So I have an issue with romance novels where the woman is all like “I hate you, I despise you, I want nothing to do with you” and yet then sleeps with the man and is physically attracted to him “despite themselves”. Usually these kinds of relationships balance between love-hate, and then I can sort of understand that they don’t really dislike each other, but they are trying to figure out how they feel. Though sometimes it’s also clearly justified for one party to have a problem with the other, and in those cases the irresistible sexual attraction really makes me feel grossed out.
Anyway, in A Happily Unmarried Man by Kate Hoffmann, we kind of see the opposite. This time it’s the man that “hates” the woman but still feels inexplicably drawn to her. Luckily, it’s not a very extreme case of “I hate, but I love” which makes it at least readable. But I did find issue with something else, which I’ll explain below.
Journalist Garrett McGabe considers himself to be the luckiest bachelor of Bachelor Arms and the whole of Los Angeles. He is perfectly happy with his life and praises his bachelor’s existence regularly in his column in the paper. His life is turned upside down, however, when he ridicules Emily Taylor, the woman who has turned the home into her profession and even publishes a popular magazine about it. This is not appreciated, especially by his boss who wants to buy Emily’s magazine.
To his great indignation, he is forced to apologise to her. When he knocks on her door, however, he doesn’t find the fussy woman with apron and bun he was expecting, but Emily turns out to be a very attractive young woman who will not make it easy on him…
Journalist Garrett McGabe is first pictured as the archetype of the eternal bachelor. Living alone and enjoying the virtues of single life immensely. He has also made it his job: he writes a bi-weekly column about the life of a single man in the city. However, already a few pages in, he is shown to envy the marital bliss of his friends. There is a dichotomy in him, he is desperately clinging to his bachelor ways and yet in his quieter moments, he is seen longing for the love and support of a committed relationship. The story kicks off when his married friends spot a book-signing by one of their wives’ favourite authors: Emily Taylor, who writes books and runs a magazine about home life – cooking, decorating, taking care of the home in general.
Garrett decides to accompany his friends inside and all his prejudices are confirmed when he sees a chubby, dark-haired woman who looks exhausted (as he describes her). The perfect person for him to take down, because he doesn’t need anyone trying to convince him to become a boring house-husband. When it becomes clear that she is the assistant and the “household queen” is actually a beautiful, young woman with red hair sitting next to her, he immediately tries to charm her. But Emily is desperately shy and unsure of herself and dreads signings in the first place so she doesn’t respond to his advances. And now we see Garrett struggling with the fact that he’s immediately attracted to her. But she ignored him and she is still trying to make him into a boring husband (he assumes), so he decides to tear her down a peg in his next column. He is not afraid of the consequences, because what are a bunch of housewives going to do to him?
Of course, he does notice the consequences immediately. The paper he works at is flooded with angry calls and letters and many readers cancel their subscription. There are even protesters outside of the paper. So Garrett is summoned to his bosses to explain himself. Because to make matters worse, the owner of his paper is actually in talks with Emily to take over her magazine. He is asked to apologise publicly to not mess up negotiations and to save face for the paper. He is, however, outraged that he is forced to apologise and he doesn’t understand what he did wrong. On top of that, he personally blames Emily for his problems because he thinks it’s all her fault.
And that is exactly what I take issue with in this story. He completely ridicules Emily and all her hard work, making fun of housewives and Emily’s entire demographic. First, there is nothing wrong with housewives. These people (because there are also many men who stay home to take care of the home/children) work just as hard as anyone with a ‘real job’ taking care of everything. And second, not all people who read her magazine and books are housewives. They are people who just want to make their home cosier or who want to try out new recipes. And I’m sure that her books and magazines are read by many men as well. So Garrett is dismissing a very big part of the population here, boiling them down to women who are just trying to get married and stay at home, which offends his masculine bachelor ways so much and he refuses to see different.
He tries to send a messenger with flowers and a note apologising, but Emily (or rather her assistant as it turns out later) sends them back in pieces. Then he tries to go over to her workplace, but he is thrown out. So he decides to crash a party at his bosses’ place (which is being thrown in her honour) and drags her over to his boss to then apologise to her where he can hear it. But never does he actually show any remorse, he is just doing it to appease his boss. He clearly does not realise what he did is wrong and he continues on in his ways.
Over the next few days, he spends his time trying to get close to Emily because she is so attractive. He doesn’t really understand or appreciate the hard work she has put into building her career and is only focussed on her as a person. He also doesn’t really appreciate her interests. For example, on one of their first “dates”, he takes her to a local market that he knows pretty well because he thinks it’s something that she might appreciate. But then he spends their entire time together upset and annoyed at her, because she is ‘too focussed’ on the market. He wanted to walk around and talk and get to know her. But she is passionate about what she does and really loves the market. She spends a few hours browsing around, talking to vendors, buying things and she enjoys herself immensely. But it’s not what Garrett expected and he feels ignored and later makes her feel bad because of it. It shows that he really doesn’t respect her work, her passion and ultimately, her. He just wanted her to pay attention to him.
But it gets worse. So we already know the only reason why he sought her out (after the book-signing) was because his boss was making him, threatening to fire him even. The boss is a jackass because he goes even further a few days later. You see, Emily is not involved in the negotiations directly, she leaves it up to her business partners. Both her business partners want to do it, but she isn’t convinced yet. And because she is not at the negotiations, the other party finds it hard to estimate how she will vote. So the boss asks Garrett to get close to Emily to figure out if she wants to do sell, and if she doesn’t, to influence her to do it anyway. At no point does Garrett tell Emily this. He tries to woo her and get close to her, and convince her to show him the contract that way. Of course, this blows up in the end.
I don’t remember exactly what happened, but Emily and Garrett fall in love. Emily manages to become more sure of herself and get over her bad previous relationship, thanks to Garrett. At the same time, she decides the deal doesn’t feel right so she decides to blow it up. At that time, Garrett storms in, trying to prevent her from making a mistake because he thinks she will sign the deal. He reveals what the boss asked him to do, hurting her of course. And at the same time, he resigns. It’s nice that he wants to save her, even if he is going about it the wrong way (but if there were no misunderstandings ever, 75% of romance novels wouldn’t have been written). But again, this shows, to me, that he doesn’t trust her or believe in her. He thinks she needs saving, that she isn’t capable of making that decision herself. It’s shown throughout the book that she doesn’t feel comfortable about the deal. She is only considering it because her business partners feel like it’s a good idea. And she does decide not to go through with it in the end. In fact, Garrett seems quite unnecessary in the whole story. This story is about a shy woman who has become insecure, getting an opportunity in the big city and challenging herself. She learns to trust herself again and she grows a lot as a person, realising her own worth once again. What is Garrett doing there? He first puts her down, then doesn’t apologise, then forces his way to be around her, and is constantly underestimating and under-appreciating her. The only thing he helps her with, it seems, is helping her feel more comfortable in her skin and giving her more sexual experience. And sure, feeling more confident in her body helps with her personal growth, but that seems like such a small part of the story to me, overall.
My verdict? Misogynistic macho man gets in trouble because of his prejudices, never apologises or acknowledges his wrong, but gets the girl in the end anyway. It almost feels like this book was written 30 years ago, but it dates from 2008… I love the growth that Emily goes through though, girl power!