Mr Perfect, by Linda Howard

16 Jan

mrperfectlindahowardAs I have been struggling to read new stuff, even by authors I love (Hold Me, by Courtney Milan, and Eidolon, by Grace Draven, languish still in the digital TBR, to name but two), I’ve indulged in some re-reading of old favorites, in the hope this will kick-start my reading mojo.

I have said often that I am a fan of Ms Howard‘s work,¹ so going back to a novel that I remembered loving to pieces was an easy decision to make. Snappy dialogue, female friendships, off-the-charts sexual tension, funny-as-hell heroine, what’s not to love?

Well…

A lot, actually.

This is one of those times when I realize how truly privileged I am when it comes to what I can shrug off: there is some seriously problematic stuff in this book. It was written close to twenty years ago (published in hardcover in 2000), and it really shows its age in its representation of gender dysphoria. If you identify as transgender/gender fluid/gender questioning, you don’t want to read this novel. I will spoil the hell out of this below, but even that may be triggering, so: take care of yourselves, please.

Other reader warnings: there’s violence on the page, explicit sexual content, and adult language. There are also references to mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of a child.

Mr. Perfect, by Linda Howard

Okay, without further ado, because this is going to be rather long, even for me, here’s the blurb from my hardcover copy:

What would make the perfect man? That’s the delicious topic heating up the proceeding at a certain table of professional women at their favorite restaurant, Ernie’s tonight: Mr. Perfect. What qualities would he have? Would he be tall, dark, and handsome? Caring and warmhearted–or will just muscular do? Jaine Bright and her three girlfriends start off with the basics–he’s be faithful and reliable, the responsible type, with a great sense of humor.

Bus as the conversation picks up momentum, so do the quartet’s requirements for Mr. Perfect–and they write down a tongue-in-cheek checklist that’s both funny and racy. The next thing they know, the List, as it has come to be called, spreads like wildfire throughout their company and sizzles along email lines. And it doesn’t stop there: the List becomes an overnight sensation, grabbing the interest of local newspapers and television coverage. No one expected this avalanche of attention for something that began as a joke among friends. And the joke turns deadly serious when one of the four women is murdered…

The prime suspect in the case is the victim’s boyfriend, who was one of a number of men who found the List sexist and offensive. But an impenetrable alibi gets him off the hook. Now, with the help of Jaine’s neighbor, an unpredictable police detective, the puzzle must be solved–and time is running out as a deadly stalker targets the three remaining friends. Now, knowing whom to trust and whom to love is a matter of survival–as the dream of Mr. Perfect becomes a chilling nightmare.

Let me start with all the good things about this book.

Despite this being a romantic suspense (i.e., the suspense thread is mostly the vehicle for the main couple’s journey to HEA/HFN), the story is premised on female friendships–and the writing actually delivers. We are are not simply told that these four women are friends, we see it. And, just like in real groups of friends, we see the different levels of intimacy and trust each of them have with each of the other three.

Furthermore, each of these women have lives, and hobbies, and opinions, and life baggages, and relationships of their own–and we actually see these play out! On the page! And not because they are sequel bait, but because they are well written characters!

(Yes, it is that exciting to see female friendship written well, for their own sake. More so in a book written almost two decades ago.)

The main characters are awesome on their own right, and the sexual tension between them is truly scorching.

Jaine is both too real, and too funny. She worries about her brand new mortgage, her job, and her habit of cursing constantly, at the smallest provocation.

Her off-the-wall sense of humor helps, because cat-sitting her mother’s furbaby, and car-sitting her father’s pride and joy, have not only put her at odds with her siblings, but are also taking a toll on both her furniture and her sanity.

Which means that she really has little patience for Sam Donovan, the neighbor from hell.

Except, once he’s had some decent sleep himself,  he’s actually a pretty decent person. He’s also a cop, he gets Jaine, and he is incredibly sexy. Mind you, he’s not a beta hero–I don’t believe Ms Howard can write anything but alpha men–but he’s not an asshole.

Did I mention that the sexual tension is scorching?

It is. There are a couple of phone calls in there that… ::fanning self::

I’ve said it before: good sex is not easy to write. For my money, Ms Howard writes consistently good sex.

Oh, and I almost forgot to say that the relationships I mentioned before–between the four friends, and between each of them and the people in their lives–are not static. Things happen, shit gets broken, and patched, and bent, and mended, and fixed.

Because these characters are truly written as three dimensional, complex people.

So, what is good about this novel? It’s really good. What is bad? It’s really quite awful.

~ * ~

(All the WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?s go here.)

The villain of the piece is a person who was abused as a child, forced to present as one gender by their only parent, while they were biologically the other  (which is noted by the other adults in their world–more on this below). Their parent, you see, wanted a ‘perfect child,’ and since this person was born with the opposite set of genitalia, the parent abused them–first through emotional and physical abuse, then escalating into sexual abuse once this person reached puberty.

Eventually, this person grows old enough, and strong enough, to kill their parent. As a result, they are locked in an institution for years. When they are released, they are medicated to (inferred from the text) ‘eliminate’ the other gender identity from their consciousness.

Which is why the “Perfect” part of the “Mr Perfect” list breaks through decades of medication and conditioning, unleashing this person’s murderous rage.

Which in turn brings us to how co-workers and other people around this person treat them. Jaine and their friends are, for the most part, civil towards this person–to their face. However, there are a couple of passages where several characters make fun of this person’s apparent mental and emotional issues.

Look, there is no narrative imperative demanding that we make every person that is not presenting as ‘normal’ (whatever we may mean by ‘normal’ in any given situation/setting), the butt of every joke.

And while I can’t pretend I haven’t done something at least similar myself, and while it’s obvious none of the other characters are aware of this person’s struggles with sexual and gender identity, I still don’t think it was necessary to have the ‘good guys’ make mean spirited jokes about someone else’s difficulties.

More so because, in hindsight, this is exclusively done in order to drop clues as to the identity of the killer. Impartial, non-derisive observations would have worked just as well, if not better, for that purpose.

And this makes the jokes shorthand for “this person is not right, not stable, not normal.”

It is never made clear whether this person actually experiences gender dysphoria, or whether the whole identity/personality split is exclusively a result of more than fifteen years of constant abuse. What is made clear, though, is that this person was a sadistic animal killer from an early age.

It is also made clear that this person was visibly beaten, frequently–which begs the question, what did teachers and other adults see here? They noticed that this child is treated/presented by the parent as the opposite biological sex, and this was apparently highly worrying for them (it’s intimated that they felt that that was abusive behaviour towards the child), but they didn’t see bruises? I mean, there is a bit of hand waving about the parent pulling the child from private schools every time there was a behavioural issue–such as killing the teacher’s hamster, in the classroom, during school, say–but no teacher or administrator did anything about any of this, because..?

Because..????

::crickets::

Beyond using mental health issues as shorthand for villainous, there’s the gender/sexual identity issues to consider.

Making your only non-clearly-and-completely heterosexual character not just the murderer, not just a horrible person, but also an object of ridicule, plays too well to the many horrible stereotypes that kill real people.

And look, I honestly don’t think that Ms Howard did any of this on purpose. It probably never crossed her mind, or the mind of anyone at the publisher. At the turn of this century, when cellphones were still a luxury rather than a necessity, and social media was in its infancy, many of us just never thought about any of this.

Which is its own kind of privilege.

Still, in all likelihood, there was no intention to harm, just plain old ignorance.

And yet, neglect, however benign, can kill–and so does ignorance.

I would like to think that most, if not all, the problems with this setup would be pointed out, and addressed, and eliminated, if this book were to be published today. I would love to think that.

But that’s wishful thinking, not reality.

~ * ~

So, if none of these things affect you directly, if none of them trigger you in any way, and you decide to read Mr Perfect, I would only ask you that you do so while keeping in mind that these inaccurate, ill-informed, negative portrayals of non-conforming gender representation, are very harmful.

To those who are themselves so represented, and in the way they perpetuate fear and bigotry of those who are different from ‘the norm.’

 

¹ I go into some detail about this here

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3 Responses to “Mr Perfect, by Linda Howard”

  1. Valancy 12/05/2017 at 5:31 AM #

    I DNF’d Mr Perfect last year. It troubled me, and I have so very little reading time, I tend to quickly dump any book I have grrr-feelings about. But, until this post I haven’t ever really seen such a precise encapsulation of everything that I found so disquieting about the story!

    And I completely agree with you – I don’t think any of it was intentional – but it really does show how narrow-minded and scarily obtuse we can be…

    It feels positive though, that we can look at something and think – no, that is NOT the way we should be treating and/or writing about people – I mean – that in itself is progress right??

    Either way, I salute you Lady Aztec. 🖖 (Vulcan Salute is the closest I could find 😉 )

    • azteclady 12/05/2017 at 6:32 AM #

      Thank you, my lady Valancy! It means a lot to me. I confess that I struggled, for weeks, writing this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing diversity: sensitivity readers | Her Hands, My Hands - 23/05/2017

    […] Nazi Komandant ‘hero’ = For Such a Time; child abuse victim becoming a serial killer = Mr Perfect; disabled person killing himself to ‘free’ his loved ones = Me Before […]

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