I might as well just bloody get on and do it.
Sometimes, when Ally is working away, I’ll take a book with me to the pub whilst I enjoy a quiet pint, but I can hardly walk in to my local with The Institute of Romance tucked under my arm, can I? I’d never live it down and I suddenly realise that this is a personal thing, a secret thing, something that can only take place within the privacy of my own house. In fact I don’t even want my wife to know that I’m reading the damned thing. I almost feel guilty; I’d probably feel less embarrassment if she caught me reading porn… this is getting out of hand, and I haven’t even read the first paragraph yet.
Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take a day off, without Ally’s knowledge, and read the thing in one fell swoop. Probably I’ll read it in bed, or maybe the bath; perhaps I should pour some aromatic bath oil in and place some scented candles strategically around the bathroom…
Oh my God! What is happening to me?
Right, enough is enough. Ally’s out and not due home for another 45 minutes so just open the book and read the bloody thing! Now! Just do it now!
I read the first paragraph; ‘What if there was a place you could go to have your heart’s longings fulfilled? A place that could give you a real, touchable person to love? Would you go? I leave on Monday.’
Alright, so it’s hardly a contender for the Booker, but, to be fair, my head hasn’t exploded nor has blood started to pour out of my ears and nose…
Thirty minutes later and I’m 3 chapters in. The story so far revolves around three main characters; Kirsty, a journalist for Hot! Magazine, who is sent on an assignment to investigate, you’ve guessed it, The Institute of Romance; her co-habiting partner Joe, who, in Kirsty’s opinion at least, takes her far too much for granted and doesn’t possess a romantic bone in his body; and Kier, Kirsty’s brother, who, conveniently, used to live in Venice and is heart-broken over the split with his former girlfriend Cinzia. Kirsty has persuaded Kier to accompany her to the Institute of Romance, something that strikes me as a little bit odd but, hey, I’m new to all this.
I’ve got to admit that I’m not exactly gripped at this point. Maybe it’s the fact that there has yet to appear a) any guns, b) any gadgets or c) any Russian/Chinese/Al Qaeeda[i] baddies. Or possibly it’s because I don’t really feel any empathy with the characters. Actually that’s not quite true. The one character that I can relate to is Joe, and he’s the one that is obviously being lined up to be the baddie (although not in a ‘I’m going to take over / blow up the world’ sort of way). For instance he dismisses Valentine’s Day as a fabricated commercially-driven celebration with no actual significance whatsoever. I agree with him. He occasionally turns away from snuggling with Kirsty in bed because he’s too hot. I can certainly empathise with that. And I suddenly wonder if that is why, even after only thirty-odd pages, that The Institute of Romance probably isn’t for me – because I’m far too like its blokeish, unromantic pseudo villain…
But wait, I can’t judge a whole genre in three chapters. So I persevere.
A different day and Ally is not about so I get through another 50 pages. I’m just about to embark upon Chapter 8 when I hear, ‘what on earth are you doing?’
I spin around and can feel the look of guilt upon my face.
‘Nothing,’ I stammer.
‘What’s that you’re reading?’ she insists.
It’s no use. I show her the book. ‘Well,’ I begin to explain, ‘remember when you said that I should try reading one of your type of books…’
‘I do,’ she replies, ‘but you don’t want to be reading that.’
‘Because it’s rubbish!’
Now here’s a turn up. Foolishly, it had never occurred to me that Ally ever considered any one of her pink and fluffy books to be rubbish – that was my prerogative! She simply devoured one and then moved on to the next.
‘Look,’ she says, taking The Institute of Romance out of my hands, ‘why don’t you let me recommend a book for you to read? You don’t want to be wasting your Chick Lit virginity on this. Let me think. Yes, what you need is a Kinsella…’
I immediately wonder what a ‘Kinsella’ is. To me it sounds a little bit like Inshallah so maybe it’s a middle-eastern head massage which will somehow transcendentally open my mind; but it soon becomes apparent that Ally is talking about the writer Sophie Kinsella.
And so, minutes later, I’m perusing the cover of Can You Keep a Secret? It’s lilac, so not exactly pink, but not far off. I can’t tell if the stylised portrayal of the heroine has her wearing red lip gloss, as she has her back to us, but she’s definitely got pointy shoes. And, of course, there’s a strapline – ‘A few little secrets are fine. It’s the big ones you have to look out for…’
An hour later and, well, I’m hooked. Honestly. I’m really enjoying it. It’s well-written, it features enjoyable characters and it’s and very, very funny. I finish it in one sitting. Now, I’m not going to tell you what happens; I’ll leave it for you to find that out for yourselves (and, Sophie, if you suddenly discover a sudden surge in sales, I’m not too proud to accept a little commission!) but suffice to say that I had experienced a revelation and could now understand what my wife sees in such books. Well, the well-written ones, that is.
Now, I’m not saying that the next time I’m in the bookshop I’ll head straight towards the Kinsellas, the Jewells, and the Ffordes of this world at the expense of the Ryans and the Forsyths, but, should I find myself one Saturday morning without anything new to read, and I happen to notice, say, a pale blue book decorated with silver stars at the side of the bed, maybe I’ll pick it up and give it a go. But, for the sake of my reputation down at the pub, can we just keep this between ourselves? Can you keep a secret?
© Jon Eaves
To find out more about Jon Eaves, visit his website here!