Review: Bet Me

Bet Me
Jennifer Crusie
St Martin’s

Reading all the excellent early reviews of this book (even Kirkus, curmudgeons that they are, rave) a person might get the idea that Jenny Crusie is all about a bit of light hearted fun, a writer you can count on to make you laugh. Which is, in fact, true.

Crusie’s  prose is deceptively accessible, her characters quirky and interesting (Min, the sensible actuary who has given up on love and is looking for a cat; Cal, the self-possessed, easy going partner in a firm that does software seminars and who doesn’t believe in ‘forever’), her plots just twisted enough to keep you wide awake and eager to turn the page without giving you a headache. You can read this book like that, and you’ll enjoy it. But that would be a shame, because there’s a lot more going on here. You know that old chestnut about the spoonful of sugar and the medicine? Crusie knows it too.

This is a wonderfully funny novel, a romp of a novel, and it’s also a scalpel-sharp look at the way men and women approach each other these days, for better or for worse. Most readers will catch at least some of the veiled nods to the fairy tale: the rose bushes gone to thorn outside Min’s house, the fact that Cal has to climb a steep hill to get there. But if you read carefully (which is hard, because you will be caught up in the repartee and the romance) you’ll see that Crusie, a former academic, has taken a run at a dozen theories about love and attraction, and skewered them all. From the fairy tale to modern psychology to string-theory, everybody’s take on what brings two people together and makes them stick is examined and found to be full of holes.

Except, in an odd way, the fairy tale itself. Cal and Min, non-believers, fight it, and can’t quite escape fate or each other.

The biggest chance that Crusie takes here is the issue of Min’s weight. She’s plump, or chubby, or fat — all of these adjectives get tossed around. She loves carbs. So does Cal, but he’s got two things she doesn’t: a great metabolism, and (this is the leap of faith) his head on straight when it comes to body image. He looks great, tall and well built; Min stays away from purple jumpsuits because they make her look like Barney’s slut cousin. In one of the most interesting discussions between them, she finally comes out and asks him what he thinks about the f-word, and he gives it to her straight: she’ll never be thin, no matter how hard her mother pushes dieting. Her genes won’t allow it. And more than that, he doesn’t mind.

This is what’s so great about this novel. It takes on the thorniest issue of all — women’s bodies and sexuality — and deals with it. As a woman made more in Min’s image than a model’s, I certainly identified. But did I believe Cal? In spite of the fact that I’ve been married to somebody a lot like him for a long time (tall, rangy, good looking) and the fact that my genes are winning the battle to turn me into a small, round Italian matronly type, I *still* find it hard to believe Cal. That’s the power of the modern myth.

Crusie takes it on and looks at it hard, and she makes you laugh while you look at it too. She gives us a great love story, a tremendous lot to think about, and a happy ending. What else could you possible want?