It’s time for a new installment of Hate Book Club! If you need a refresher, Patricia Ladd and I are reading books we think we will hate, and then reviewing them. Each post has to include a graph, a summarizing GIF, and at least some positive comments (sarcasm is allowed). I’m also doing little report cards at the end.
Fancy Pants, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, is a harrowing, even traumatic indictment of sexism in modern America. The men in the book are almost all abusive, shrill, selfish, and violent, while the independent women are warned about the dangers of being too feminist.
Dallas Beaudine, the main man, is a professional golf player who forces women to have sex and even dance against their will. He hits women, regularly fights other men, kidnaps a child, grabs a woman and drags her to a secret lair (where, helpless and isolated, she gives in to his lust), and throws people into swimming pools when they don’t submit to his will. As a teenager, he harasses passing females, even shoving one against a wall and groping her. Another male character in the book repeatedly rapes his niece. In fact, I count at least three rape victims in the book, plus a cast of teenage prostitutes and sex slaves so large that only one is ever given a name.
Another man dumps a woman out of a car in the middle of the desert, stealing her cash and her passport. The women in the novel are valued for only two things: their beauty and their ability to bear children. One of those women, confronted by a delusional man who has just committed a multitude of federal crimes, endangered his own life, and made a mockery of her on national television, is informed that he is her only chance at bearing children: so she marries him.
In other words, Fancy Pants is profoundly depressing, a veritable catalog of the harassment, assault, trivialization, objectification, belittlement, and hatred women are subjected to every day in this country. It’s also a demonstration of the primitive, even hateful mentality of anti-feminists. The characters are loathsome, self-centered cretins who spend almost every page shouting at each other.
Trouble is, Fancy Pants is actually a syrupy romance novel.
For this month’s installment of Hate Book Club, my friend Patricia issued a challenge: find and read a trashy romance novel set in your home state. She went and found one for North Carolina called Grinding in Greenville (click for her review!), and I had to read one from Texas. (To give you an idea of Patricia’s definition of “trashy,” she rejected the NC-based Nicholas Sparks as too literary.)
I asked my librarian friend Elisa if she had any recommendations, and boy did she ever. Fancy Pants, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. “Fancy Pants is, as I recall, fairly absurd/formulaic,” Elisa wrote, and then later told me, “I know you’ll hate it.”
I do, but not for the reasons she thought. The book is actually well-written. Phillips ladles in absurd amounts of detail for the weirdest things: she’ll tell you exactly what every character eats for dinner, what designer label all the women are wearing, which golfer is in the lead after every day of a tournament, and what childhood incident explains every character’s psychoses. You’ll even find out how and when a main character’s mother lost her virginity.
But the detail mostly fleshes out the story and characters, making them plausible (though still disgusting). And Phillips writes with wit, casual silliness (“crying like a dumb old bunch of babies”), and a lot of references to authors like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Salinger. Too bad the steamier scenes, in theory pretty terrific, are let down by a reliance on cliche (every time a woman takes off her clothes, she “reveals herself”). Well, and also rape.
In fact, the book is scarily stupid about sex. One character says, “I don’t want you to get pregnant. I’ll just put it in a little bit.” (She gets pregnant.) Another character is so afraid of AIDS that she decides to go celibate. And most of the sex in the book is non-consensual. Phillips knows some of the rape is rape, but she thinks some of it is hot and desirable. It’s like a vanilla, Texas-based version of 50 Shades written by a funny person.
And I haven’t even mentioned Francesca Day, the heroine, who’s carefully designed so that the audience will cheer on male characters who call her a bitch and throw her in swimming pools. She’s stupid, mean, spoiled, ignorant, loud, irritating, and entitled, until page 279, which is the exact moment when she stunningly reverses into a strong, independent, smart, capable woman. (Albeit a woman who still gets turned on by being assaulted.) Magical character transformations occur throughout, because Phillips is convinced that people are easily changeable.
Fancy pants is a good phrase to describe French deconstructionist literary critics who thought that we can’t judge a book by its author’s intent. But we should, and this book is a great proof.
If Susan Elizabeth Phillips intended to create a heartwarming, sappy tale of love conquering obstacles, she failed. If she intended to create a depressing catalog of women’s struggles to be given the respect they deserve, she succeeded. If she intended to make us hate the loathsome main characters, and think that they belong together because they are abusive assholes, she succeeded.
Unfortunately, her website has the slogan “Because Life’s Too Short to Read Depressing Books.”
So yeah, she failed. Life’s too short to read Fancy Pants.
The Worst Thing
Either the scene where a woman confronts the man who kidnapped her small child, but is so distracted by his good looks that she lets him have sex with her instead, or the scene where the novel’s alleged protagonist shoves a teenage girl he barely knows up against a wall and feels her up. Or the fact that that girl decides to marry him. Or the whole uncle-rape sequence.
Or this puke-worthy bit of dialogue:
“Great game, Dallie,” [Jack] Nicklaus said, putting his arm over Dallie’s shoulders. “You’re a real champion.”
The Best Thing
I actually smiled and/or chuckled fairly frequently while reading this. Mostly in the first 100 pages, however. My favorite part is probably the trashy vampire movie director who takes himself too seriously, and the smart, fair, reasonable, down-to-earth director’s assistant, Sally. After a couple pages, I thought, “Oh, this novel ends with Sally getting the man she deserves because she’s so wonderful!” Ha, nope.
The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction
Well, I read this book on public transportation, so…
Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)
Hateability of message: 6
Hateability of writing style: 1
Pleasure derived from hating book: 6