Monday, May 18, 2009

"Fast Women," by Jennifer Crusie

Alternate Title: Secretary
The Chick:
Eleanor "Nell" Dysart. Barely recovered from the destruction of her twenty-two-year marriage, she needs a job, any job, so she accepts an offer to work as a secretary for a detective agency - even though the place is a dump and the sexy senior detective is hell on wheels.
The Rub: Nell immediately starts fixing up the place - and falling for her stick-in-the-mud boss. However, she was the control-freak secretary to her now-ex-husband, too. Is she just repeating her old mistakes?
Dream Casting: Julianne Moore.

The Dude: Gabriel "Gabe" McKenna. He only means to hire Nell until his old secretary, Lynnie, recovers from her strained back. However, his temporary secretary bumps herself up to permanent status by uncovering evidence that Lynnie was embezzling - and older evidence that his dad might have helped cover up a murder.
The Rub: His sexy secretary clearly isn't happy being just the secretary, and takes delight in poking her nose in where she doesn't belong. Can he keep her from interfering in his investigation of his father's dealings - which involve her former in-laws and friends?
Dream Casting: Adrian Pasdar.

The Plot:
Gabe: I need a secretary!

Nell: I'll be your secretary! I can make coffee!

Gabe: That's great.

Nell: I can clean up the place and discover evidence of perfidy!

Gabe: That's fantastic.

Nell: I can repaint your walls and change your furniture and redesign your business cards ...

Gabe: HELL NO.

Nell: I can also rock you like a hurricane in the bedroom.

Gabe: Hell yes!

Nell: ... while redesigning your business cards anyway.

Gabe: But - but...

Nell: *almost killed by murderous fiend*

Gabe: Fuck it - I'm whipped. Let's get married!

Nell: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Dognapping

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

4 Cases of Muuuuuurder

2 Attempted Muuuuurders

1 Romantically Lacklustre Ex

1 Romantically Lacklustre but Really Nice Ex

Several Orders of Vinegar-Flavoured Fries

1 Ugly Couch

1 Set of Hidden Diamonds

Several Sets of Kooky China

1 Frozen Corpse

The Word: Jennifer Crusie novels are like my absolute favourite breakfast food: the Belgian waffle. They look light and fluffy and sweet and delicious - and they are, but they're also surprisingly filling and satisfying. Jennifer Crusie writes romance with substance - and while I don't always enjoy the substance (like Getting Rid of Bradley which was so-so and Anyone But You which was m'eh), I enjoy reading about heroes and heroines who have more going on than "Can I Find the Love of My Life?" but whose problems are still relevant to the developing relationship.

Nell Dysart's life is still a wreck a year and a half after her twenty-two-year marriage to Tim Dysart went up in flames. She spent two decades running her husband's successful insurance agency from behind the scenes, until her husband decided that he didn't love her anymore - divorcing her on Christmas day. While she still owns half of the agency, she has no job and no idea what went wrong.

To show "no hard feelings," her in-laws, the Dysarts, set up a job interview for her with their favourite detective agency, run by Gabe McKenna. It's a successful agency (both Gabe and his cousin Riley are constantly overworked), but the office is falling to pieces and the prospect of becoming a successful office manager again wakes Nell up a bit from her depressive numb funk.

However, her new boss is hard-as-nails, and determined to change nothing about the office. If it was good enough for his dad (who started the agency), then it's good enough for him. He couldn't care less if the furniture is rickety or the carpets threadbare - his clients don't care and neither does he. He makes it clear that Nell is just a secretary, and a temporary one at that. Nell, however, knows what she's doing - within a week, she discovers her predecessor embezzled thousands of dollars from the agency, and a car title that suggests Gabe's dad was in on something shady with the Ogilvie and Dysart law firm.

Jennifer Crusie surprises with a romance in which the hero and heroine are perfect for each other, without their relationship necessarily being perfect. They fight - a lot. It's both good and bad for them, and it's this fine line that fuels the storyline. As one of the secondary characters points out, there are two types of people in the world - those who kiss and those who are kissed, i.e. those who act and those who are acted upon. Both Gabe and Nell are characters who act, and are used to being in control. Both were the Alphas in their previous marriages, and aren't used to compromising. Thus, their battles both damage and strengthen them, and are both painful and necessary.

Nell discovers Gabe's a tougher cookie than she expected. He's unwilling to lie back and let her run the office while he sticks to detective work, the way her ex-husband did with insurance. However, once her awesome managerial skills are flushed out into the open, she no longer has to pretend to be "just the secretary" and let Gabe take all the credit - something that eventually poisoned her marriage when her husband started believing she was just the secretary. With Gabe, she has to wage open warfare to get her opinions heard - but because it's open warfare, she no longer has to hide or disguise how capable she is, and this helps convince herself that she's not and never was "just the secretary."

Gabe, meanwhile, is a character who is pathologically opposed to change. The first scene between Gabe and Nell is hilarious because the office is literally crumbling around them (during their interview alone, Nell manages to break a chair, tear a hole in the carpet, crack a window and break the blinds), yet Gabe vehemently opposes any attempt to change anything. He's too busy to fix or update anything himself, but hates the idea of someone else mucking around with what's his, because that would undermine his own sense of control. However, his interactions with Nell make him more flexible, more adaptable, and bring him out of his rut-thinking.

It's a catharsis for both of them, a much needed challenge to remind them both of where their strengths lie. At the same time, however, as their romance blossoms, they have to tackle how their battles at work overlap with their battles at home. This leads to a fear of repeating their previous mistakes since they are both people who endured bad marriages to people they worked with. Gabe's father married his secretary, and their epic amounts of bickering eventually drove them apart. Gabe's delightfully nutty ex-wife was his secretary as well, and while they share a warm and loving friendship, their marriage didn't last, either. Nell, meanwhile, worries that her attempts to run Gabe's business are really an attempt to regain the same type of life she lived with her ex.

But while Gabe and Nell work out their problems, there's also an incredibly complicated pretzel of a mystery to solve and a stellar cast of multifaceted secondary characters. And oh, those secondary characters. Exes and soon-to-be-exes are often demonized in romance novels to make the protagonists look better, but Jennifer Crusie doesn't fall into that trap, and this novel demonstrates an understanding that you can be a bad spouse without necessarily being a bad person, or at least, a completely bad person.

Along with the Nell-and-Gabe-Mystery-Hour, the plot also gives some time to Nell's ex-sister-in-law Suze and the inevitable decline of her marriage to Jack Dysart, which is mesmorizing in its human complexity. Far be it for me to explain all the details of their relationship (and it is complicated, hoo boy), but while Jack does come out of the experience as the moral inferior, the novel doesn't slack in its portrayal of why Suze married Jack and how their marriage thrived initially. There are realistic reasons for the dissolution of their marriage and it isn't a one-sided deal. Jack is an asshole, but he isn't a monster and Suze wasn't a horribly misled naif in marrying him in the first place.

The same goes for Nell and her realization about her relationship with her ex-husband, Tim. At the beginning of the novel, all she feels is confusion and rage at how everything fell apart, with a lot of blame going on Tim, but as she develops with Gabe and learns more about herself, she develops more insight into what went wrong with her and Tim and - le gasp! - it wasn't all Tim's fault. There's a lovely and poignant scene near the end of the book where Nell reveals to Gabe that her marriage to Tim wasn't a mistake - she loved him and he loved her, and both of them were responsible for why it didn't work out, which was why they weren't the right people for each other - whereas Nell and Gabe are. Both of these hard-headed characters learn how to fight for what's important - as well as the more difficult task of when to give in and compromise before losing what really matters.

With Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie demonstrates how injecting realism into relationships in romance doesn't jeopardize the fantasy aspect. A lot of lesser romances imply that once the hero and heroine are together that they'll never fight (except in "humorous" ways where the woman always wins) or bicker or resent or occasionally hate each other and will always be sunshine and lollipops. By the end of Fast Women, there's no doubt that Nell and Gabe are made for each other - not because they're going to be all smiles all the time for the rest of their lives, but because they've demonstrated that each is strong enough to withstand as well as give in to the other.


  1. Vorkosigrrl2:49 PM

    Well, I'm glad you didn't like Anyone But You, 'cause I didn't either. I also tried another one of her novels, can't remember what it was, but didn't like it either. However, maybe not all her novels are as bad. I might give her a third try. Maybe.

    BTW, I am ever so grateful that you pointed me in the direction of Jo Goodman. At least, I think it was you. It might have been All About Romance. Anyway, I just read her The Price of Desire and ADORED it. One of the best romances I ever read.

  2. Some of her novels can be hit and miss, that's true - but the good ones are really, really good. I'd avoid Anyone But You and Getting Rid of Bradley.

    I would recommend Welcome to Temptation, Fast Women (of course!), and Bet Me.

    Really, I find that her longer novels are much better than her shorter ones.

    I'm so glad you liked Jo Goodman! Yes, once I read Price of Desire I went to my nearest Used Book Store and bought as many of her books as I could find (that is, 3). She doesn't seem to write that frequently so a lot of her books are out of print now. :(

    But she's coming out with a Western soon, so that should be interesting.