Just Get Over Your Fucking Ex-Boyfriend

by Wardog

Wardog has been reading Sarra Manning again and is not happy about it.
I've been slightly out of the reviewing groove of late, on account of, well, life (oh pesky life) but I'm discovering there's nothing quite like something you hate to get you back into it. A while ago, I reviewed Sarra Manning's Unsticky and, despite inadvertently writing some ill-advised generalities on the romance genre as a whole that led to something of a barney, it has nevertheless remained one of my favourite romances of all time. If it wasn't on my Kindle, it would be dog-eared and dropped in the bath by now. As you can imagine, this puts me in a rather difficult position as regards Manning because I buy her books pretty much on release day in a paroxysm of delight and anticipation, only to be inevitably disappointed because she's not going to write Unsticky again. Which, incidentally, is a good thing, because she's already written Unsticky, and I genuinely respect the fact her books have been noticeably different entities.

My problems with Manning are entirely the irrationality of the reader, rather than the skill of the writer because the fact remains that there's a lot about her work that I enjoy, and admire. All her books are set in a London that feels very real to me, despite the fact I don't live in London, and her characters (even though several of them have trendy fashionable jobs of the kind that would make me want to throw up in my tea) tend to live lives that are in some way comparable to, and recognisable as, mine. Right down to the depressing truth that if my life was a TV show I'd sit around complaining about the fact there are hardly any women, homosexuals or non-white people in it, and the ones that are feel totally tokenistic. But, given that most romances are written by Americans or set in a nebulous otherwhere (a bit like Cassie Clare's attempt to depict Victorian London) I find it genuinely comforting and compelling to brush across references that mean something to me – pubs I have visited, Marks and Spensers meal deals in which I have participated, and computer games I have played (Jack is playing Red Dead Redemption at the beginning of Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend). I know operating by the same cultural and class markers is one of the shallowest possible ways to connect with a text but I can't help myself. It gets me every time. It makes me feel like Manning is talking to meeeeee.

Manning is a master of detail, both great and small, all of which adds up to world that feels real and lives that feel real. Her heroines have jobs and friends and families all of which are as important, if not more so, than any romancing that happens to go on. I mainly read historical rather than contemporary romances, I think because I find it easier to accept the limitations of the genre in a setting that has more in common with fantasy than actual history. In a pretend 19th century, I don't mind that the entire of focus of some woman's life is settling down with a dude, but if I'm reading something set in contemporary England that perhaps, is meant to be applicable to my life and values, I'm going hate it to hell and back if I feel that I'm being told that what I really need is a man who will marry me and give me children, a job on a magazine, and a wardrobe full of designer shoes. And I quite like shoes. Again, this is not meant to be commentary on the romance genre as a whole, it all comes down to personal preferences, and mine, from what I have read of other discussions of romance, are both specific and unusual. It does mean, however, that when I find something that hits the spot I latch onto it with a touch of the crazies.

So you're probably wondering if I'm ever actually going to get round to talking about the book itself. But part of the reason I'm preambling so desperately is that the truth is stark and hurts. Despite my deep and abiding love for Unsticky, everything I enjoy about Manning's books in general, and Manning's leet writing skillz, I hated Nine Uses For an Ex-Boyfriend. I hated it so much that the word 'hate' does not even begin to touch the depths of my anti-joy.

Hope and Jack have been dating for 13 years, and then one day Hope catches him kissing her best friend Susie. Err, that's the plot. Actually, no, I wish that was the plot. So Hope catches Jack kissing Susie, freaks out (understandably) and then, despite her instincts, is convinced that it was a one-off and forgives him. They get back together. It wasn't a one off. They break up. They get back together. They have counselling. They get back together. They break up. The end. Oh, spoilers.

Manning says on her website that she feels it's a book with which we can all identify because we've all been Hope. Well, I haven't, and if I ever get remotely like Hope I'm putting myself out of my misery. But then I've only had three relationships in my life (one of which has lasted six years and I'm still in it - woot!) because for a long time I didn't do commitment and I preferred more casual encounters. So I've never been dumped and, given that dumping is pretty fucking painful, I can totally see that being dumped would be possibly even worse. But then I suppose it depends if you find feeling rejected worse than feeling guilty. But equally, since I have gone through some absolutely terrible fucking break ups, I'm hoping that when karma bites me in the arse and it's my turn to get kicked in the heart I will not get my passive aggressive manipulative freak on. In short: that I will not be Hope. And maybe Nine Uses For an Ex-Boyfriend is meant to be a sort of unflinching depiction of the worst way you can possibly behave when a relationship is ending but if that's the case it should be filed under 'horror'.

The thing is, reading about the dissolution of a relationship is never going to be fun happy times. I didn't mind that Hope spends a lot of the book being miserable (although, ironically, it does make it hard to like her as a character, as miserable people are not very attractive, sorry to be shallow but there it is) and there is some interesting stuff going on here some of the time. Hope and Jack's relationship – as real, long-term relationships tend to be - is complicated, and feels quite genuine to me, with its juxtapositions of real affection and everyday mundanity. And, needless to say, it only gets more so after his one-off-not-really-one-off kiss with Susie. I think it's reasonable and understandable Hope would forgive him, and I think it's reasonable and understandable that their relationship would fall over anyway. Although it's rather painful to watch them flailing around trying futilely to fix things, the variations of anger, over-compensation, desperation, guilt and excruciating, artificial harmony they go through strike me as plausible, subtle and well-depicted.

All this stuff, no matter how well done, is not precisely what you'd call entertaining (and, honestly, I was kind of hoping to be entertained by the … err … chicklit, and I don't think that's an irrational expectation) but I was coping with it. However, as soon as Hope steals his Iphone and discovers that Jack is still seeing Susie and, in fact, is still in love with her it veers into territory that is actively unpleasant.

Jack does not behave well at all – the whole cheating and lying about it thing, for example – but at least it's straightforward human awfulness, based in what seems to me real conflict and confusion over being in a committed relationship with someone, and loving them, but falling wildly for someone else. But from the way he's presented (cheating, in romance novel reading communities, is considered the unspeakable unforgivable – which is kind of ironic in a genre where raping someone til they get to like it is cool beans) I think we're meant to understand why Hope would want to be with him but simultaneously condemn him for cowardice and faithlessness. And, yes, I will admit the boy is not over-endowed with bollocks, hiding out first from Hope and then from Susie because he doesn't like conflict, unintentionally playing both sides off against the other, and not knowing what he wants from one minute to the next. But I also felt that behaving honestly or maturely was off the menu from the get go due to Hope's transformation into a bollock-devouring, soul-sucking vortex of passive-aggressive guilt-tripping manipulation. I'm sorry to be on Team Cheater here and I'm not saying it's okay lie and cheat, but I am totally defending the right of any party to walk away from a relationship at any time for any reason. A right that Hope absolutely refuses to acknowledge, and an attitude the book seems to be supporting:
“But you and her aren't a forever kind of deal. I mean, Jack, we can't be over. Not like this … we've been together for thirteen years and...”

“I know! I fucking know. Do you think I don't know that? Do you think that doesn't keep me up at night … thirteen years, when it really comes down to it, doesn't mean anything. It's just a blood long amount of time.

“It means everything. And don't I mean something?”

I have a feeling we're supposed to be on Hope's side here, and think that Jack is being a selfish git in wanting to be, y'know, happy rather than with Hope. But I kind of think he's absolutely right. I mean it's difficult and complicated, and when you're with someone for ages then your lives get entangled in really deep ways, but ultimately you don't get relationship long service medals. Every day you're with someone is a day you're with them: that's it. Anyway, Hope uses the whole “you've dated me so now you owe me” theme to guilt-trip Jack into not seeing Susie and going to counselling:
“We've been together for thirteen years and all I'm asking, Jack, is that you give us a few weeks, say to the end of the year, to come to counselling with me and see if we can get through this. That's not much to ask, is it?

“When you put it like that, it's not.” Jack sighed.

Despite the counselling being comically useless, it does borderline sort them out and Jack renews his commitment to Hope. By which time, of course, Hope has finally woken up to the fact that he's in love with someone else and she's not in a place in her life in which she wants to make a long-term commitment to a dude who lied to her and cheated on her. She therefore has awesome sex with some other guy, and leaves Jack. The novel ends in harmony, with Jack married to Susie and Hope going to teach in Australia because despite Jack's whinging about their staid relationship she was secretly the adventurous one all along, aaaaaah d'you see.

I have a feeling this is meant to be the ultimate fantasy ending. Hope's boyfriend cheats on her with with a woman who is apparently much more conventionally hot and sexy than Hope, but he nevertheless still decides he wants to be with Hope (right up to getting married and having babies) but by then she has Taken Control Of Her Life TM and gets to break up with him in an empowering, like totally feminist way. Which I guess might be okay if not for the masses of preceding grim. And ultimately Hope never acknowledges, at least not in any way that I was able to recognise, Jack's fundamental right to leave her – even if what he has with Susie is, to her perception, shallow and lust-based.

Nine Uses is not, by any means, a romance. It's about relationships, and there's a hot dude who isn't Jack in it but given that it is supposed to be a story about Hope finding herself through rampant passive aggressive behaviour it makes absolute sense that the novel would not end with her reeling straight into another man. And frankly I don't think she should be allowed one. Her spare dude, stern, sexy photographer Wilson, isn't really in it enough to develop much personality (he's no Vaughan put it that way) and because Hope is so unbearable a lot of the time I was utterly bewildered why he would be so into her beyond a vague redhead fetish. But I actually quite enjoyed him because his appearance usually heralded some pages of sanity and he spends most of the novel saying the things I was screaming:
“He fucked Susie,” Wilson said rather gently, all things considered. “He's still fucking Susie. Q E fucking D.”

But it does mean that Hope's personal development basically comprises behaving awfully over one guy and then being told things she should be capable of recognising herself by another. And I know it sounds like I have a serious hate-on for Hope but I was sympathetic to her, in principle, because, yes, Jack is her only boyfriend and, essentially, the only life she's ever known so I could see why that would leave you a stunted excuse for a human being but it didn't make it any more bearable to be in her head for four hundred pages of frustration.

I was actually pretty adrift through most of the book, desperately seeking someone with whom to identify or connect. I could probably have fancied Wilson but I kept blinking and missing him. And I had so little in common with Hope that my tendrils of textual loneliness ended up latching onto cowardly, cheating Jack, as being the only person in the text recognisable as being remotely like me. That was not a good feeling.

In fact “not a good feeling” pretty much encapsulates my experience with Nine Uses. I have no idea what it was trying to say or do, but it did make me desperately want to read Unsticky again. Which I did, and it was still great. Glee!

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 00:29 on 2012-02-18
Based on the cover it looks like the number one use for an ex-boyfriend is "target practice".
Frank at 00:39 on 2012-02-18
Just Get Over Your Fucking Ex-Boyfriend

I kind of feel this way about Adele.
But, I belt out her problematic songs anyway.

Jill Heather at 21:29 on 2012-02-18
I read 'Unsticky' on the strength of your review -- I like romances occasionally and have found that recommendations by people who read SFF are generally to my taste -- and I enjoyed it. I might have enjoyed 'You don't have to say you love me', her second one, even more. And I found this one just terrible. (Her YA is also less good, but I thought perhaps she had matured as a writer.)

I didn't actually like any of the characters. Jack has a fundamental right to leave her, but he's a total asshole for cheating on her for months with a close friend; Susie is a total asshole for sleeping with her best friend's boyfriend; Wilson is a perfect robot; Hope is passive-aggressive and doesn't seem to actually ever do anything nice for anyone, including herself.

Jill Heather at 21:29 on 2012-02-18
I read 'Unsticky' on the strength of your review -- I like romances occasionally and have found that recommendations by people who read SFF are generally to my taste -- and I enjoyed it. I might have enjoyed 'You don't have to say you love me', her second one, even more. And I found this one just terrible. (Her YA is also less good, but I thought perhaps she had matured as a writer.)

I didn't actually like any of the characters. Jack has a fundamental right to leave her, but he's a total asshole for cheating on her for months with a close friend; Susie is a total asshole for sleeping with her best friend's boyfriend; Wilson is a perfect robot; Hope is passive-aggressive and doesn't seem to actually ever do anything nice for anyone, including herself.

Wardog at 20:02 on 2012-02-19
Based on the cover it looks like the number one use for an ex-boyfriend is "target practice".

It'd be a good use for the book as well. If it hadn't been on my Kindle, I'd have wall-banged it.

I kind of feel this way about Adele.

*diiies* You could apply that to a certain genre of female vocalist certainly ;)

Eeeek, I always worry when people read romances based on my recommendation because it's such a personal genre, and I'm afraid my odd tastes will have steered them astray! I mean I read quite a lot of romance but the stuff I actually like is this narrow landing strip in a vast ocean of OMG NO! But I'm really glad you liked it :) I have a half-finished review of YDHTSYLM knocking around somewhere, which I'll post at some point. I thought it was a better book than Unsticky but I liked it less.

And I am so relieved to hear you hated Nine Uses as much as I did - I was actually bewildered while I was reading, not quite sure why Manning was doing this to me, and what had gone so horribly wrong :P And, yes, you're right, everyone is awful - Jack was the least awful of them, from my perspective, but he was still pretty bad.
Jill Heather at 21:55 on 2012-02-19
Oh, people recommend me all sorts of books I dislike (hello, _The Mirage_) and I get over it quickly. But I liked Unsticky and YDHTSYLM, and would love to read your review of the latter.

I didn't like Jack any more than I liked Hope. I guess, overall, I don't like books with unpleasant narrators. I don't want to hate the main character in a book I read. (Hi, Lord's Foul Bane.) There are better ways to get across the idea that people are not always pleasant and they do terrible, self-destructive things.

I would, however, be happy to hear what other romances are in the few you like. (I've enjoyed Tessa Dare lately.)
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