A book about an angry, frumpy feminist who loves books getting a make over to stop being single? I could not wait to be mad at this book. Only I couldn’t. It’s adorable and funny and eschews the problems with its own premise expertly.
Plot: Bernie is your standard angry feminist. She is extremely smart, she has a small group of devoted friends, she loves learning, and she has had it up to here with patriarchy. Her terrible poker face means that even when she is trying her best not to get angry about how stupid, restrictive, and oppressive patriarchy is, it’s probably written on her face. Which is how, when the 20 year old boyfriend of one of the students she supervises at the library proposes at the library, via flash mob, her (entirely correctly) disapproving face becomes a meme to everyone’s amusement but her own. To make matters worse, she is suddenly being contacted by a women’s magazine trying to give her a make over and make her go on a bunch of dates so the readership can cheer for the frumpy librarian’s transformation from Shrill Feminist to Normal Woman and reward her with male attention. She says no. Obviously. Only she’s not quite as satisfied with her life as she wants to be, and her friends seem to think it would be a good idea to experiment with doing things differently, even if it doesn’t work. It doesn’t hurt that the reporter on the job is hot. So she risks public humiliation to see how Normal People live and see if she learns anything. Shenanigans ensue.
There are so many things I love about this book. The banter between Bernie and Colin is up there with When Harry Met Sally. I wouldn’t call this an enemies to lovers story but rather an antagonists to lovers story, if that’s a thing? They’re technically on the same side from the start, they just don’t like each other very much. There is an advice column that is pretty hilarious. There is a dog. There is a post modernist one woman show where she plays a clarinet in a way you would not expect. There are endless hilariously terrible dates. The pace of the story is brisk and for all the navel gazing Bernie engages in, the plot isn’t weighed down by it.
The thing about this book is that on the surface it might look like a modern Taming of the Shrew, but much like the excellent 10 Things I hate About You, she doesn’t actually get tamed at all. She gets seen, and she gets heard, and being seen and heard allows her to let go of a little bit of the resentment and anger that has built up a thick wall between her and the rest of the world. I think a lot of us, especially here on Cannonball, will see a lot of ourselves in Bernie. I know I did. And I love that she was able to be brave enough to accept that some of the things this vapid women’s magazine exposed her to was stuff she actually did like (lipstick is fun!), and she could have those without having to take the whole package of other beauty standards (heels can go straight to hell). This book outright rejects the idea that there is a right way or a wrong way to be a woman or lovable, but it asks readers to ask themselves how much of what they do is because that’s who they are and how much of it is driven by a need to be contrarian for the sake of it. It makes me think of one of my favourite Community quotes from the first season, when Troy is struggling with his identity in a new school. He’s still wearing his letterman jacket from high school, which people have been making fun of him for since he doesn’t play football anymore. The advice he gets is that “it doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them, you keep it to piss them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”
Do the things that make you happy whether it pleases other people or not. Be like Bernie. And watch Community #andamovie.
Side note: how has this book not been optioned yet? Come on, Netflix.