Bloomsbury USA was kind enough to send me a review copy of Hale's second book for adults (after Austenland, a fun Jane Austen-infused bit of chick lit), The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. Hale takes a chick-lit premise (housewife meets her celebrity crush) and turns it on its head. Becky Jack is a happily married mother of three and seven months pregnant when she meets Colin Firth, I mean Felix Callahan. She insults Callahan with such wit that he invites her to dinner. They become fast friends, calling, e-mailing, and visiting when possible, though Callahan is no fan of children and views her Mormonism with amusement. The premise is completely unrealistic, of course, and Hale even points out the unlikelihood of the two meeting (they meet when Becky flies out to Hollywood because she's sold a screenplay with no effort whatsoever and then stars opposite Callahan in the film), but the friendship and Becky's balance between Callahan and her family are the center of the story.
I found this mostly enjoyable and more thought-provoking than chick lit, if overlong (at 352 pages). An omniscient narrator pops in and out with commentary that makes the book seem like a fairy tale and the repartee between Becky and Callahan really sparkles. However, there are issues that other non-Mormons may run into. I found Becky to be naive at times, in contrast to her intelligence and wit, and her relationship with her "perfect" husband sometimes grated. Apparently, Mormon women simply aren't friends with men, so Becky's family and bishop counsel her to drop the friendship, to "avoid the very appearance of evil." Even though her friendship with Callahan enriches her life, Becky is prepared to drop it if her husband objects. I found this to be both frustrating and interesting because my inner feminist yelled, "Are you kidding me?" when Becky considers giving up this part of her life when her husband is jealous, but at the same time, it's a complicated question since marriage is all about compromise and I can see putting family first. But (I know, another 'but') Becky really ranks herself third after her husband's wishes and her children's needs, and I can't relate to that. She gushes and gushes about how perfect and wonderful her husband is, but when he finds the house a mess after work, he scolds her like an errant child, and I gritted my teeth through those parts of the book. At least Becky doesn't submit easily; she responds passive-aggressively to his criticism by asking him to clean up while she finishes her phone call with Callahan. But this doesn't seem like a marriage of equals. I'm not sure if that's typical of LDS marriages, but a little more equal partnership would have been nice. Becky seems smarter, wittier, and more fun than her husband, so his de facto tyranny was especially annoying.
Hale has done an excellent job making a chaste relationship story entertaining and offering a complicated alternative to the usual chick lit formula. This would be a good choice for book clubs, as there are plenty of issues to discuss, and different people are sure to react differently to the relationships in the book. For those mystified by Mormonism, The Actor and the Housewife sheds a bit of light on the community, and groups can discuss the questions presented by the book and how they would have answered them.
Are you intrigued? Tell me about a book you've recently read that you found thought-provoking, and you'll be entered to win my gently read hardcover copy. US and Canada only, please, and enter before Sunday, June 21 at noon.