The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird
Pocket Books, 1st printing, 1990
Genre: Fiction, romance, chick lit
Synopsis & Review: Gretchen Griner is an underpaid, under appreciated photographer for the Austin (that’s Texas) Grackle, part-time lover of Peter Overton Treadwell III (known as “Trout”), and major consumer of Cup O’ Soup. That is, until she meets Lizzie Potts—otherwise known as Viveca Lamoureaux, romance writer extraordinaire. Lizzie has a plan for Gretchen’s life—and it includes Lizzie’s brother Gus. But Gretchen has her own plan, and it does not feature a “wispy goon” named Gus. Of course, fate also has a plan for Gretchen, and it doesn’t care what Gretchen wants. So Lizzie will give Gretchen Gus, Gus will give Gretchen the man of her dreams, and among this oddball cast of marvelous misfits, someone just may discover the secret to true romance. (Jacket copy)
The Boyfriend School might have been the only worthwhile thing to come out of my seventh grade science class, other than my ability to flip my stool over while sitting on it and fall very hard without getting hurt. That sort of skill does come in very handy in life. I honestly don’t recall learning anything in the class, though I did get a kick out of the seventies anti-drug films they occasionally showed us (If you do goofballs, then you’ll die under a bridge. I still don’t know what a goofball is. Glue-sniffing?). But I also borrowed Sarah Bird’s The Boyfriend School from my BFF Tina’s friend Jennifer during that class, a really amusing and fun novel about appearances, romance, and a whole lot of meta-fiction about romance novels.
Gretchen gets assigned to cover the Luvboree, a Romance Writers’ Convention replete with multiple pen names and women in Southern belle costumes. Set to mock the women and the genre, Gretchen instead is befriended by Juanita Lusader (contemporaries and family sagas as Johni Lewis, and historicals as Lunita St John) and Lizzie Potts (Viveca Lamoreaux, medieval historicals), who expose her to romance and what it can mean for the women who read and write it. This opens the door for some discussions and asides on the value of the romance genre, and how it affects feminism; I especially enjoyed Gretchen’s reflections on the sisterhood of the genre, and how much that meant to her. Inspired and empowered by what she saw at the Luvboree, Gretchen sets out to write her own romance novel, Gain the Earth. Eager to transcend the genre and still suffering from condescension, she stumbles, and Lizzie and Juanita are there to help her understand the mechanisms of romance–both real and imagined.
(The romance genre storyline—as opposed to the romantic storyline—is one of the novel’s best bits. It’s is enormously entertaining to read along with Gretchen as she finally explores romance, a genre she’s shunned for years, instead checking out “worthy” novels to languish unread. I myself have wrestled with my own pretentiousness since elementary school, hiding my BSC books and making sure everyone saw that I was reading The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick. It is liberating to watch the scales fall from Gretchen’s eyes, even while delighting in Bird’s satirization of romance and its writers.)
Meanwhile, Gretchen has to let Lizzie’s brother Gus down easy. Uninterested in his dreadful appearance and mild manners, she explains the lack of “chemistry” to Lizzie, who is unconvinced that that is the problem. But Gretchen is too distracted by her novel—which Cameo wants to publish—to worry about Gus and Lizzie. Sick of his manipulations, Gretchen also disentangles herself from Trout, concentrating only on her novel. But without any romance in her life, the sizzle in her novel fizzles out, and Gretchen is reduced to writing “neck nuzzling, breast cupping, forays up the thing, six pages” in lieu of actual scenes. That is, until she meets Rye St John.
Happening upon a sexy stranger after a motorcycle accident, Gretchen is instantly enamored of his physique and rugged good looks. Rye keeps her at arm’s length, only further inflaming Gretchen, who is suffused with desire for the enigmatic Kiwi. But Rye isn’t what he seems to be, a discovery that sends Gretchen reeling, stricken by betrayal.
Despite the shitty treatment The Boyfriend School gets in the mediocre movie version (which entirely cuts out Juanita, makes Trout a yuppie, and relocates the action from Austin to Charleston), this is such a fun novel. Fun is definitely the word, and funny, too. Gretchen, though at times irritatingly self-indulgent or whiny, is still realistic, the kind of girl I could imagine hanging out with—or even being. (I totally saw Gretchen in the clunky mary-janes and babydoll dresses of the early nineties, despite Jamie Gertz’ truly heinous wardrobe in the film.) Following her through the process of writing her first romance novel is charming, from picking a pen name to floundering over sex scenes. Even the disdain she has for romance is honest—I’ve struggled with it myself—and watching as she accepts and then embraces it is enjoyable. Bird’s other characters fare well, too, other than Trout, whose dialog is a little too much, although he is otherwise true to type. Lizzie is wildly eccentric and Juanita a barrel of monkeys. Gus and Rye are both engaging and even unexpectedly moving; my favorite part of the novel is the diary Gretchen reads toward the end (I can’t say much more, or it may ruin the story).
A witty, appealing novel that satirizes both romance as a state of being and a genre, without taking itself too seriously. I’m glad the shitty movie was on the other night (though I stayed up way too late watching it), because it reminded me of how much I enjoyed the novel, and inspired me to re-read it. The Boyfriend School is silly, but also observant and thought-provoking, and holds up very well after two decades, and some time out of print. I definitely intend to check out Bird’s other novels.
Read also: Romancing the Stone by Joan Wilder, The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith
Some distant reflex that took comfort in writing large numbers that I didn’t understand made me jot down the figures Andrea was firing out, but my attention had drifted. I’d already visualized a whole new motif, a boldly different way of seeing romance writers and fans that was sure to surprise Trout: as wildcatters of the writing world.
I turned in my seat to behold the sea of rapt faces behind me, every one of them transfixed by talk of subsidiary rights, payouts, and multiple-book deals. With just the barest of cosmetic adjustments–a Marcel wave here, a Cupid’s-bow lip there, some shadows under the chubby cheeks to simulate gauntness–I could imagine those same faces listening to an emcee explaining dance marathon rules during the darkest heart of the Great Depression. My shutter finger was itching. I crouched down and slipped out.
04 December – 05 December