Monday, September 25, 2006

Julie Cohen – Being a Bad Girl (1)

No, this isn't a review. It's going to be like the analyses I've done of the metaromances, except that this time I'm going to look at imagery as well as at themes. It got rather long, which is why I'm splitting this up into two posts. I'll put up the second in a day or two.

Before I begin, I should mention that this book is a Mills & Boon’s Modern Romance Extra-Sensual (in the line formerly known as ‘Harlequin Temptation’). Julie Cohen has given seminars on writing sex scenes and you can read an excerpt which demonstrates her skill at this, but it's not something I'm going to discuss here. If you haven’t read the book and want to see a review, there’s one here.

I'm not going to discuss the sex, or the plot development, or the characterisation and I may give spoilers. So, now that I’ve bored or scared off almost all my potential readers, for those who’re still sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.

The hero of Being a Bad Girl, Dr Oz Strummer, is a psychologist and as the novel progresses he makes observations about his own and the heroine’s motivation. However, given that he’s a fictional character, who sprang from the brain of Julie Cohen, and she has an M.Phil. in English Literature (her thesis included ‘a whole chapter on the Cottingley fairy photographs’) and is an English teacher, it’s perhaps not surprising that his statements can also be understood to refer to the processes by which authors create themes and imagery in their writing.

So, what does Dr Oz Strummer have to tell us? Well, when Marianne turns up dressed as Dorothy, while Oz is dressed as the Scarecrow
they burst out laughing together.
“You’re a very sexy Dorothy,” he said, looking her up and down. She felt herself blush.
“It was just the first costume I came across. I didn’t -” Suddenly she realized why Oz had dressed up as the Scarecrow. His name. Her cheeks felt even hotter.
“I didn’t choose it because you’re called – I mean, I closed my eyes. It was a random choice.” She stopped, and looked up into his laughing, knowing hazel eyes.
“You’re going to say that nothing is random, aren’t you?”
“It’s a well-known theory that our subconscious expresses itself in our least deliberate actions,” he replied. (2006: 133)
Romance authors, whether subconsciously or deliberately, use imagery which complements the themes in the story they're writing. Julie Cohen is in the latter group, playfully using imagery and then making explicit its meaning; there are no accidental uses of clichés in this novel. For example, when Marianne, the heroine, muses that she wouldn’t ‘know what a bad boy was like unless one came up and bit her on the behind’ (2006: 11) she immediately pours herself a tequila and raises a toast ‘to an imaginary bad boy. “To bites on the behind”’ (2006: 12). When Oz is given a fake tattoo to wear of ‘a large sword with a snake twining around it’ (2006: 15) he knows that these are ‘Two blatant phallic symbols. Jack and Kitty weren’t being subtle in the least’ (2006: 15). And then Oz takes Marianne to the beach at night, where she can see the lighthouse: ‘ “A pillar of fire by night,” Oz said. “That’s what Longfellow called it.”’ (2006: 52). Julie quoted this passage of the novel and discussed it on her blog, so you can go there and see how the imagery adds to the emotional effect of the scene. What’s particularly interesting is that the same object, the lighthouse, can be interpreted/‘read’ differently by two different people. For Marianne the lighthouse makes her think ‘beautiful, perfect, and alone [...] she wasn’t like that perfect, lonely lighthouse anymore. She’d moved up here to change: to become happy and carefree’ (2006: 52). Oz, on the other hand, says that ‘I brought you to the biggest phallic symbol in the neighborhood [...] I think I mentioned Longfellow, too’ (2006: 55).

I won’t list all the imagery and innuendo in the novel, but I will give just one more example which is key to understanding Oz: his motorcycle, which is not, in fact, his. It’s part of the persona that’s being forced upon him by his friends who are dressing him up for a charity bacherlor auction and making him look like a 'bad boy' biker. Despite this, it does reflect an aspect of Oz’s personality. When he first sees the ‘flame-colored, chrome-girdled Harley Davidson’ (2006: 15) he imagines it ‘thrumming under his hands [...] the feeling of the road rushing under the wheels. Then real life and responsibility came back to him’ (2006: 15). But Oz’s ‘real life’ and his responsibilities are changing, which is perhaps why he buys the bike. Oz, it turns out, likes speed and sometimes wants to be free from ‘Responsibility. My job. My life. Who I am’ (2006: 78). The bike is ‘Freedom on two wheels’ (2006: 17). But speed, risk, and freedom are not enough to make Oz happy. When he goes on a night ride by himself ‘The fantasy wasn’t working. The Harley was a stunning machine. It responded to his every touch with perfect precision and awesome power. And it felt like a stupid, inanimate pile of metal and rubber when he was on it alone’ (2006: 70). He wants both excitement and stability, freedom and commitment, ‘I need something and somebody permanent’ (2006: 103). Stability on a motorbike with a passenger riding pillion can only be achieved through trust ‘I’ll trust you not to crash’ (2006: 39) and physical closeness, ‘hold on tight to me’ (2006: 39), with both driver and passenger having to ‘let our bodies work together with the bike’ (2006: 40). That applies not just to riding the bike, but also to sex, ‘Their bodies worked together, as they had on the motorcycle’ (2006: 171) and to the emotional side of the relationship between Oz and Marianne.

The lessons that Oz learns with Marianne and the motorbike also help explain why he changes his mind about his sister’s forthcoming wedding. He had thought that she was too young to get married (2006: 99-100), but, by the end of the novel he knows that, given the right riding partner, speed and excitement can be combined with safety. His sister, though she’s rushing to get married at an early age is not making a mistake, because she’s chosen her partner well.

I also thought the names of the hero and heroine were interesting. Julie Cohen says that ‘I named Oz after Joe Strummer in The Clash, because he died the same week I invented Oz’, but the surname sounds not dissimilar to the words ‘thrum’. Oz's surname, then, may echo the ‘thrumming [...] the satisfying roar’ (2006: 15) of the motorbike. His first name is Oscar, but he’s known as Oz, and Marianne thinks ‘Oz was a good name for a biker [...] A wizard on a motorcycle’ (2006: 20). Marianne’s surname is Webb, and her hometown is Webb, and that possibly reflects the fact that she’s been caught up in a web of rules, and is now trying to break free: ‘Make up the rules yourself, mused Marianne. After years of having the rules made up for her, that sounded exactly like what she was looking for’ (2006: 11). Marianne is the name of the ‘national emblem of France’, ‘a personification of Liberty and Reason’. These are qualities which are combined in the intelligent, freedom-seeking Marianne Webb. The French Marianne is often portrayed bearing her breast, and Marianne Webb’s bid for liberty involves exploring her sexuality. If we compare this heroine to other Mariannes in literature, we may note that she is much more fortunate than Marianne in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, who also falls in love with a bad boy, Willoughby, though of course Willoughby is a truly bad boy, not simply one who breaks a few rules. Oz combines the romantic and sexual appeal of the bad boy with the stability and wisdom of a Colonel Brandon. Or perhaps her name owes something to the song Marianne, about another Marianne who likes the seaside, sung by Terry Gilkyson & The Easy Riders (Oz's bike is a low rider (2006: 39)).

All of the above regarding Marianne’s name is pure speculation, and I suspect that I may be wrong. Nonetheless, since the reader doesn’t often know the author’s intentions, it can be interesting to analyse the possible associations that particular names have for the reader. Readers certainly have preferences regarding names for heroes, and, as mentioned previously, alpha heroes are not infrequently named after predatory birds and animals. Trying to work out the connotations and derivation of a name is something that Marianne does. Oz’s name makes her think both of the Wizard of Oz and ‘Ozzy Osbourne’ (2006: 47), but in fact he got the nickname for quite another, very innocent reason. So, if my analysis of Marianne’s name is wrong, I’m not in bad company.

  • Cohen, Julie, 2006. Being a Bad Girl (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).


  1. Your comments about the use of symbolism in my novel are spot-on, Laura, and exactly what I had hoped a reader would see. Writing a psychologist hero meant it was easier to explain the significance of particular symbols or acts, because Oz was very self-aware. Unfortunately I'm usually attracted to less self-conscious characters so they can't help me out this way!

    I also like what you say about the names, and I think what you say about Webb is precisely true, although that was completely unintentional on my part. I would love to claim I had Sense & Sensibility in mind for Marianne's first name (and it might have been in the back of my mind, since I love the book). I think I actually chose it because of a much lower cultural reference: good-girl Marianne in "Gilligan's Island".

    I believe that it's the reader who creates the meaning in a text, as well as the writer--so the meanings you find are certainly there, and could do with why a name feels "right" for a character, for the reader or author.

  2. exactly what I had hoped a reader would see

    That's extremely reassuring! Having previously only studied texts by very long dead authors, I was intrigued by the idea of being able to get feedback on whether my analysis was actually correct. I mean, it's all very well to, say, speculate that Fernando de Rojas was thinking of the iconography of the sanguine when he wrote Celestina, but he couldn't turn around and tell me I was wrong. I'd like to think that my textual criticism in the past has been along the lines of what the author intended/what might have reasonably come from the author's subconscious given the other texts with which he'd come into contact, but as a medievalist I could never know for sure.

    As you say, 'it's the reader who creates the meaning in a text, as well as the writer', but the two are interlinked, and just as I imagine that authors can get a bit annoyed when they feel their characters are being misunderstood, so it would be disconcerting for me to discover that my interpretation of a text was solely the product of my own imagination.

    I suspect I am likely to miss lots of film/television references, though, because we didn't have a TV when I was growing up (and I still don't), but as no literary critic is omniscient there's bound to be some area of the arts/media that she/he doesn't know so much about.

    Unfortunately I'm usually attracted to less self-conscious characters so they can't help me out this way!

    Ah, but that just gives the reader more work to do, if the reader wants to do it, and if she/he doesn't, it'll still be working at a subconscious level.