Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Nobody's Baby But Mine," by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (HarperCollins, 1997)

The Chick: Dr. Jane Darlington. A brilliant super-genius who longs to have a baby of her own.
The Rub: In order for her baby to be "normal," she has to bang a stupid guy in order to even out her offspring's IQ - and who better than a football player? They're all dumb, right?
Dream Casting: Claire Coffee.

The Dude: Cal Bonner. A star quarterback for the Chicago Stars who's in denial over the end of his football career.
The Rub: He finds out some random lady made a baby with him without his knowledge - oh noes! Commitment!
Dream Casting: Josh Duhamel.

The Plot: I am just too damn tired. Try reading my LiveTweets about it instead!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Commitment-Phobe Hero
  • 1 Book-Smart, Literally-Everything-Else-Dumb Heroine
  • 3 Misogynist Good Ol' Boy Friends
  • Several Boxes of Tampered Lucky Charms
  • 1 Kooky Grandma
  • 1 Secondary Romance
  • 1 Greedy, Soulless Lawyer
The Word:
It's no secret that I'm a fan of Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She's consistently entertained me with her books - and even surprised me with the depth of her characterization as well as her excellent use of drama.

However, every time I raved about one of her books, there'd be a ghostly echo on the edge of my Twitter feed - a haunted whisper, thick with regret and despair, "Wait until Nobody's Baby But Miiiiiiine!"

At first I thought, "Challenge accepted!" But in reality, I was so not ready for this jelly. This Completely-Divorced-From-Reality Jelly. Served on a Traditional Gender Roll. With a side order of Offensive Stereotypes. Drenched in a hefty serving of Crazysauce.

So really, the only way to help this bad medicine go down is a good ol' Drinking Game! Our first rule - chug whenever an offensively stale stereotype rears its ugly head.

Dr. Jane Darlington is our "heroine." She is a "brilliant" award-winning physicist who Doogie Howser'd her way to a Ph.D. We know this, because she talks about quarks. A lot - take a chug every time she mentions a quark. Thankfully, she's also a knockout - once you convince her to let her hair down and take off her glasses (drink!).

Of course, none of her accomplishments matter because she's 34 and babyless. Unfortunately, she can't go to a sperm bank, because medical and science students are the primary donors. In this detailed fantasy world that SEP has created, all male scientists are misogynist nerds with bad haircuts who wear black socks to bed (drink!).

More importantly, Jane wants a dumb baby. No, really. Her ~*terrible childhood*~ as a Super Genius scarred her so completely, she refuses to "subject" her unborn child to that type of First World White Privileged Suffering. So let's drink to her pain whenever she mentions her "terrible childhood" of being better than everyone else.

Jane thinks she needs to score some love gravy from a Forrest Gump-type that will even out her child's intelligence to a more "reasonable" level. Because that is exactly how science works. And our heroine is a "brilliant" "scientist." If I could add more quotation marks without violating the laws of grammar, I would. Instead, I'll just drink whenever the heroine gleefully imagines her child's IQ dropping a couple of points. No, really.

Cal Bonnor is our "hero," a 36-year-old quarterback for the Chicago Stars who's in denial of the impending end of his football career. He refuses to date women older than 22, because dating older women implies he's old, which means commitment (drink)! And nagging wives (drink)! And the stale laughter of a live studio audience, since Cal appears to derive his understanding of gender politics from old reruns of According to Jim.

Cal prefers younger women because they still have that "smell of newness" about them, a "dewy sparkle" - and shudders at women thirty and older because he thinks they're "already turning brown at the edges." Dude, this wouldn't happen if you just dipped them in lemon juice first! Take a drink whenever Cal expresses his desire for sparkly teenagers and his revulsion for "elderly" women over the age of twenty four

His birthday's coming up, and his Totally Not Offensive Football Bros decide to buy him a hooker as a birthday present. But a super-classy hooker. And they make her wear a big pink bow just to hammer home the point that she's his gift. Of course, this blatant objectification of women is completely okay because They're Dumb Football Players Who Don't Know Any Better (drink!).

Thanks to shenanigans I'm frankly too tired to explain at length, the "Classy Birthday Hooker" is really Jane in disguise, armed with a sabotaged condom. You see, after seeing one interview with Cal on the television, our "brilliant" heroine has already deduced that he must be an idiot because a) he's a football player (drink!) and b) he's Southern (drink!).

But one look at him convinces her that he's a hardened warrior, and genetically perfect for her baby. Because an "ancient, wise" female voice in her head tells her so. So drink whenever Jane refers to Cal as a warrior (or maybe just sip, she says it a LOT), and also whenever Psychic Judi Dench gives Jane romantic advice.

Despite the fact that Jane is terrible at sex, doesn't finish, and doesn't remove any of her clothes (this is the same heroine who complained about her ex wearing socks to bed, by the way), Cal is so inexplicably besotted with her that he bones her again when she comes back for seconds a month later. Both sex scenes are awkward and unpleasant - but, to be fair, incredibly fascinating. Both the hero and the heroine treat the other as a sex object. Cal initially refuses Jane and wants to "pass her along" to one of his friends, while Jane refers to Cal as a mere "device" to give her a baby. There actually is some real potential for nuance and discussion in this scenario - if only the protagonists were less punchable.

(For a less punchable version of this scenario, I recommend A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant.)

Long story longer, Cal finds out about the baby, throws his money around threatening to ruin Jane's career, and forces her into marriage, because doggone it if his baby won't be legitimate because he's an Old School Man with Old School Values (drink!). Of course, he plans to divorce Jane as soon as the cord is cut, but those nine months of matrimony will magically make all the difference. I can't say I understand Cal's logic in this scenario. Neither can Jane.

Of course, the gossip gets out so Cal has to pack up Jane and drive them both down to his small, southern hometown of Salvation, North Carolina, in order to evade reporters until the baby's birth and the return of football season. However, Cal gives Jane some specific instructions:
  1. She can't talk to his family or friends without his knowledge.
  2. If a scenario arises in which she's forced to meet his family or friends, she has to act as Terrible As Possible so his family won't grow attached to her.
  3. She can't leave the house or own her own car to leave said house without his consent
  4. If anyone asks, she's twenty-five years old - because Cal can't bear the shame of people knowing he married a woman as old as twenty-eight. People will think he's poor! (drink!)
To her credit, Jane ignores and defies most of these super-stalkery rules, and that's when we get a better picture of what Jane and Cal's romantic dynamic is supposed to be like, once they've stopped trying to be The Worst People Ever. Cal describes himself as a "yeller" - he was never truly satisfied with his dewy, sparkly, overly-moisturized college girls because he could never be his Awful Shouting Self around them without them bursting into tears. Um, okay. So Jane is his perfect match because she can put up with his Dominating Caveman Bullshit.

Maybe you could just stop being a Dominating Caveman? No? Okay then.

Once we get to Salvation, we get a host of dull, silly secondary subplots - the worst of which is a romantic one with Cal's estranged parents. His dad's flaw is that he's a privileged, emotionally abusive asshole going through a midlife crisis. His mum's flaw is … um, she's apparently unable to psychically detect that her husband's abuse comes from a place of love. Right.

Honestly, the narrative slows down and gets kind of boring around this point. There's less crazy, but there's no emotional substance to fill the void. The rest of the book is just squabbling that seems aimless and petty after the Seed-Stealing-Super-Genius plot of the first half.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the poorly-realized characters. Gonzo stories aren't a romantic deal breaker - just read some of the plots of Laura Kinsale's awesome books - but they still need grounded, realistic characters, and neither of these goons fit the bill.

Jane Darlington is a monstrously privileged character who jumps to hugely prejudiced conclusions about just about everyone. She believes Cal is a moron for a huge chunk of the book based solely on his southern accent (drink!), colloquial dialect (drink!), and his love of comic books (drink!). She is so horrified to discover Cal graduated summa cum laude that she threatens to take her child to Africa, where it's "primitive" (finish the whole damn bottle). Seriously. I guess the only way to escape the problems of White Privilege is to take the child away from white people.

And despite all this, her desperate desire to have a "normal" baby thanks to her "freakish" childhood, a desire that fuels the majority of her actions, is solved with one line in the epilogue.

Cal, meanwhile, is a cartoon. His actions and thought processes are just too exaggerated to believe or empathize with. His "old school values" that make no sense, his disgustingly hypocritical dismissal of women over twenty-five, his narrow-minded idea of what makes a man a "real man." He's built out of cliches - and not even positive ones. It's impossible to view his actions and decisions on a human spectrum because he's essentially a plot device/fantasy object. Although definitely not my fantasy.

It's interesting to compare this book to the other SEP novels I've read and loved - how could this one book hit so many wrong notes and fail to grasp realistic human behaviour on such a basic level? No idea. Even amid the awfulness, a few sparks of SEP's skillful humour slip through (like a hilarious scene where the heroine tries to sexy-dance to classical music - which winds up being "Flight of the Bumblebee"), but it's like reading a human story written by aliens who decided to watch old family sitcoms instead of doing research.

I'm far from giving SEP up completely, but this book is definitely the odd one out.


  1. Frida3:41 PM

    I don't know what to say other than thank you for reading this! Really. Because I might have had to. As a soon-to-be physicist this has still kind of been on my list even though just the description has put me off so many times when I've tried to pick it up. Hilarious review!

  2. AnimeJune6:56 AM

    Thank you! The one thing that kept me going reading this stinker was the idea of reviewing it!