And Also? I Like Pie.

June 25, 2009 @ 7:49 pm | Filed under: Books, Family

Well, June’s just whizzing past, isn’t it? I must have picked about thirty tomatoes this afternoon. And that’s not counting the ones I harvested at Farm Town.

A moment to hold: standing in the kitchen with Rose, eating sunwarmed tomatoes with fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, while Rilla practiced snipping stray basil leaves.

A book I really enjoyed: the one Scott stole from me the other day, Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife. He finished it quickly and I got my turn. It’s a unique sort of book; I’ve never read anything like it—and yet it felt comfortably familiar in a very good way, as if I’d been expecting this story to come along. I hadn’t, but that’s how it felt. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Becky, a 34-year-old Mormon housewife seven months pregnant with her fourth child, and Felix, the world’s most devastingly handsome and charming British movie star. I kept shifting between picturing Hugh Grant (he’s a little too old for the beginning) and Colin Firth (because, well, duh)—but really I think there was more Hugh in Felix than Colin, and probably I shouldn’t have been picturing anyone specific at all but I couldn’t help it, because the whole thing is about the unlikely friendship between Becky, my own personal Mary Sue if ever I met one, and this British actor. You know who else would work? For the movie version, because there is bound to be one? That guy, what’s his name, tall and charming dark-haired fellow, played Julia Roberts’s other best friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding. And was also in The Importance of Being Earnest. I could look him up in two seconds. I’m being stubborn here. Wanting to grab his name, but all I’m coming up with is Rupert. Everett? Rupert Everett? Is that a person?

Jude Law would also work. Oh! EWAN MACGREGOR!

But really the guy is a total Hugh Grant.

Enough already. What is my problem tonight? See, this is how my brain really works, and then I try to scrub out all the nonsense for you before I hit ‘publish.’ Tonight I’m too punchy to bother polishing the prose. Feh.

Anyway, the book. The book that I really really enjoyed. Becky and Felix meet because Becky has managed to sell a screenplay, something that happened quite by accident and wasn’t remotely a lifelong ambition or anything like that. Felix wanders into the office at the production company that winds up optioning the screenplay, and he and Becky do not hit it off, except that really they do. They fall easily into sarcastic banter with one another, and the insults quickly escalate, but it’s really a connection between two quick-witted minds, and one thing leads to another, and—they become friends.

Both are happily, swoonily married. Neither finds anything remotely appealing about the lifestyle the other leads. There’s a question floating underneath their first encounters, a worrisome will-there-be-romance question (worrisome because of the happy marriages), and since that question is part of what this book is about, I won’t say more right now. HOWEVER, I would love to discuss the book (or any book I mention on this blog, always, got it?), so if you’d like to chat away in the comments, let’s do so—just lead off with a big spoiler warning if you’re going to get into particulars.

Of course I know it’s a new book so maybe not many of you have had a chance to read it yet. If you’re wanting one nice fat book to take on vacation, this is a good pick. I have to say I really enjoyed Becky as a character. Which is, I guess, something one should NOT admit after having already named that character a Mary Sue. But, you know, she’s a type we seldom see in contemporary fiction. Unlike the whiners who had me rolling my eyes throughout The Ten-Year Nap, Becky’s a woman who embraces the wife-and-mother gig with her whole being. She loves creating a home for her family. She’s got no restless itch—the screenplays are something that bubble out of her creative energy, not the product of unfulfilled longing or restlessness. Fabulous character. It’s about time.

However, I will say this—she’s so awesome she makes me look bad. 🙂 I said to Scott, about halfway through, “Wow, I don’t come close to measuring up to Becky!” and he replied with appropriately Felix-like snark, which is exactly the sort of thing I married him for. Becky, let me tell you, is the kind of supermom readers of this blog sometimes mistakenly think I am, and whereas I have to gently set those folks straight with posts like this, Becky really is kind of super. I mean, she cooks! And bakes pies, extra pies for giving away! Just because!

Thank goodness she’s a fictional person. We needn’t envy her; we may simply enjoy her. Her story made me laugh out loud a good many times, and I cried at least three times. And right here is where I run into the problem I always run into when I blog about books. So much more to say, but I don’t want to give anything away. Have many thoughts (both positive and negative) regarding specific things, but don’t want to affect anyone’s first reaction. Oh dear. This is a complication of blogging I will never resolve. I have no wish to write reviews in the official book-review sense; I write about books out of my enthusiasm for the things I have read and enjoyed. So what I need you to do is read it and tell me if you enjoyed it too, and if, hmm, you had the same reaction to the ending as I did. Comparing notes! That’s what I like to do. Right.


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Comments

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  1. I have that one on hold at the library to grab the moment it comes in. What else could I do, having read the excerpt? When I get it and read it, I will certainly bore you with all my impressions.

    Hugh Grant was my immediate image too. Not Rupert Everett, I’ve always had an anti-thing about him. But Ewan McGregor definitely has the 1950s kind of laddish charm to pull it off also. Maybe Rupert Penry-Jones. Ah, but they’ll ruin it anyway by miscasting Becky.

  2. BECAUSE THEY WON’T CAST ME.

  3. (Say one million readers simultaneously.)

  4. I love enthusiastic non-reviews, and this intrigued me enough to reserve it at the library.

    I just finished “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell about an hour ago, and can’t stop thinking about it. It was also not quite like anything I’ve read before – so sad but wonderfully full with little true moments.

    (By the way, I’ve read your blog for a year or so – after following some links related to Little House stuff – but this is the first time I’ve commented. Something about this entry just inspired me!)

  5. I’d been meaning to look up this book since you mentioned it the other day but I never got around to it and then you provided this wonderful enthusiastic gushing (which I’m sure does more to convince me to read books that regular reviews). I’m headed to my library’s website now to request it. And I love seeing how your mind works rather than having those parts edited out 🙂

  6. I almost always need my library website open in another tab when I read your blog! They don’t have this book yet.

    But I just finished The Guernsey Literary Society last night. Oh, I looooved that book! I’m dying to go to Guernsey now, and knit a sweater, and meet all those wonderful people. A nice literary society sounds good, too. Much better than just an old book club.

  7. ok FINE, I’ll read the book!

    and I’ll read The Guernsey Literary Society too.

    and eat some pie.

  8. Oh YES read Guernsey Lit Society. That should go at the top of the list. There isn’t a single thing about that book I would change.

    I couldn’t say the same thing about The Actor and the Housewife. The trouble with enthusiastic recommendations is: what if there is something about the book that you *aren’t* enthusiastic about, like, say, the ending, but you think the book is loads of fun and absolutely worth reading nonetheless, and you don’t want to predispose anyone to think one way or another about it? Yet omitting your criticisms might set people up for disappointment. Oh dear. It’s so difficult. But I always come back to “well if you’ll just read it then we can talk about what worked and what didn’t.” I just have this hangup about wanting to preserve some kind of pure reading experience for others, and the reality is, that’s impossible. If I gush about a book and omit any mention of its flaws, I’m potentially setting readers up for disappointment. If I say, “I enjoyed it BUT—” then anyone who reads it on my recommendation might be hunting for that BUT the whole time, and that isn’t fair to the book OR the reader. And if (worst of all) I say “I enjoyed it except for THESE SPECIFIC THINGS” well then, that’s a big fat spoiler.

    So what to do, what to do…?

    I guess the best I can do is say this: about Guernsey Literary Society I can gush unreservedly. A perfectly perfect book. In The Actor and the Housewife, there were some things that made me go ‘hmmm,’ and that’s part of what I’m eager to discuss but I can’t discuss it until I have someone to discuss it with, and that’s why I need you to hurry up and read it. But hmms notwithstanding, I really enjoyed it. And Sara, I’m with you. A nice literary society is EXACTLY what I want.

    Ruthie, I’m glad you commented! Am adding your recommendation to my library list. Thanks!

  9. Groan! No Actor and the Housewife in the library, nor the library system…. Amazon here I come. We need to set up our own online literary society!

  10. Another book to put on hold at the library — I’m fairly certain I’d like this one, but since Mark died I haven’t been able to read anything: blogs — barely; books — I try, because I’ve always been a reader and it is most peculiar, now I’m not. But I simply haven’t been able to get caught up. Well, I’ll try again.

    What I really wanted to say, as opposed to that depressing snippet, was that I’ve missed your posts and I’m glad you all are feeling better, and I always enjoy reading what you have to say about the books you read. Once upon a time, back in the days when the ponds were still wet and the grass was still green, I wrote film and book reviews, and, gosh, I just can’t anymore — not even relaxed, chatty reviews like these (A style I love, by the way).

    *blinks* Will stop blathering now …

  11. Beth, oh, see, this is where I get all in a muddle with talking about books! When there’s a sad part, I never know—do I mention that there’s a really really sad part? That a thing happens that I wish hadn’t happened? I hesitate to say things like that to people who haven’t read the book, because then when they read it they’re watching for that sad part the whole time. At least, that’s how it would be for me. Knowing something tragic is coming affects my experience with the book. I’m reading with my breath held, wondering if I’ll lose someone I love, holding part of myself back from full immersion in the story…

    But I know others have commented here about appreciating a heads-up about tragic events in books they might read, because being caught by surprise can be dreadful. Especially if the book has been described as fun and funny, as I’ve described this one. It IS fun and very funny in parts, but not all parts, and the parts don’t necessarily weigh equally. It might be a book that you find very cathartic. Or it might be the worst possible choice you could make right now. I’m hinting more than is perhaps fair to the book (oh my dread of spoilers) but under the circumstances the book is not my first concern.

    And you weren’t blathering at all, my dear. I love your comments. I think about you a lot.

  12. Looked for it at both our local libraries – no go. I’ll either have to wait, or fork out homeschooling book $$ for myself. Wait, the kids wouldn’t mind, would they?

  13. I ran straight out to the library and checked it out. My husband (who is home on his summer break from the school year; he is a teacher) is going to be so annoyed to see me curled up with a book since it has been nearly four years since I’ve done so. I am excited to have some fiction to read finally and your review/preview along with the first ten pages totally sucked me in! I am anxious to get into the book (but waiting, patiently, for our company to leave before I crack it open again.)

    Thanks for the inspiration to pick up a book and read again.
    And another book to add to the list – The Guernsey Literary Society. Mmmmm

  14. Oh, Lissa, thank you: I appreciate your concern so much. Ordinarily, I mean, before, I would not have needed nor looked for such a head’s up: I’m sturdy, I love the intensity and passion of life — both glorious and grievous — despite everything, or perhaps because of, but I’m feeling unusually cautious now, self-protective … so thank you. I will definitely give this book a try. I want to be able to read something; I want to be able to immerse myself in a novel. Maybe trying something a little closer to home isn’t such a bad idea …

  15. Oh, great, two book recommendations, I love you! This summer I have been reading pure drivel, thinking that the book looks good, but NO. I put both on hold at my library, I’m #2 for the Actor, #45 for Guernsey. Warn readers for spoilers for those of us who haven’t read them yet!

    Actually, I am reading a wonderful book right now that might be right up your alley–“The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.” I heard the author interviewed on NPR and immediately put it on hold. I highly recommend it if, like me, you are flummoxed by the one child in the family who isn’t in love with reading.

  16. Hmm, the leading male character could be played by Hugh Grant or Colin Firth. Must go to library catalogue straight away:) And will head to Borders tomorrow with my last voucher for Guernsey.

  17. Please talk more about this book! It’s the middle of the night and I just finished reading this (after your recommendation) and after crying my eyes raw and enjoying the book quite a bit I also feel a little unsettled by a few things and am wondering what things made you say “hmmm” as well.

    By the way, thank you for the book suggestion in the first place. I am a long time reader of your blog and first time commentator (the power of crying late at night has steeled my commenting nerves!)

    Cheers!

  18. As a longtime reader of your blog and seeker of your book recommendations (thanks for both!) I’m finally piping up to comment after having finished both The Guernsey Literary Society and The Actor and The Housewife this week.

    I loved, loved, loved The Guernsey Lit. Society. This will be a yearly re-read for me, along the lines of Pride & Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables. The characters felt like old friends and made me yearn for a pen pal like Juliet. I treasure all the witty and wonderful emails I receive from friends around the globe but there’s something extra delicious about that bundle of handwritten letters my husband and I saved from the early days of our relationship.

    As for The Actor and The Housewife, after closing its final page I leaned back for that moment of after-book reflection and my seven year old came up to me and asked, “Is that the book that made you laugh and cry all day?” Why, yes. Yes, it was. The writing was good, the dialogue crackled and I did indeed laugh out loud AND cry out loud along the way. I would definitely recommend this book, however, I agree with your assessment that not all parts weighed equally. I experienced a creeping unease with the friends’ relationship at certain points along the way and several encounters just didn’t ring true for me. But. How I look forward to gathering with friends to discuss those very things!

    Thank you for getting the discussion started, Melissa.

    P.S. Loved your recent mention of Bento! We just came home from living in Japan for 3 years and adored their take on food presentation. There was a little place we nicknamed “Suicide Bento” where the bento was so good and so cheap, people would park their cars crazily along the busy street and then dash across–all for the bento box.

    Ooh! And now that I’m commenting all over the place I should tell you about the conversation I recently had with my grandfather and uncle, both farmers, about their increasing use of “rented” bees. The kids and I are going to see them next week (the bees). It reminded me that I wanted to pick up the Jacobsen book you recommended. Thanks again for that!

  19. […] Here’s my post about it. […]

  20. […] Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale (see my post and our […]

  21. I’ve read it now, and have wanted to comment, but really wasn’t sure what to say, if anything, because, um … actually? I really wasn’t particularly impressed.

    Two things will make or break a novel for me: plot, and character. The genre is immaterial – it could be romance or young adult fantasy or a classic – if the story and the populace intrigue and engage me: wonderful! But if the plot doesn’t hang together, or the character development makes me roll my eyes … forget it.

    Contrived meetings in novels can work. Sometimes. But this? Eh. Becky just … bumps into him! and he takes her out to dinner! and offers invaluable advice on her contract! and dances with her! and they hit it off like crazy-cakes! Yay! Well, you know, aside from the fact that they’re both married.

    Hale lost me right there, expecting me to believe that a woman with Becky’s sense of right and wrong vis-à-vis her marriage (which the reader is repeatedly told exists, though we really aren’t shown it {not the marriage, I mean the boundaries}) would get into a car with this man (a complete stranger – I don’t care what sort of deep-seated crush she has on him: I was shaking my head in such disbelief at this point that I had to put the book down for a couple of days). She then has dinner with him, and a dance with him … ! … Clumsy. Very, very clumsy. It is so completely inappropriate and out of character for the woman Hale claims Becky to be to do that. It just is.

    That, and the fact that Hale explained and explained how out of character this was for Becky to do … but what she showed us was … Becky doing it. Hate that, in a book.

    (See, this is why I no longer write reviews or teach writing. I’m a literary snob. And I shred poor plot construction. Look, if you {generic you} want your 2009 Minnesotan heroine to travel back in time to 1742 Hertfordshire in order to meet her One! True! Love! OfAllTime! And then! She’s swooped back to her own time and place {so sad}, but! time passes, it’s now 2011, and they bump into one another at a conference for dentists in Chicago!! Yay! Go for it. Just make me believe it).

    She (Hale) could have had the two of them meet in a far more explicable manner – say, Felix could have been hired to star in her film; they could have then gotten to know one another over time, on-set; thus developing their friendship in a far more believable manner, respecting the boundaries set by their respective marriages, and so on.

    It doesn’t really matter. As I say, it’s just that it was so unbelievable, and not in the space alien/time travel sort of way.

    Still, I plugged on (and on). But, eh. What did you call her? A Mary Sue? I suppose. My main problem with Becky overall is that no matter what fantastical or sad things happen, no matter how many years pass, she doesn’t change (or grow). Not one iota. Very silly.

    So the sad bits didn’t bother me: I simple wasn’t engaged enough. The ending made me throw up my hands. What on earth was the point of the whole book if not that they’d be together??!! I mean, it’s certainly common enough that after the death of a spouse/life-partner one goes on (sooner or later) to be with someone who was already a friend. Maybe it doesn’t happen a lot, but it’s really not unusual at all.

    There definitely were parts of the book which engaged me, moved me, made me laugh — but then Hale would pull another untenable plot shift or characterization and I’d be shaking my head again.

    I don’t regret reading it and maybe I should reread it sometime to see if I have the same reaction, but it certainly was a silly book.

    Since I’ve gone on this long I may as well add that the bit that bothered me the most was how poorly Hale handled the marital boundary pushing. I think it could have been examined ever so much better.

    Apologies for the length — feel free to nix it!

    ~ Beth

  22. Nix it? Never! I welcome dissenting opinion and lively discussion. And I always appreciate your contributions, Beth.

    I agree that some of Becky and Felix’s interactions felt contrived—the flopping-over-each-other laugh at the end I talked about earlier, and yes, the way they wound up dancing together in their first encounter: that did seem to be carrying things a bit far. If I came home from a meeting with a producer and told Scott I’d wound up meeting Colin Firth and having lunch with him, he’d think it was a great story. But if we’d danced together?…eh. That’d be a bit weird.

    But I really did enjoy the repartee between Becky and Felix, and I think one of the things I enjoyed so much about the book is that it DID read like one of the goofy schoolgirl celeb-encounter fantasies Charlotte talked about having outgrown. I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown them. 😉 My posts about being convinced Nick Hornby and John Cusack would enjoy having pizza with us will testify to that! LOL.

    Hope to return later with more thoughts, but I was supposed to get the (ahem) July carnival of literature up yesterday and it’s still sitting in drafts. Hello, August!

  23. (I think I was feeling embarrassed over how long my comment got).

    Maybe part of my frustration with the book was over the fact that despite how very well Becky and Felix hit it off, despite how their friendship grew and deepened over time, despite the fact that he’d been in love with her for years, despite the fact that Becky had carried him in her heart for years (because I do think it was more than a crush: it’s just that it wasn’t detrimental to her marriage {mainly because her husband was so understanding}) … despite all that, once they were both free, once he was courting her, we’re expected to believe it wouldn’t work between them?

    So I don’t find it frustrating because I am disappointed that she didn’t say yes; I find it frustrating because the ending was blindingly inconsistant with the rest of the book. The book, start to finish, centers on Becky’s and Felix’s friendship. It’s not about her marriage, or his; it’s not even about her, all by herself: it’s about her and Felix. It (the story / their lives) was all building to that point.

    I think that sometimes writers lose their nerve (and I’m including myself in that), and sometimes they simply don’t receive decent editorial guidance and support.

    I tell myself not to be so picky *smile* but really, I wanted a happy ending: this was a bleh ending.

    (And, you know, the whole marital boundary pushing issue: I’m projecting, I’m sure, at least in part. Mark would have been beside himself over me accepting a car-ride and dinner from, and then dancing with, a strange man — no matter how famous. Which brings me circling back to what I already wrote, about that being inconsistent with the character Hale was explaining to the reader that Becky was, so I’ll stop).

    Thanks for listening to my rambles. *smile* I haven’t discussed books for a while. It’s fun.

  24. Lissa, thank you so much for raving about this book. I had not heard of it before reading your post about it here. I saved it for a beach read and enjoyed it very much. (Spoilers ahead!)

    Parts of it were not very believable, and much of Becky’s and Felix’s interaction was completely inappropriate for married people, imo. (Particularly for someone with Becky’s moral worldview!) And I agree that the ending would have made much more sense if they had ended up together.

    However, I loved their humorous banter and the roles they ended up playing in one another’s lives. I was surprised that instead of being a love story of a housewife and an actor, it ended up being a rather beautiful love story of Becky and her husband. (But I did think it was strange that her husband remained such a flat character throughout the book.) I also laughed out loud and cried and cried for many pages toward the end.

    I know Becky is a fictional character and she was portrayed as almost too perfect, but I must admit that she has inspired me to be a better wife/mom/homemaker, to be more open to people who are very different than myself, and to be more generous. Those three pies she made each Sunday still haunt me!

  25. Lissa,
    Just finished Actor and Housewife and loved it. A few days ago, while down w/ the flu, and in and out of wakefulness, I was reading a fair amount. I was so wrapped up in the story that when I first looked at the MSN homepage under entertainment, I was expecting to see something about Felix Callahan! LOL !
    Hope you and your wonderful family are doing well. I always ask Sarah for updates and hear glowing reports. All’s well w/ the McGahrens and we send our best wishes.