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Rereading Jenny: Bet Me

March 12, 2014

[Spotlights contain spoilers.]

Even after rereading all the books before it, Bet Me is still my favorite. And this means a lot, coming from someone who has no interest in shoes.

Bet Me is the last book of what I think of as Jennifer Crusie’s “middle” period, a solo book published by St. Martin’s Press. After that comes her collaborations, and then one solo book*. Just one, in ten years. I’m hoping this “late” period of solo books is something that will continue, but from everything I’ve read on her blog, I think it may not. Writing has become more and more frustrating for her over the past few years, and it’s been tough to read about because I’ve long felt the same way. So let’s not dwell.

Instead, let’s discuss Bet Me, my favorite romance novel of all time. It is a romance novel and not chick lit because it is the story of a relationship. It originally contained some supernatural elements, but Crusie eventually decided against them, which I think was the right call. Although there’s a strong element of Fate in the book, it never goes over the top to paranormal romance.

Chronologically, the draft of this book was written long before it was published, and that seems very strange to me in some ways and unsurprising in others. It has the light heart of a serial romance novel, and yet the books with the darker elements were published at the beginning of the middle phase. I’d really like to see the original draft of the book, the one that was turned down.

Maybe the publishing companies didn’t like the bleeding walls she eventually cut.

The plot device is a fairly common one: The Bet. But Crusie has never met an element of women’s fiction she can’t turn on its ear, and in this book, there really isn’t a bet after all. Everyone just thinks there is, except for the male lead, who refused it. Cal’s a betting man by nature, although he likes his bets to be ones he can win. He refuses a bet by an obnoxious client of his named David: to pick up a specific woman in the bar and sleep with her within a month. This woman is David’s ex, dumped earlier that night, and David never got anywhere with her, so he expects to win.

Min is David’s ex, annoyed with him that he didn’t stick it out until her sister’s wedding, as her mother already thinks her pathetic for being overweight. But she knew he wasn’t for her, so when she sees super sexy Cal across the room, she goes to make a move at the urging of her best friends and despite her better judgment. Unfortunately, she gets close enough to overhear the tail end of the bet, and Cal’s friend saying “Piece of cake.” Having not yet met Cal, she assumes he’s the one who said it, and her anger at David doubles and then some.

There is a secondary, lesser bet made when Cal doesn’t agree to the original one, though: that Cal can’t get Min to leave with him.  He does, because she’s annoyed enough to want to get a free meal out of the deal, but she calls him on his lines and his fake charm, and thinks he’s smarmy, whereas he thinks she’s crabby. They’re both right.  At the end of the night, they say “Have a nice life” and move on.

Except that Min’s friend Bonnie and Cal’s friend Roger meet that night too, and Roger falls instantly in love, and Bonnie quickly realizes he’s “The One.”

At first, Min and Cal are brought together by their desire to protect their friends, and then Min meets Cal’s nephew and the kid becomes smitten with her and invites her everywhere, and then the restaurant where Cal took her becomes her favorite and she keeps ordering when he’s there, and the owner, Cal’s old college roommate, keeps sending him over with her food, and then when they try to avoid the places they think they’ll run into each other, they run into each other at whole new places…all the while slowly getting to know each other, and dealing with some insane physical attraction.

All the while, Min thinks the bet is still on, and is reluctant to be with him. She keeps giving him chances to come clean, but it’s not happening.

Cal’s friends are Tony the Bullethead Playa and Roger the Romantic. Min’s friends are Lisa the Wanderer and Bonnie the Romantic. As they all fall in together, they create a community, and Cal and Min help each other through some serious family damage as well. So Crusie’s theme of community is huge in this one. As everything builds, it’s not just building to the couple’s happily ever after (HEA). It’s building to the rest of their lives, too.

So where’s the antagonist in all this? (Crusie is big on antagonists; the bet/no bet conflict is not enough for her.) David and Cal’s most recent ex, Cynthie, have teamed up to try to get their respective significant others back. Cynthie is a psychologist who thinks of love as happening in four stages.  If she and David can interrupt the new couple before the later stages, everything will be okay. Cynthie’s an amazing character–she has elements of Clea in her thin sexiness and manipulation, but she’s also very much her own person and she’s a great foil for Bonnie’s beliefs about fairy tale romances. As the book progresses, Cynthie is sensible and knows when to quit. That leaves us with David, who escalates not out of love for Min–because he doesn’t have any, although he’s fooled himself into thinking he has–but because he’s desperately competitive, especially when it comes to Cal, because Cal is someone worth competing against. Except Cal doesn’t want to compete. In David’s defense, he really does think there’s a bet, but that’s all the defense he gets.

Min is fantastic. I like everything about her. I don’t even care that she loves shoes. Jennifer Crusie not only made me care about someone who loves shoes, but also had me looking forward to finding out what shoes Min is wearing in any given scene. As a self-proclaimed anti-shopper, this is a near-Herculean task.  (The only other time someone has almost pulled it off was in Julie Kenner’s The Manolo Matrix, and even then I never did finish the series.)  Min is brash but often scared of things that are important, has great friends, and is a little nerdy and a lot insecure. She is not thin because she is not meant to be thin, but her mother bullies her not to eat carbs or sugar and makes her miserable, more so since her sister’s wedding is coming up. Her mother buys her clothes in sizes she can’t get down to even though she walks up and down a freakton of steps every day just to get to her apartment, and she mostly skips on the bread and never seems to overeat. I imagine that Min, like me, like my daughter, would look skeletal at 130 pounds.

So not only do I have someone I relate to leading this book, but she is also someone I would be attracted to in real life. Someone who looks the way I think beautiful women look. That was always such a relief to me. And the other characters are attracted to her too. Cal’s next door neighbor, Shanna, is hot for Min as soon as she meets her. Tony goes from thinking her chest is the only part of her that remotely interests him to being incredibly attracted to her by the end of the book. Part of Tony’s change is Min’s self-esteem change, but part of it is because he’s visual and Min starts to dress to suit her body, not hide it.  This is a good example of how Crusie writes guys who act like guys, and also two good lessons on how self-perception can feed and destroy shame.  Crusie never suggests that Min is attractive because she is wearing clothes that suit her figure.  She suggests instead that visual people prefer more blatant visuals–duh–and that how we see ourselves informs what we wear, and what we wear informs how we see ourselves; it’s a cycle.

There is also a lot going on, as I said previously, about the nature of the fairy tale hero and how we translate this into real life.  Bonnie says that Cal is Min’s hero, and he will go on metaphorical quests for her.  This results in him leading her to a stray cat, and finding something she’d lost long ago.  These are not things he does on purpose, which make them even more interesting and add to the underlying work of Fate.  But it also nudges our subconscious into recognizing that we look for such symbols all the time.  Some women want men to bring flowers.  This isn’t about proving you have money to burn, it’s about filling other needs.  Some women might equate the beauty of the flowers of the potential of the beauty he may see in her, or the time taken to get them something special, given the busy nature of our modern lives.  I see something about to die and a giant waste of money, but when my now-uncle was courting my aunt back when I was in middle school, I was always impressed with the flower arrangements he sent her.  Not because they were big, although they were (he’s Texan), but because they had flowers I’d never seen before.  They were unusual, unique.  So’s she.  He picked that up right away, and that’s why he stuck.  They are still, to this day, madly in love, not because they followed a formula, but because they saw each other, really saw each other.

This is also another book where music and food feature heavily.  Min loves Elvis Presley, Cal loves Elvis Costello, and can’t bond over their Elvii because that is a big musical gap to get over there.  Everyone loves Krispy Kreme donuts, thus prompting me to try one once I found myself in a state where they were available, and chicken marsala, which I don’t think I ever had as a meat-eater, but a vegan version gets made in this house pretty much monthly.  You can gain weight just reading this book, but then you don’t really care afterward.

I truly believe this is the ur-Crusie.  It has everything: community, music, food, sex, banter, likable characters, genre-bending, and empowerment for both the characters and the readers.

On to the covers:

The reissue: Pretty, and dice do say “betting” and I appreciate the hearts as pips.  It’s one of the better reissue covers, although I don’t love it.

My copy, if the paperback version:

bet me

So pretty.  The cherries are also a shout-out to the fans, who are called Cherries.  (When Bob Mayer joins Crusie to write three books, the fans are called Cherry Bombs.  Ha.)  I wonder how I’d feel if the dice were there instead of the cherries, though.

The British cover:

bet me brit

Sigh.  The whole point is that Min’s shoes are supposed to be fabulous, her little subversive way of wearing things that reflect her.  They barely even tried with all of these covers.

Next up: the collaborations.  I’m almost done rereading all of them.

*And a short story/novella called “Hot Toy.”  And also the Crazy for You stories that she did for her MFA, but those all pre-date CFY, I believe.

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