A Small Post About Bitches and Mothers in Romance

It’s thanks to Liz at Something More that I read Vicki Essex’s Back to the Good Fortune Diner for her blog-book-party-thing-of-awesome. This was a tough read for me: the bits I loved I really, really loved, and the bits I disliked were enraging. My main problems were with the story’s resolution, as elegantly discussed in this review by Sunita at Dear Author, but I’d like to talk about one specific point that really stood out for me. Spoilers (and curse words) will absolutely abound.

Let’s talk about the word ‘bitch’ for a moment. It’s got a nice, cozy ring when you’re hanging out on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and I could refer to myself as a member of the Bitchery without batting an eye. But context is key, and a playful self-application of the term is worlds away from the use of it as a specifically gendered slur.

Bitch appears eight times in Back to the Good Fortune Diner, which seems staggeringly high to me. Those eight instances break down like so:

  • number of times super-racist dad refers to himself as “a son of a bitch”: 1
  • number of times Tiffany refers to Chris’ ex-wife as a bitch: 1
  • number of times someone calls Tiffany a bitch to her face: 2
  • number of times Tiffany refers to herself as a bitch in conversation: 1
  • number of times Tiffany thinks of herself as a bitch: 3—and never in the fun way

It’s not only the appearance of the word itself, of course, but the adjectives that appear and modify it, which are: selfish, superior, petty, and heartless. It’s a little mini-masterclass in convincing a woman that her needs and her dreams are wrong. And it lights up one aspect of the novel that I always hate to see in a romance with a kid character: the sins of the mother are visited upon the heroine.

Chris’ ex-wife Daphne was a cartoonishly terrible mother. When Tiffany and Chris begin ‘dating’—if by ‘dating’ you mean ‘banging whenever they get the chance instead of actually talking to one another once or twice’—all those unfulfilled maternal expectations are dumped right onto Tiffany’s shoulders. This is why it’s “selfish” of her to not want a permanent relationship with Chris, or to want a job or a place in the city. Actual quote about Simon and Tiffany’s decision to move: “How could you do that to him? Don’t you know what his mother’s like?”

That isn’t a relationship: it’s a hostage situation.

Are the Jamieson men made of glass, I ask you, that one summer fling can destroy them so completely?

And it’s somewhat galling that it’s Tiffany who has to apologize at the climax for “playing house.” As though paying any kind attention to a struggling kid automatically means you now have all the obligations of his absent mother. As though this kid does not already have two parents in the form of his dad and grandfather—whose arguments hurt Simon far more than anything Tiffany ever does to him.

I would not have been so angry at all this if I hadn’t gotten sucked in by the writing to begin with. The way that the cultural issues were dealt with was compelling and nuanced and something we could use a lot more of in romance. Chris and Tiffany felt completely, utterly real to me. Their isolation was physically painful to read about. Their problems were important and not easily solved. I wanted to see them reap the rewards of their hard work, to get rid of old habits that weren’t serving them well, and to forge a new life free from the expectations and obligations that had held both of them back for so many years.

Instead, it felt like Chris got what he wanted, and Tiffany got trapped. I could swear at one point the author was planning to find her a job in the cute little town bookstore/bakery, where she could use her book industry knowledge and maybe publish a hip short fiction and poetry zine with material by local authors. Seriously, how cool would that have been? Or her painting—remember her painting? The talent she won awards for, the canvases left in her abandoned apartment (which forced me to assume she’d been kicked out for not paying rent, which means it is even more imperative that she get a job and earn some money and get her stuff back and keep the collections people off her back). Tiffany’s artistic skill was a bright, interesting narrative thread—and one that undermined the bookish Asian schoolgirl stereotype rather nicely—but it vanished as soon as Tiffany and Chris hooked up. As soon as that happens, Chris slots Tiffany into a spot in his head labeled “not-Daphne,” and everything specific about her and her situation becomes an obstacle to Chris and Simon’s happy ending.

I really wish Tiffany had gotten a happy ending of her own.

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