The Story Guy (Novella)

The Story Guy - Mary Ann Rivers

Originally posted on Love in the Margins.


Carrie West, city librarian, has hit a bit of a rut in her life. She’s just canceled an Alaskan cruise after breaking down in tears (at work!) at the idea of playing the thirty-something year old third wheel to her very happily married parents. She swears to herself and her friends that she’s content in her singlehood, but she can’t resist reading the personals section of a local want ad website. As she’s reading through the listings early one morning, an ad simply titled “Wednesdays” catches her eye:


'I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only. I won’t touch you below the shoulders. You can touch me anywhere. No dating, no hookups. I will meet with you for as long as you meet me, so if you miss a Wednesday we part as strangers. No picture necessary, we can settle details via IM. Reply back with “Wednesdays Only” in the subject line.'


The novelty and intrigue of this unusual listing, as well as the picture of a thoroughly handsome man about her age, has her responding to his ad before she can talk herself out out of it. An email and some chat messages later, she’s on her way to finding out what sort of man likes kissing so much that he’d put out an ad for it.


This is a difficult review for me to write.  I follow the author on Twitter and had high hopes for this book. It got great press with not one, but two glowing reviews at Dear Author. Everyone in my circle of reader friends was reading it, and after each of these friends read it, they turned to me and said “I wonder what you’ll think about this one,” which was code for “this book contains disability.” I wanted very much to love The Story Guy, but unfortunately for everyone involved, I didn’t enjoy the book very much.


To begin with, the author’s voice and style failed to draw me in. It’s written in first-person present, but doing a find-and-replace on the pronouns to replace all the I’s with “she” wouldn’t have changed much at all. Instead of using this voice to get deep inside Carrie’s psyche and personality, the author pretty much only uses it to shroud Brian in mystery and create some suspense by withholding his story and motivation from the reader. I never felt immersed in Carrie’s thoughts and feelings. I felt as though I was meant to picture myself in her place, which makes some later parts of the book fairly problematic. Also, I found the author’s language a bit too flowery and melodramatic, especially where dialog is concerned. Here’s a bit from a phone conversation between Carrie and Brian:


'“I would slide my hands around to your front, once it came apart, and at first, I would just hold your breasts in my hands, barely touching with my fingertips where the fullness of them spills over your bra.”'


This is not how phone sex sounds in real life. Phone sex is awkward and impulsive and silly and intense. If they’re speaking in polished romance novel language, where’s the charming vulnerability that creates intimacy?


Perhaps because I wasn’t transported by the author’s voice I found a number of plot elements off-putting. The “insta-lust” when their lips first meet and their claims that it was the best kiss either’s ever had felt like a romance cliche. Carrie’s lack of respect for his boundaries - getting him to break his “no touching” rule, taking his phone and adding herself without his permission, pressing for a date - made little sense with how barely acquainted they were and her self-assurances that she was complete as a single woman. Additionally, the co-worker who dispenses sage relationship advice felt like a token gay guy, and Brian’s recounting of the time a man responded to his ad then showed up at the park seemed to be played for laughs.


But, of course, the thing that troubled me the most was the role Brian’s sister Stacy played. You find out about halfway to two-thirds into the story that the reason Brian is unavailable is because he’s the guardian and sole familial caretaker of his severely brain-injured younger sister, and this gave me all sorts of complicated feelings. I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes at how conveniently (for the plot) Brian was alone in this role. His father had died young and his mother ran off to Florida after cocking up Stacy’s care and losing guardianship. As someone who’s read a lot of disability-themed romance novels, I found this familiar set-up frustrating. Pick a book with disability in it and nine times out of ten the disabled character was abandoned by loved ones in their past.


The reason this set-up frustrates me is because it’s generally used to make a non-disabled protagonist look good, and The Story Guy is no exception. Although he tells Carrie at length about how hard it is to be a caregiver - and it really is - she, and the reader by extension, sees it as evidence of what a great guy he is. Consider the following quotes:


'The care he gives her one day could be the thing that hurts her the next. To live with that fear, and never have any confirmation that anything you did was the right thing? It’s astonishing, every kiss he’s ever given me.'


'To have the love of this man, who knows what it is to sacrifice his life for love, I would have waited longer.'


Not only does caring for Stacy makes Brian a dreamboat in Carrie’s eyes, she further objectifies Stacy by making Brian’s caretaking into a compliment for Carrie. Her boyfriend has no time for anything because he’s busy being a saint, but he makes time for her, and isn’t she the luckiest? Bleh.


The ending then goes and makes this more obvious. We know already that Brian’s a superman, Carrie’s shown us how accepting she is of Stacy by fixing her breathing tube without flinching, we’ve seen Stacy accept Carrie by smiling at her, so now it’s time for the HEA - where Brian puts her in a home and Carrie promises they’ll visit every week. Whether or not the reader thinks Stacy should be institutionalized isn’t the point. Because the narrative never discusses what best meets Stacy’s needs, or Brian’s reasons for trying to do it all himself, Stacy and her care is reduced to a plot shortcut. She existed to bring out heroic qualities in the protagonists, and now it’s time for her to conveniently leave the picture. Even if this isn’t strictly ableist, it’s still lazy, and maybe a little contradictory (is Brian less heroic now?).


Final assessment: If you can read this with your heart and turn off your shame detectors, this is probably a great melodramatic sort of read. Unfortunately, the magic dust didn’t work on me and the component parts were deeply troubling. D.