HUSBAND’S MATERIAL (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 422 pp., paper, $15.99) is above all terribly funny. Not just tonally upbeat like many so-called rom-coms, but text your friends, giggle till you cry funny. One exchange made me laugh so hard and for so long that it hurt for days – my laughter muscles haven’t had much exercise in the past few years. The jokes shine all the more against some deeply painful moments in this story: It’s Humor as a Response to Trauma, Romantic Edition.
In many ways, I was the ideal reader for HOOK, LINE AND LEAD (Avon, 385 pp., paper, $15.99), Tessa Bailey’s friends-to-lovers story about a crab fisherman and a music-loving film production assistant. I told of Hannah Bellinger’s fear of being a supporting cast member in her own life story; I love a capable hero and was intrigued by Fox Thornton’s anxieties about taking on the role of captain.
But this book continues to insist that there are two types of people, men and women. Men: tall, strong, dumb and excited. Women: small, sweet, mysterious and pure. And maybe I should have realized this ominously and bailed out in Chapter 3, where our hero is described as “the maestro of female wetness” and a “maelstrom of masculinity.” (A malstrom?) Bailey’s reputation rests on being “the Michelangelo of foul language,” but I didn’t expect her work to sound so baroque. Hearing a 21st-century woman refer to her anatomy as her middle push of “femininity” is shocking, a throwback to the tortured circumlocutions of bodice tears past.
If not for this trend, Bailey would have made my automatic shopping list, alongside Kate Clayborn and Lucy Parker. His voice is also lively and evocative. But that repeated sour note kicked me out of the story so often that it began to feel actively hostile toward me as a queer reader. Especially since Fox’s arc boils down to being “stuck in a category before you even knew what was going on” — framing we see in many queer and trans stories. Bailey uses the language of sexual marginalization and shame to talk about the difficulty of being a handsome, straight, white, cisgender man with a string of consenting partners and access to reliable contraception. A plot about his mother providing him with money for condoms in high school is treated as one of the origins of his trauma – as having had lots of safe, consensual sex is something this book thinks it has. tainted Fox. It’s an incredibly sexually negative attitude for a supposedly steamy romance.
My objection is not that the main characters themselves are straight and cis, it’s that the imagination of this book does not take into account not only LGBTQ characters but also LGBTQ readers.
I am not the word police, telling you what is permitted. I’m just here to shed some light on the effect of an author’s language choice. And Bailey’s choices made this reviewer feel, in a word, alone.