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Rereading Jenny: Manhunting

January 5, 2014

[Spotlight posts contain spoilers.]

Manhunting was Jennifer Crusie’s first book–though not her first book published; that was Sizzle, and see, I’ve got this all right now–and it makes no sense that it’s so much better than Sizzle.  Perhaps because the longer format gave her time to flesh out her characters and story.  Maybe it’s because Jake is fantastic, and so is Kate, unlike the leads of Sizzle who are mostly just kind of there with some personality traits.  Maybe it’s because the best friend and the supporting characters are not the best part of the book.

In Manhunting, Kate Svenson is bullied by her otherwise laid-back best friend to stop being so career-driven and miserable in her own life and take a vacation, one where she can meet a great guy, get married, and have the balance of family and work she’s always wanted.  Her best friend, Jessie, is worried because Kate gave up a low-paying job she loved for a high-powered job with her father, and it’s brought her more stress than joy.  Having Kate go on to a resort in Kentucky where high-powered men go to play golf seems like the only way Kate is going to try to relax.

But Kate can’t relax.  The pressure of finding the right guy, who fits all the criteria she and Jessie agreed upon, and navigating the resort, which is filled with obnoxious men and one obnoxious social director, weighs her down.  She balances this out by falling into a friendship with one of the resort’s employees, and they spend their mornings leisurely resting in a boat on the lake while pretending to fish.

Kate’s adventures with the resort men are laugh-out-loud hilarious, and everything is colorful and wonderful, but it’s her relationship with Jake that impressed me the most.  It was 1993 when this book was published, and there’s already so much here that breaks all sorts of Harlequin molds, although Jake is of course more than just a resort employee.  The book was published after Harlequin waived its virgin requirements (which I can’t find data on, but it was after 1980, because they weren’t the first to do it, and some of mine from 1988-1992 have mostly virgins with the occasional single mom but not much else, with few exceptions), but Crusie does not mine Kate’s or Jake’s sexual history, as we’d see in a modern novel.  We do know that Jake had a great sex life with his ex, but that was the only thing they really had in common.  One of the things that Crusie does that so often don’t happen in older Harlequins is build a friendship between Kate and Jake that only takes days but feels so natural and real.  They begin by getting along, to their surprise, and boxing their friendship as being sibling-like, which disappears in about two seconds because they are attracted to one another.  But they don’t do anything about it because they like the friendship and Kate is looking for a husband.  But the attraction grows, as does their like and respect for one another, until their relationship is inevitable.

Crusie subverts the HEA man-changes-for-woman by refusing to change Jake by the end.  Rather, Jake resolves problems that existed before Kate even came into play, which has nothing to do with Kate but does affect their relationship.  If she has added to his restlessness, it’s not her fault, but he also needs to recognize that it’s not her fault, just as she has to accept him for who he is.  The end has Jake pointing out that both their flaws will not change overnight, and perhaps will not change at all, but they are workable, and their love and commitment to one another will trump any arguments they definitely will have.

Isn’t that great?

Another of the things I really love is that Kate’s dad stays off the page entirely.  He’s obviously been a huge impression on her in the past, but when the book begins she’s a fully-functional adult despite that influence.  She doesn’t worry about alienating him or whether he loves her through the course of the book, and that is a refreshing change from more modern works where the heroines are pretty much controlled by their neuroses to the point where you can’t imagine them being happy even when they snag the man they’re so desperate for.  Maybe it was a simpler time, or maybe it’s just that Crusie writes what she calls “aspirational” sex, but also perhaps aspirational books.

Also, this quote: “In the bad old days, men kept women from choosing to work. In the bad new days, women keep women from choosing to stay home.”  Sad but still true.   Which reminds me, Crusie represents a wide range of women in this book with only five characters, who get along, excepting one, who is not a bad guy so much as a deluded guy.  You have Nancy, the older bar owner, who is absolutely in love with her husband after all these years because she keeps her work and personal life separate (and, if I remember correctly, there’s no sign she has kids, but it’s not made clear, which is great); you’ve got Penny, who thinks the only way to be sure to get the life of full-time motherhood she wants is to marry a childhood friend she’s not really in love with, who loves to flirt and dance and be merry and could’ve been a stereotypical bubblehead but is instead adorably heartbreaking, for the men and the reader; there’s Jessie, the best friend, who lives her life dating but without a serious relationship because she’s comfortable with the idea that she’ll find someone she loves eventually, but she won’t push it, and loves her career as an artist whose medium is cake decoration; Valerie, who’s the deluded one, who tells herself that everything is going great even when it isn’t, and is pushy and annoying but you have to feel for her when she realizes everything she assumed hasn’t come to pass; and then there’s Kate, who’s kind of a happy medium, once she figures out the happy part.  Any one of these women could probably carry their own book, but they never overshadow Kate and her journey.

Also, Kate’s 35, which is so old for a Harlequin heroine (used to be the age range was about 18-23, tops), but not unusual for a writer who was about 41 or 42 when this was published.  The idea of starting a family at 35 just freaks me, but maybe that’s because I’m 36 and my kid goes to college in two years.

Anyway, I love this book, despite a couple of flaws (rushed ending, some headhopping I barely noticed), and I should point out that although I own both, I read the reissue, so I don’t know if Crusie did anything to it.  I should’ve read the other one, because I don’t even know that I’ve cracked it open.  I’m kind of afraid to.

Next up: 1994’s Getting Rid of Bradley.


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