The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

August 15, 2013 Contemporary, Reviews 9

Book cover with a close-up picture of a white man kissing a white woman just above her closed eyes.
Heads up: I’m going to discuss what some might consider spoilers below.

Carrie West, city librarian, has hit a bit of a rut in her life. She’s just canceled an Alaskan cruise after breaking down in tears (at work!) at the idea of playing the thirty-something year old third wheel to her very happily married parents. She swears to herself and her friends that she’s content in her singlehood, but she can’t resist reading the personals section of a local want ad website. As she’s reading through the listings early one morning, an ad simply titled “Wednesdays” catches her eye:

I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only. I won’t touch you below the shoulders. You can touch me anywhere. No dating, no hookups. I will meet with you for as long as you meet me, so if you miss a Wednesday we part as strangers. No picture necessary, we can settle details via IM. Reply back with “Wednesdays Only” in the subject line.

The novelty and intrigue of this unusual listing, as well as the picture of a thoroughly handsome man about her age, has her responding to his ad before she can talk herself out out of it. An email and some chat messages later, she’s on her way to finding out what sort of man likes kissing so much that he’d put out an ad for it.

This is a difficult review for me to write.  I follow the author on Twitter and had high hopes for this book. It got great press with not one, but two glowing reviews at Dear Author. Everyone in my circle of reader friends was reading it, and after each of these friends read it, they turned to me and said “I wonder what you’ll think about this one,” which was code for “this book contains disability.” I wanted very much to love The Story Guy, but unfortunately for everyone involved, I didn’t enjoy the book very much.

To begin with, the author’s voice and style failed to draw me in. It’s written in first-person present, but doing a find-and-replace on the pronouns to replace all the I’s with “she” wouldn’t have changed much at all. Instead of using this voice to get deep inside Carrie’s psyche and personality, the author pretty much only uses it to shroud Brian in mystery and create some suspense by withholding his story and motivation from the reader. I never felt immersed in Carrie’s thoughts and feelings. I felt as though I was meant to picture myself in her place, which makes some later parts of the book fairly problematic. Also, I found the author’s language a bit too flowery and melodramatic, especially where dialog is concerned. Here’s a bit from a phone conversation between Carrie and Brian:

“I would slide my hands around to your front, once it came apart, and at first, I would just hold your breasts in my hands, barely touching with my fingertips where the fullness of them spills over your bra.”

This is not how phone sex sounds in real life. Phone sex is awkward and impulsive and silly and intense. If they’re speaking in polished romance novel language, where’s the charming vulnerability that creates intimacy?

Perhaps because I wasn’t transported by the author’s voice I found a number of plot elements off-putting. The “insta-lust” when their lips first meet and their claims that it was the best kiss either’s ever had felt like a romance cliche. Carrie’s lack of respect for his boundaries – getting him to break his “no touching” rule, taking his phone and adding herself without his permission, pressing for a date – made little sense with how barely acquainted they were and her self-assurances that she was complete as a single woman. Additionally, the co-worker who dispenses sage relationship advice felt like a token gay guy, and Brian’s recounting of the time a man responded to his ad then showed up at the park seemed to be played for laughs.

But, of course, the thing that troubled me the most was the role Brian’s sister Stacy played. You find out about halfway to two-thirds into the story that the reason Brian is unavailable is because he’s the guardian and sole familial caretaker of his severely brain-injured younger sister, and this gave me all sorts of complicated feelings. I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes at how conveniently (for the plot) Brian was alone in this role. His father had died young and his mother ran off to Florida after cocking up Stacy’s care and losing guardianship. As someone who’s read a lot of disability-themed romance novels, I found this familiar set-up frustrating. Pick a book with disability in it and nine times out of ten the disabled character was abandoned by loved ones in their past.

The reason this set-up frustrates me is because it’s generally used to make a non-disabled protagonist look good, and The Story Guy is no exception. Although he tells Carrie at length about how hard it is to be a caregiver – and it really is – she, and the reader by extension, sees it as evidence of what a great guy he is. Consider the following quotes:

The care he gives her one day could be the thing that hurts her the next. To live with that fear, and never have any confirmation that anything you did was the right thing? It’s astonishing, every kiss he’s ever given me.

To have the love of this man, who knows what it is to sacrifice his life for love, I would have waited longer.

Not only does caring for Stacy makes Brian a dreamboat in Carrie’s eyes, she further objectifies Stacy by making Brian’s caretaking into a compliment for Carrie. Her boyfriend has no time for anything because he’s busy being a saint, but he makes time for her, and isn’t she the luckiest? Bleh.

The ending then goes and makes this more obvious. We know already that Brian’s a superman, Carrie’s shown us how accepting she is of Stacy by fixing her breathing tube without flinching, we’ve seen Stacy accept Carrie by smiling at her, so now it’s time for the HEA – where Brian puts her in a home and Carrie promises they’ll visit every week. Whether or not the reader thinks Stacy should be institutionalized isn’t the point. Because the narrative never discusses what best meets Stacy’s needs, or Brian’s reasons for trying to do it all himself, Stacy and her care is reduced to a plot shortcut. She existed to bring out heroic qualities in the protagonists, and now it’s time for her to conveniently leave the picture. Even if this isn’t strictly ableist, it’s still lazy, and maybe a little contradictory (is Brian less heroic now?).

Final assessment: If you can read this with your heart and turn off your shame detectors, this is probably a great melodramatic sort of read. Unfortunately, the magic dust didn’t work on me and the component parts were deeply troubling. D.

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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9 Responses to “The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers”

  1. Meoskop

    I hate to be the first comment out of the gate – but what? He hooks up with Carrie and realizes his sister should be institutionalized? She’s going from daily family care to weekly drop-ins and that’s swell all around? More hands mean… no work? I’m still blinking over here.

  2. Dabney

    “Turn off your shame filters.”

    Just so I’m clear, you are saying that enjoying this book should lead to shame?

  3. Ridley

    “Just so I’m clear, you are saying that enjoying this book should lead to shame?”

    I mean that this is sort of like reading forced seduction, or “alphahole” romance in that if you can suspend your ick for the plot elements when they’re present in the real world and just roll with how they’re being used as melodramatic metaphors, that it’s probably an emotionally intense sort of read.

    So, I guess I’m saying that enjoying this book means you’ve suspended your shame at enjoying problematic elements used melodramatically, or you disagree that they’re problematic.

    I’m not saying anyone who enjoyed it should be ashamed. I’m using shame in the way it’s used in this post about the Id Vortex.

  4. Dabney

    I’ll think about it. I don’t think my response to this novella is that I’ve suspended my shame about problematic elements. So I guess I disagree they’re problematic. I’m still getting the sense that my disagreement implies some sort of perceptual failing. Perhaps the word shame is just too loaded for me.

  5. Liz Mc2

    I’m still thinking about this novella (to the extent that I’m planning to read it again soon). I liked it more than you did–I liked the writing style better, and I thought the erotic scenes in particular were very well done. But I had some of the same issues and in the end felt that although Rivers fit the key emotional beats and scenes into the novella, the issues were just too big to work satisfyingly for this format.

    My problem was largely that we hear from Brian about the very real struggles of care-giving, but because Carrie is the narrator, we don’t see them first-hand. This allows Brian to remain, as you say, an idealized, romanticized, self-sacrificing character. Carrie gets to dabble in the nice bits. I think the story may try to get at the fact that his decision to be heroic sole care-taker may not be best for Stacy (but more about himself) with what happens at the end–but of course, Stacy is not a real person, so it was also the *authorial choice* to write her so that institutionalizing her was the “right” choice and Brian and Carrie were freer (though I totally didn’t think they were abandoning her or all caretaking would be over). It was *authorial choice* to write her as non-verbal, so Carrie is free to imagine Stacy is smiling at her (her doctor, remember, has said these are reflexes but Brian and Carrie want to believe otherwise–are they right?) and supports their love. Even Stacy’s long hair: Brian lets it grow because she was planning to grow it before her accident. Who even knows if that’s what Stacy would want now? Obviously there are people who have disabilities like Stacy’s but depicting them in fiction is tricky because other characters can project whatever onto them and how do you write “against” that, especially in a novella with a single point of view?

    I think I might have been the person who suggested this is an “id vortex” story. I’m still coming to terms with what I meant by that. It’s partly that I think the story works best on the emotional level, as you say. It’s designed to evoke a particular emotional response (I mean, the author’s swag was Brian and Carrie tissue packs). On the question of shame: the point of the piece you linked is that fanfic (and I think genre writers are increasingly borrowing from that toolbox) writers approach all the emotional stuff in the id vortex WITHOUT shame–they just write all the things that people usually shy away from. It’s more about writer shame than reader shame. And it’s not that we SHOULD feel shame about this stuff, but that we DO. All the feelings–not just sexual–we don’t usually talk about.

    I do think this story walks right up to some “shameful” material, and for me it is all about how we sometimes “enjoy” other people’s pain (there’s some real hurt-comfort here) because it makes us feel good to be their rescuer/hero. Carrie feels great about how she can make room for Brian in her life and give him something amazing. (I really saw this as more about her than about him, like you). I’ve had these fantasies and feelings. They’re human and thus important to write about. I thought Rivers just went straight up to those emotions (yes, without shame)–the climax of the book, really, is Brian crying and Carrie rocking him.

    Where the book fell down *for me* is that it didn’t IMO also examine the problems with those feelings: they basically involve using Stacy and even Brian to some extent as a narrative prop. Carrie doesn’t have a real experience of the harder parts of care-giving, the frustration and anger and despair. I don’t think Brian and Carrie even have a real fight. I didn’t actually think Carrie had much of a character arc or learned anything much about herself or disability or having a relationship with someone in Brian’s position. So yes, the story for me stayed on the fantasy/melodrama/emotional level, and it worked beautifully on that level. But as these are serious real life issues (how we treat people with disabilities, the realities of care-giving) the fact that it didn’t want to look to hard at the realities–in large part by having Carrie be the narrator–was a problem for me.

    I understand that others read it very differently.

  6. Liz Mc2

    I meant to say–like I haven’t already said more than enough–I’ve read a lot of “safe” romance. I didn’t think this book was playing it safe. (Even considering that high-emotion, sexy books are the hot thing right now, and this fits the bill). And it’s her debut. I really admire Rivers for taking risks with her subject matter, her approach to the narrative, her prose style. I want to see more books like this, even when in my view they’ve fucked some things up. It’s the way the genre will get better on this stuff.

  7. Ridley

    @Liz Mc2: I’m with you on that front. Even though I disliked the book, I’m glad to get a romance that has enough meat to it that it can sustain lengthy discussions. It definitely wasn’t a “potato chip” read.

  8. Beks

    Thanks for reviewing this one, Ridley. I think I did read this with an idealized gaze. As in, well if Stacy is okay as far as Carrie says, then she’s okay, right? Right?!?! I did enjoy the flow of her prose and the set up of the story.

    We read this around the same time and while I actually love first person, present, it did not serve this story well. I would have liked a full length piece (or at least a novella) that included Brian’s POV. What would have been great would have been to include Stacy’s POV.

    At the end of the story I was left feeling pretty icky about Brian in the sense that there was no way that this was a true HEA with this man as Carrie presented him to us. More like a H-for20mins. I felt like there was a huge blow-up down the road or possibly a break up because Carrie was glossing over some serious family issues, as if Brian was simply going to forgot his sister and they were going to skip around parks holding hands.

    You’ve also giving me a lot to think about in terms of heros/heroines as caretakerporn. I’ll have to think on it some more, but yeah. I loved parts of this novellas and other parts left me cringing.

  9. Penelope

    Great review. Although the premise was not appealing to me, because there were so many glowing reviews about the book, I tried it anyway. I DNFed at the beginning. Here’s the thing. If you decide to use first person POV, then you need to keep it real. You’re inside someone’s head, hearing every thought. Folks don’t think in lush, beautiful prose. There was just too big a disconnect between the language (which came off as trying too hard) and someone’s actual thoughts. I didn’t buy it. If the story had been written in 3rd person POV, I think it would have been okay. I didn’t even make it far enough to deal with the other issues. I would like to try another book by this author because she is a talented writer, but I’m not sure this type of novel showcases her abilities in the best way.