Sunday, November 26, 2006

Elizabeth Bevarly - The Thing About Men

As promised, here's a post about Elizabeth Bevarly's The Thing About Men. There are plenty of reviews of it, including one at Romantic Times, one at AAR, and one by Mrs Giggles. There's an excerpt here.

Ellen Micheletti, the AAR reviewer, comments that:
The theme of the book is the importance of family. Claire's parents died when she was only three, and she was sent to an orphanage. She was never adopted, so she does not want little Anabel to go through what she did. Ramsey Sage left a bad family situation when he was eighteen and has lived a hard life [...]. He's come to realize how important family is, and he wants that for his niece.
It isn't the theme I picked up on the first time I read the book, though Bevarly does say in the dedication that 'this book [...] deals with second families', which just goes to show that different readers can have very different perceptions of the same book. Ellen Michelleti's right, though, and this is an important theme in the novel, though not, I think, the only one. So I'll begin by taking a look at the theme of family and then turn to gender/gender constructs and what the novel has to say about them.

There seem to be two possible interpretations of the word 'family' offered by the narrative, one the biological family, the other the 'second families' that people create for themselves. That said, Bevarly's second family are her aunt's husband and children (her aunt being her mother's 'twin sister, who shared the same DNA'). At times, The Thing About Men acknowledges the ways in which the biological family can fail: Claire herself is an orphan and 'neither of her parents had left behind any relatives suitable for raising her - all had either been too dilapidated, too debilitated, too disinterested, or too dysfunctional. Or worse, all of the above' (2005: 29-30); it is not known who Anabel's biological father was; Claire's friend Olive 'had never had much of a family beyond her invalid - and now deceased - mother' (2005: 7) and Ramsey's family home 'had been a war zone the entire time Ramsey had grown up. [...] He couldn't recall a single day when his parents hadn't fought bitterly about something, unless he counted the days when his parents were too drunk to even get out of bed (2005: 125-126). Another of the characters is a social worker, and his disillusionment and world-weariness is due, at least in part, to 'the things he'd seen people do to their own children' (2005: 166).

We are shown how people can create family networks of their own, mostly made up of people who are not biological relations. Eleanor Sage's attempt at making family (apart from her daughter), involved no personal contact at all, and was based on her being Claire's '#1 fan' (2005: 13). Although she never met Claire, she
had begun writing [to her] nearly three years earlier [...] At first, the young woman's letters had simply proclaimed her love for the program. But eventually, they had begun to contain snippets of Eleanor's personal life, too. Most recently, those snippets had included anecdotes about the birth and ensuing adventures of Eleanor's daughter, now thirteen months old, whom Eleanor had named Anabel Claire Sage, after her deceased grandmother and her favourite celebrity. [...] Claire [...] had been both deeply touched and slightly appalled. [...] the thought that a television personality would hold a higher place in the woman's life than her family or her friends was just a trifle unnerving (2005: 13)
Claire herself has no family, and it is her friend and business partner Olive who gives her support, love and a sense of community. Olive is Claire's 'best friend in the whole, wide world [...] Claire had known her since they had been thrown together as roommates [...] thirteen years before and couldn't imagine how she would get along without her' (2005: 7), 'They had bonded immediately. And they had taken care of each other. Little by little, each had become for the other the family neither had ever had' (2005: 30). Much later Claire says that 'Family is a relative term [...] it takes more to make a family than people swimming in the same gene pool' (2005: 152).

The message about family and the way second families can be created that are non-biological is somewhat mixed however, because at many points in the novel the importance of biological ties is stressed very strongly, for example when Ramsey thinks 'Claire Willoughby could give Anabel lots of things that Ramsey couldn't. But they were unimportant things [...] What Ramsey had to offer his niece went straight to the heart. Anabel belonged with him. They were family. And that was the only thing that really mattered' (2005: 59). Shortly after this Claire thinks that 'a family was the one thing she had always wanted and had never had, and probably never would have [...] she felt like such an outcast from society because she'd never in her life had the very thing that defined the culture in which she'd grown up' (2005: 64-65).

There are plenty of romances in which the heroine is left in charge of a secret baby which she must introduce to its biological father (who usually feels an instant bond with the child, because it shares some of his DNA), or in which the heroine is the mother of a secret baby and the hero, the biological father, coerces her into marriage on the grounds that a baby needs both its biological parents (regardless if, at the time they marry each other, they at best feel tolerance for each other and at worse are in constant conflict). The Thing About Men does not quite have that sort of plot, but it's nonetheless true that Claire, the orphaned heroine, meets the hero because of his biological ties to the baby niece he didn't know he had. When the hero and the baby meet 'Claire could almost hear a zap of connection resonate between uncle and niece' (2005: 124) and finally the hero and heroine marry and form a two-parent family.

On the issue of Anabel's father one can almost sense the tension between the recognition that some biological familes can be disfunctional, even dangerous and the traditional mantra that 'blood is thicker than water':
He wondered briefly about the little girl's father, but decided that if Eleanor hadn't thought the man important enough to include in Anabel's life, then Ramsey probably shouldn't think of him that way, either. [...] Still, the girl's father deserved to know he had a daughter out in the world. Once Ramsey was more accustomed to his new role as her guardian [...] he'd see if he could find Anabel's father. Surely the guy would want to know about his next generation' (2005: 130).
Of course, Ramsey has a vested interest in stressing the importance of biological family, because other than his status as Anabel's uncle, he has little in his favour were it to come to a custody battle. Perhaps Bevarly's final conclusions on the issue of parental love, and what makes a parent, come through when Claire ponders that
even biological parents didn't learn their trade overnight, did they? She'd read enough issues of Parents and Parenting magazines in recent weeks to understand that no matter when or how one became a parent, one had no idea what one was getting oneself into until it was too late. And she'd learned, too, that no matter how chaotic and challenging the child, parents grew to love them unconditionally.
It wasn't too late for Claire and Anabel. (2005: 306)
Bevarly's said very similar things only recently on the Squawk Radio blog. And, of course, husbands and wives usually aren't blood relatives, but they are each other's 'family too' (2005: 333).

But if family (both biological and chosen) is the theme I missed, the one I noticed was one which touches on biological determinism:

This explanation of gender is based on the belief that all differences between men and women result from biology - the 'anatomy is destiny' argument. Biological determinism is often used to support generalisations about men and women, such as 'men are naturally more able in maths and technology' or 'women are naturally suited to domestic duties'.

These views are based on investigations of genetic differences between men and women, often searching for differences in brain function. However, even by the early 1990s, it was clear that the constant finding of psychological research is that 'sex differences are small, their origins unclear, and the variation within each sex far outweighs any differences between the sexes' (Segal 1990:63 as reproduced in Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998:44). (Queensland Government page on 'understanding gender')

The novel deals with stereotypes, prejudices, and judgements made about people on the basis of their appearance and gender, and demonstrates how these may be proved wrong. The very title of the book, The Thing About Men, invites the reader to conclude the sentence with generalisations about men. The back cover copy gives us a few possible ways to do this:
Three Things About Men:
They think dinner comes in a box ...
They never ask for directions ...
They never admit they're wrong.
Comments like that are, of course, sexist. As Wikipedia notes, sexism can be directed against males as well as females (and intersex and transsexual individuals) and 'some of the arguments for biological determinism come from women themselves—especially from what is described as proponents of “essentialist” feminism' (Barnett and Rivers 2005).

As we discussed in my previous post, Bevarly is a feminist, and one whose husband
was the primary caregiver, a stay-at-home dad, until my son entered school. (Though, as said above, we are equal partners in the parenting these days, since we both work now.)

I don’t think there’s a gender divide in who can care for children better. My husband was much more patient and less anxious than I would have been, had our roles been reversed. (from the comments section attached to this post)
In the novel Beverly frequently sets up expectations (not just about gender) and then confounds them. Ellen Michelleti, for example, writes that ' I am not a fan of Martha Stewart, so when I saw that The Thing About Men was about a lifestyle diva, I hoped for a good plot since I knew I would not like the character. Silly me - the characters turned out to be the best thing about the book.'

In the opening scene Claire Willoughby, the heroine, is trying to work out what to do with a live chicken* (she needs it dead, so that she can cook it on her TV show) and
the irony was that the theme of Claire's nationally syndicated - and live - TV show, Simple Pleasures, like the theme of Claire's nationally distributed magazine, also called Simple Pleasures, was "Back to Basics." That was, in fact, pretty much the mission statement of her entire lifestyle business - to promote a return to the simpler ways of simpler times. Ways and times that had included, for example, raising livestock for the purpose of holiday cuisine. (2005: 2-3)
Claire's deception goes deeper than that (though unlike Martha Stewart's, it doesn't involve insider trading (a fact that's alluded to on page 331)). It is really Olive, her friend and business partner who has the ideas behind the show. Claire 'was actually little more than window dressing for the business' (2005: 8). Claire makes a snap judgement about Ramsey: 'it took only one, very quick, perusal of Ramsey Sage for Claire to know everything she needed to know about him. He was completely unfit to be anyone's mother. Or father. Or guardian' (2005: 41). Ramsey's aim is, despite his appearance, to 'convince you that I'm perfectly capable of raising Anabel being the man I am right now' (2005: 114).

Ramsey, unlike Claire, doesn't trust first appearances: 'Never in his life had he seen two more courteous, more refined, better-dressed people. Which naturally made him extremely suspicious' (2005: 51), 'As cultured and refined as she looked [...], he suspected she wasn't born to this lifestyle. Maybe it was because she tried so hard to appear to fit in' (2005: 53). Even so, he makes some mistaken assumptions too, such as 'neither one of them had the first thing in common' (2005: 53).

There are plenty of generalisations about men, for example when Ramsey 'seemed to understand the attorney's actions when she [Claire] didn't. Ah, well. One of those "guy things" she'd read so much about, she supposed. [...] That was the thing about men. They had a language all of their own. Unfortunately, it was about as intelligible to most women as baseball statistics were' (2005: 50-51). Ramsey has similar thoughts about a unique male-only language: 'Bar brawling was a primitive sort of communication, to be sure, but it had been around for a few millenia and was spoken universally by men' (2005: 56). There's more about male communication only a few pages later: 'Some guy thing that Claire couldn't hope to understand because, thankfully, her body produced too much estrogen' (2005: 68) and her further thought is 'testosterone clearly did something to the human brain she didn't want done to hers (2005: 69). Among the 'things about men' is: 'Diplomacy, after all, had kept the world a reasonably peaceful place, in spite of its being ruled by men. Because that was the thing about men. They could be well behaved if they put their minds to it' (2005: 112).

It becomes more and more obvious that Claire doesn't really know that much about men since, as she admits to herself, 'few [humans] had ever tried to get close to her, emotionally or physically. And none had shown any displays of affection' (2005: 236). Similarly, Ramsey doesn't know much about either men or women in normal situations: 'when was the last time Ramsey had actually had a relationship with anyone, of either gender? Not for a long, long time. In fact, he could think of only one real relationship that he'd had in his entire life' (2005: 240). This, and the fact that Claire's generalisations about men become progressively more and more absurd: 'That was the thing about men. They didn't understand chickens any better than they did cats' (2005: 139) or
that was the thing about men. They only heard the things you didn't want them to hear. The important stuff - stuff like, "Just forget you heard me say that" and "It's really no big deal" and "Lots of businesses are run that way" - went in one ear and out the other. But mumble a little negligible something about being a fraud, and boy, they were all over that (2005: 151-152).
raise the possibility that all these generalisations are simply part of the way the characters distance themselves from others, to avoid relating to others as individuals and falling into a real relationship. In addition, that one about what men tend to hear is extremely specific and relates to what Ramsey has just done, so one gets the distinct impression that although Claire's words imply she's talking about all men, in fact, she's just talking about one man: Ramsey. The second-last generalisation, 'that was the thing about men [...] they were so predictable' (2005: 344) is clearly humorous, particularly as only minutes before Ramsey had done something that Claire would never have predicted. The final generalisation is unlike the previous ones in that this time Claire states explictly that really, it's not a generalisation at all - she's only talking about Ramsey: 'Because that was the thing about men. Or, at least, that was the thing about this man. He knew a lot about pleasures.' (2005: 350). In addition to this rejection of the phrase 'the thing about men' for 'the thing about this man', the fact that many of the previous generalisations are made for humorous effect undercuts their sexism. Ultimately Bevarly's position on gender would appear to be encapsulated in Claire's serious response to a question that Ramsey asks her: 'I think people should do whatever they want to do, regardless of their gender or society's expectations of their gender' (2005: 340). Claire and Ramsey's happy ending is only possible because both are able to reject traditional gender roles.
  • Barnett, Rosalind C. and Caryl Rivers, 2005. 'Biology, Destiny, and Bad Science', Dissent Magazine, Summer 2005. [There is a copy of the same article, with a slightly different title, on the Brandeis University website.]
  • Bevarly, Elizabeth, 2005. The Thing About Men (London: HarperCollins). First Avon Books paperback printing, January 2004.

* As far as I can tell, Squawk Radio, the group blog to which Bevarly contributes and which includes pictures of all the Squawkers as hens, began in 2005 (originally at blogspot, though it's now moved to here). Clearly Bevarly had an interest in chickens even in those pre-Squawk days. And - SPOILER ALERT - the chicken survives and Claire takes it to live in her garden.

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