Dueling Review, Recommended Read

Dueling Review: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (2004)

Holly’s Take

Heat Factor: He eats donuts off her boobs

Character Chemistry: It’s fate

Plot: A comedy of errors ensues when Min and Cal (attempt to) resist the universe’s plan for them to be together

Overall: Couldn’t put it down

Ingrid’s Take

Heat Factor: Kissing while eating donuts has never been so steamy

Character Chemistry: It’s instantaneous and angry, then alllll the sexy tension

Plot: Min’s ex tries to get Cal to bet over her—but the more they try to avoid each other, the more they end up attached at the hip

Overall: I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this book

Erin’s Take

Heat Factor: It’s a very slow burn, but she does get tied to a couch

Character Chemistry: This is a push-you-pull-me that works marvelously

Plot: Min is about to approach Cal when she overhears that she’s the subject of one of his bets, so she accepts his invitation out of spite, and fate takes the wheel

Overall: I didn’t like all the stuff that happened in this book (and I wasn’t supposed to, either), but I really liked the book

What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Bet Me?

Erin: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody not gush-recommending this book, but I also know for a fact that no one mentioned how much Minerva’s identity is tied to her weight. It’s not so much that Min doesn’t value herself as it is that she’s internalized years of her mother harassing her and shaming her for not being sexy enough to catch and keep a man. (But, like, she’s probably Christina Hendricks-shaped rather than Kiera Knightly-shaped.) I really enjoyed it as a bit of social commentary (especially with the context of its age), and the humor was delightfully sardonic, so I’m glad I read it, but the level of fat-shaming was a huge shock.

Holly: This is 100% a Fated Mates book, which I was not expecting, and which I found utterly delightful.

Ingrid: There is a TON of weight talk, and I think that could really bother people. Also, about ¾ of their relationship ends up being slightly acidic banter, and I think it works in large part because it’s counterbalanced by all the tender weight reassurance Cal wraps Min up with. Which, great–but I could see that dynamic being a bit hard to swallow for some.

How well has this book aged since its publication?

E: I was in college when this book was published, so I’m probably on the young side for relating to it, and yet it hits pretty much every mark for relatability for me, from Min not necessarily lacking confidence but also being completely sure that she’s not and never will be sexy because she’s fat (though even with that, when her sister said “It’s a size 8, it should fit,” I was flabbergasted) to all of the cultural input (starting from Min’s mother) that men only want one thing and women can’t expect much from them. (And there are men in this book that fit that bill, but Cal and his friends really don’t, so it’s more interrogating the norm than making it the joke.) 

If I’d read a book that was published, say, last year that was as focused on fat and carbs and butter and the hero being the one to make the heroine feel sexy, I probably would have DNFed it after five pages. But while Bet Me might be steeped in its temporal culture, it’s not excusing it. And honestly, if you’ve ever been pretty confident but also constantly encouraged to lose weight, and then someone came along and said they think you’re sexy just the way you are, then this book might really make you feel seen.

H: Well. Her shoes all sound hideous. (That early 2000s fashion!) And I don’t know anyone who listens to Elvis—Costello or Presley. And the specifics of Min’s no-fat Atkins diet…Let’s just say that some of the cultural markers really date this book. But the romantic relationship and the banter and the friendships all hold up really well. I thought it was a joy to read.

E: Plastic shoes! I kept thinking of how sweaty my feet always got in the plastic heels.

I: Yes, the plastic shoes—but also, it has a very strong older brand of relationship analysis. Like, “Men are all like Y and we women have to be like X”. And THAT bothered me more than any other aspect to the book, if I’m honest. 

What makes this a comedy? 

H: This book has a bit of everything. There’s situational comedy: Cal and Min keep getting thrown together in increasingly absurd ways. There’s slapstick: Liza keeps whacking Cal with her purse. There’s absurdism: Elvis the cat turns on Min’s stereo to play Elvis the singer. There’s banter: everyone has great conversations. And there are these repeated motifs that get more ridiculous each time they come up: Cal walks Min to her door, and one of them says, “Have a nice life.” (Or Greg the Forgetful Groom.)

E: All of that is 100% true. But my favorite is the dialogue. Here’s an example: 

“I’ve been working on the theory that if we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. Although a lot of people seem to know about it. Greg, for example. He ratted us out, and now my mother wants you to come to dinner.” Cal looked taken aback for a minute, and she said, “I told her you were a complete stranger so dinner was unlikely.” Then out of the blue, she blurted, “So what was that on Saturday?”

“Well.” Cal took a deep breath. “That was chemistry. And it was phenomenal. I’d be more than interested in doing that again, especially naked and horizontal, but—” 

Min’s pulse picked up, but she slapped herself in the forehead to forestall him and her own treacherous imagination.

“What?” he said.

“I’m remembering why you never ask guys to tell you the truth,” she said. “Because sometimes they do.”

And that’s not even the best example, probably, but I was so taken with the text that I didn’t add stickies as often as maybe I should have. The dialogue-centered text in particular was just on like that all the time. Zip, zip, zip. The interplay between the characters was humor gold. 

I: I agree with Holly. It felt at various points that if you dialed up any particular humor delivery system, it could verge on going over the top—but then it gets dialed back again and re-balanced.

How do the internal voices shape the comedy and/or the romance?

E: This occurs in two ways. In the first place, there’s the voice of fate saying, “It’s her.” or “It’s him.” For example, when Min and Cal kiss for the first time:

“More,” she said, and he reached for the pastry, but she said, “No, you,” and grabbed his shirt to pull him closer, and he kissed her hard this time, his hand on the back of her head, and she fell into him, as glitter exploded behind her eyelids. She felt his hand on her waist, sliding hot under her sweater, and her blood surged, and the rush in her head said, THIS one.

And then there are the thoughts they can’t quite control but that are more lucid and belie their realities. For example, after they’ve both sworn they won’t see each other again, Cal’s friend Tony tells his ex they’re going out to lunch, and Cal feels stuck, but he likes it:

“I don’t want to see Min again,” Cal said, and thought about seeing Min again.

“So? Cynthie doesn’t need to know that,” Tony said.

“So now I have to take Min to Emilio’s because Cynthie will check,” Cal said.

“I don’t see why,” Roger said. “If Cynthie asks, you can say you went someplace else.” 

“I try to tell as few lies as possible.” Cal sat down again, trying to feel exasperated about the whole mess. 

The first example probably supports the romance element a bit more because it happens in moments when Cal and Min are totally caught up in each other, but it also plays into the comedy, because even though they keep getting these flashes of “Yes! The one!” they also keep having these dialogues with their friends in which their words are saying one thing, while their brains are calling them a liar, as in the second example. It’s as if their inner voices know the truth, while the rest of the world just adds chaos.

I: I think the internal voices add the vulnerability and connection that you’d otherwise lose with their acidic banter and the absurdity of the book. It’s like an immediate gut-check that these two are actually falling in love, and that they can’t help themselves.

What do you think of Cynthie as a character and as a theorist?

H: Look, Cynthie is lying to herself, and those lies have backed her into a corner personally and professionally, and she therefore does some pretty loathsome things. But I also felt a lot of empathy for her, especially as the story progressed. (I did not feel the same way about David, the story’s other antagonist, because he was just loathsome, full stop.)

As a theorist, I guess she’s a little rigid in her worldview, but part of the point of the book is that everyone has their worldview about love and they’ll all stuck in them, so as a thematic piece of that whole, I wasn’t too bothered. 

I am curious to hear what Ingrid thinks about Cynthie though.

E: Cynthie is a classic example of an ex that clearly demonstrates she never really knew the MC at all. There were several moments when she was discussing the psychological motivations of various characters that didn’t seem far wrong, which lent credence to her theory of love. Except then she’d so deluded herself about her relationship with Cal that her whole theory of love seemed ludicrous. She’s selfish, and her self-serving actions keep pushing Cal and Min together. 

But I also want to know what Ingrid thinks of Cynthie.

I: I think that Cynthie was a totally interesting character. She really dips her toe in the water of being someone we can’t sympathize with, because what she’s doing isn’t right, but her reasoning is SO layered. (She’s trying to come between them because he loves her! She knows it! But also it’s because she has to marry him, or she’ll lose all professional credibility! And what does that MEAN if she’s lost someone who really saw her and couldn’t love her back, and the whole experience blows holes in her entire theory of what love is?) I think the author gives her an incredibly juicy and complex role for not being a main character. And I love that she provides a kind of happy ending for her in the epilogue, because I think a common thing in these stories is to have an evil, sexy woman as the foil and “bad guy”, and in this case, Cruise kind of refuses to make Cynthie a flat, bad, whorish woman and makes her more…real. She’s a smart, beautiful woman, who has been badly hurt, and who deserves to find her way to happiness, too.

Characters in this book posit different theories of love. How does the story play around with the idea of love, either supporting or undermining the different theories?

H: Besides Cynthie’s theory of the four steps of love, we also have the fairy tale theory, the chaos theory theory, the perfect wedding theory, and Min’s initial strategy of approaching long-term relationships through logical statistical analysis. She is an actuary, after all. Am I missing any?

E: Her mother’s theory! Or rather fear. 

H: Anyway, Min’s strategy is quickly shown to be flawed—scene one is her getting dumped by David, whom she dated because of logic, even though she was bored out of her mind—and doesn’t get a lot of play, but the others are all both utterly ludicrous and played for laughs while simultaneously being absolutely spot-on about what’s going on. Except the perfect wedding, that’s just ludicrous and played for laughs.

But anyways, Cynthie is *right* about the stages of love, when it comes to Cal and Min. Bonnie is *right* that Cal is the prince that Min has been waiting for, and that he’s undergoing trials to win her affection. Tony is *right* that Cal is a complex dynamical system who becomes unstable because of the disturbance of Min entering his environment. But like, it’s so ridiculous that you can’t quite take them seriously. So there’s an interesting push and pull there, and the end result is, I think, really profound.

E: Okay, but also, these characters all have their own romantic situations going on (or not), which tends to show something oppositional to how things are working for Min and Cal. So top to bottom from Holly’s listing: Cynthie’s theory puts her in league with David, and instead of reminding Cal and Min what they’re missing, they end up pushing Cal and Min closer together. Bonnie and Roger both fall immediately in love with each other, and their romance is so easy (it’s adorable!) while Cal and Min are fighting, well, everything, so nothing is easy. Tony posits the chaos theory theory as a pick-up line, and while he and Liza have an interlude, neither of them particularly destabilizes the other (in fact, Tony’s unexpected depths seem to stabilize Liza more than anything else). The perfect wedding and Min’s theory both have a clear level of dysfunction that is emphasized by the lack of care of the men in those relationships, with Min’s prospective brother-in-law forgetting all his responsibilities while David is constantly worried about his own bottom line. Meanwhile Cal, who historically runs from long-term commitment, is consistently pulling through not only for Min but for her sister. 

And Holly didn’t discuss Min’s mother’s theory of relationships, perhaps because she’s already married, so she’s not really making romantic decisions based on a theory, but Min’s mother is consistently in her ear telling her that men will wander if women don’t bend over backward to make themselves attractive. And of course Cal, for all he doesn’t like the suit at the beginning, is attracted to Min no matter what. 

I: And may I point out that these theories were VERY popular back before these books came out—think When Harry Met Sally and Someone Like You. And what this book ultimately points out is that people aren’t static, and we’re all very different. So you really can’t distill the experience of romance down into one flat theory—we’re all out there having our own beautiful and painful experiences with people who are just as complex and messy as we are. Which really, is why the romance genre is SO vast and has the ability to evolve in such interesting ways over time.

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5 thoughts on “Dueling Review: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (2004)”

  1. A fascinating post, I really enjoyed reading it.

    I’ve toyed with this idea for ages and think maybe it’d be fun to debate b/c I think Bet Me isn’t a romance, not in the HEA sense, but is FRAMED by a romance: Cal and Min’s. I think Crusie was exploring the many variations (a cool idea you guys reached too, so vindication for moi) of relationships, some for different kinds of togethernesses and others not, with children, without…etc. I don’t think, in the end, Crusie wanted to write a romance; I do think she wanted to write a comedy. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I read it and maybe I was influenced by the fact that I listened to the audiobook. I still think Welcome to Temptation is Crusie finest: would love to see you guys duel-review that one??!! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a FASCINATING take and I can definitely see it. A comedy about romance, rather than a romantic comedy. The fact that every single person got an HEA (including terrible David!) seems like a point in your favor.

      The pushback I have is that Cal and Min take up, proportionally, so much of the space and energy of the book that they really anchor the story. If, say, Liza and Tony had had a touch more page time devoted to the way their relationship developed, I might be more easily convinced.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s funny, because I would have said the same after I read it, but changed my mind when I listened to it. I’ll have to listen to it…again…make the sacrifice for lit-analysis’s sake. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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