Pretty Much Screwed, by Jenna McCarthy

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I just got done reading “Pretty Much Screwed” a novel by Jenna McCarthy, a novel set in Florida during the period 2010 to 2015. It is interesting to read this novel right after I read Eliza Kennedy’s novel “I Take You” (read my review of I Take You). The central characters could hardly be more different. Lily Wilder, from I Take You, is sexually adventurous and full of controversial opinions. By contrast, Charlotte Crawford, the main character of Pretty Much Screwed, is the most bland and conventional white woman that you can imagine. Her character mostly consists of cliches:

* she loves shopping

* she is worried about her weight

* she drinks a lot of chardonnay with the other girls

* she cares about her children

* she has had sex with 3 men during her life and it is important to her to keep that number as low as possible (she is modest)

Anyone of these could be fodder for an interesting novel, but none of them get investigated:

Her shopping could be a study of conspicuous consumption and status seeking, but for the most part it is unexamined.

Her concern about her weight could lead to thoughts about the way women internalizes society’s rules, but this doesn’t happen.

Her concern for her children could be examined, regarding her struggle for power within the family, and her children’s own quest for autonomy, but her children are not actual characters in the book, till near the end, when her daughter gets three scenes where she expresses worry about her mom.

Her modesty could power an entire novel about the relationship between the body and personal identity, and how caution with one’s body suggests caution regarding one’s identity, but the issue is left unexamined.

Everything is left at the level of a cliche, when the whole point of a novel is to dive into these things.

Having followed this woman for 300 pages, I can not tell you how she would vote in an election. As she is an affluent white in the suburbs of Florida, there is a 90% chance that she votes Republican, but she never says or does anything in this novel that confirms this, or denies this.

One of the annoying cliches of this kind of romantic comedy is that somewhere in the story there is often a man who falls madly in love with the woman, and this happens in Pretty Much Screwed. About half way through, Charlotte meets Jesse, who finds Charlotte to be the most fascinating and charming woman in the whole world. And yet, we are never given one clue about why he might feel this way, because her character remains the most bland and conventional set of cliches possible. At no point during this novel does she do any of the following:

* offer a controversial opinion about something

* offer a deep psychological insight about someone

* demonstrate an interesting skill

* demonstrate unusual courage

* demonstrate unusual compassion

* teach us something interesting about her line of work

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Jenna McCarthy was hoping that by leaving Charlotte as an undefined void it would make her more relatable. That is, as she is so much a cliche of an archetype, perhaps white women in affluent suburbs could project themselves into her situation. I think this strategy can sometimes work in the movies where a great actor can sometimes bring their personal charisma to a role and rescue a bland character from being boring. Someone like Meryl Streep or Reese Witherspoon can redeem an otherwise weakly written character. But such empty writing doesn’t work in a novel.

Is this novel racially diverse? These are the names of the people in this novel:

Charlotte Crawford (the main character)

Jack Crawford (Charlotte’s husband)

Britney (woman that Jack starts dating after he leaves Charlotte)

Lizzy (married, Charlotte’s best friend)

Adam (Lizzy’s husband)

Amber (babysitter for Lizzy and Adam)

Richard (who Lizzy starts dating after Adam runs off with the babysitter)

Tessa (married, one of Charlotte’s close friends)

Simon (Tessa’s husband)

Kate (married, one of Charlotte’s close friends)

Kelly (woman who gives Botox injections)

Jesse Durand (a guy Charlotte starts dating)

Maxine (Jesse’s dead wife)

Joe Schmoe (a guy Charlotte dates)

Sam Bishop (a guy Charlotte dates)

Matthew (a guy Charlotte dates)

Dane (a guy Charlotte dates)

Derek (a guy that Lizzy once dated)

In other words, this story plays out in a bizarre world that has been scrubbed of all non-whites. No race is mentioned, and none of the names are obviously non-white. There is no one named Lopez or Svati or Shah or Patel. Even the whites are generic, there are no obvious Jews, no Italians, no Hungarians, no Russians, no Spaniards. Just generic whites, with names that could mostly sound like they trace back to Britain.

This novel is set in an affluent suburb somewhere in Florida. How is it that none of these people interact with any Hispanics? I do get that there are white suburbs in Florida, where affluent whites only have white friends, but are there any such suburbs that don’t rely on Hispanic help?

The novel could have made jokes about the blindness of these white people, who live in Florida but can only see other white people, but it does not. I’m left with the impression that the author herself is as race blind as her characters. I’m reminded of the criticism aimed at Lena Dunham, who wrote an all white comedy set in the most diverse city in the world, but even Girls had plenty of non-whites on the show, the problem was that they were minor characters. In this book, non-whites don’t even show up as minor characters, they simply don’t exist. It is worth comparing the way Hemmingway wrote about multi-racial Florida in the 1950s, and yet now, in 2015, when Florida is even more diverse, the non-whites have somehow disappeared. While Hemmingway can be criticized for indulging in some racial stereotypes about the Hispanics, at least his version of Florida was racially diverse.

What social class does Charlotte Crawford belong to? These are the automobiles that these people drive:

“Charlotte and Kate drove the exact same Lexus LX, and Tessa’s husband Simon and Jack owned identical black BMW Gran Turismos.”

We are given the impression that these 4 women (Charlotte, Lizzy, Tessa and Kate) belong to the upper middle class. And yet, none of them have any maids, nor gardeners, nor any other kind of help. They seem to belong to a social class that was common in the USA during the mid to late 20th Century: affluent but not able to hire help. Much anguish is expressed about how Charlotte does all the cooking and cleaning and she does not get any help from her husband — a riff that was common in women’s writing in the late 20th Century but seems a bit out of step now, when most families in Charlotte’s income bracket hire help. The concept of hiring help is never mentioned, as if the very idea has never occurred to any of these people, despite their wealth. And yet the book seems to be set in the era between 2010 to 2015, an era when that particular social class (affluent but unable to hire help) had largely ceased to exist. The concentration of wealth of the last 50 years has largely divided the middle class into two groups: the lower middle class where parents still obviously struggle to raise their children, and the upper-upper middle class, where parents rely on hired help. The book seems mildly anachronistic in having a whole cluster of affluent whites who all belong to this same social class, which has mostly disappeared. While I can believe that any one family might still belong to the 1990s version of the upper middle class, the idea that 4 such families are in that rare condition, and living near each other, and friends with each other? This would seem reasonable in 1995 but seems somewhat difficult to believe in 2015.

As this is a romantic comedy, the first 90% of the novel is written in a lightly comedic manner. So for instance, after Jack breaks up with Charlotte, there is a long section of the book where Charlotte tries to get back into the dating scene. There are five different men in this section, who are all terrible in different ways. So for instance, she goes on a bad date with Matthew, but her best friend Lizzy convinces her that everyone deserves a second chance, so why not go on one more date? So we get a scene where Charlotte and Matthew go on a second date. Here is the writing, which gives a good view of the comedy throughout the book:

They made easy small talk as he drove her to the funky part of downtown and valet-parked in front of an adorable French bistro she’d never even noticed before. The maitre d’ greeted him warmly by name and whisked them immediately to a tiny table by the fire — the best seats in the house, it appeared.

Charlotte began to relax. Maybe Lizzy was right. Maybe everybody deserved a second chance.

~~~~~~~

“No more second chances,” she shouted into the phone as soon as Lizzy picked up.

“Oh dear,” Lizzy said. “What happened?”

“Do you mean before or after he told me he’s been reincarnated dozens of times — apparently he spent one life as an earl of some sort and another as a frog; yes, you heard that right, a frog — or are you referring to when he mentioned that time he was arrested for robbery? I was like, ‘Oh, like you accidentally walked out of a store with something in your hand or maybe you borrowed your buddy’s camera and lost it and he freaked out and called the cops?’ But no. He was talking about full-on armed robbery, Lizzy, as in he walked into a convenience store with a fucking Smith & Wesson and pointed it at the cashier. I was pretty sure that was about as bad as it could get, but then he went into this whole bit about how he was molested as a kid — are you ready for this — by his mother! What are you supposed to say when someone tells you that, huh? Is there a dating manual I should have ordered on Amazon? Because I had no idea how to respond. I just sat there like an asshole with my mouth hanging open.”

I have a few questions about this:

1.) Why does this encounter happen off stage? I can see a lot of humor in going on a date and the guy starts talking about being reincarnated. I can imagine a lot of awkwardness when a guy says he used to be a frog. I can imagine that material could be turned into something really funny, if we, as readers, get to see the scene unfold in real time, and get to see Charlotte’s panic and awkward responses. But it isn’t really funny when it’s told in the past tense, is it? I feel like Jenna McCarthy threw away a chance to do something really funny with the material about reincarnation.

2.) Armed robbery raises the stakes — that could be really funny, though a writer has to work to make that material come across as funny, rather than weird and terrifying.

3.) The guy was molested by his mother? Is that funny? Assuming this whole date is being played for laughs, why would Jenna McCarthy introduce that subject here? There is no possible way to turn that into comedy, it’s simply too grim and too dark. It’s a horrible subject that needs to be dealt with carefully.

In short, Jenna McCarthy could have made some of this material funny, but she sabotaged her chances, and then she throws in some very dark material for reasons that I can not fathom. If her point is “Dating can lead to terrible encounters with damaged people” then her point is correct, but she’s not handling it as comedy, so what is she doing?

The first 90% of the novel is written with the same lightly comedic tone. I think of this tone as being a setup for jokes. The comedic tone gets the reader ready to laugh when the writer finally says something really funny. But that never happens in this book. I did not laugh once. The lightly comedic tone continues, page after page, but never builds up to some actual funny lines. And yet, some of the situations described had the potential to be funny, if only Jenna McCarthy had committed to them.

As is true of almost all romantic comedies, the last 10% of the book gets serious, as Charlotte and Jesse struggle with the consequences of some of the terrible decisions that they have made. They conclude with the idea that maybe all of this bad stuff had to happen so that they could end up right where they finally end up. The story did not especially build up to that idea. There had been no previous conversations about fate, or the accidents of circumstance. The story just sort of ends. The final confrontation between Charlotte and Jesse could have been a good one, if Jenna McCarthy had been willing to actually dive into it and explore the real complications of life, the messiness of relationships and emotions and bad decisions. The author could have spent 50 pages on that one scene, with both of the characters screaming at each other, or breaking down in self loathing and despair and screaming at themselves. There was a lot of material waiting to be explored, but it’s all sort of skipped over. For a point of comparison, read Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which is a novel where bad decisions and complicated lives are certainly explored in some detail.

I can not guess what Jenna McCarthy was trying to do with the end of this novel. The end is serious and there is no attempt at humor, and yet, for a serious subject that is handled without comedy, there wasn’t any depth to it. An extremely painful, complicated situation gets resolved simply and neatly, in two pages. And once again, when Jesse finds out he’s been betrayed, it happens off-stage, we readers don’t get to see it, we are simply told about it afterwards. Once again, a scene that should have been explosive and interesting is hidden from us. I’m left with the impression that Jenna McCarthy does not know how to handle the serious scenes. As such, she would be wise to just stick to comedy, but that means she needs to work much harder and write lines that are really funny.

Except for the end, there isn’t anything in this novel that fails painfully, and yet I can not recommend it at all, for anyone. It simply isn’t funny enough to be read as a comedy, nor does it approach any of the serious scenes with the necessary gravitas.

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