Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review: The Actor and the Housewife, by Shannon Hale

Before I say anything else, I have to say: I loved this book. I loved the characters, I loved the set-up, I loved the dialogue, I loved the descriptions, I loved it all. If my writing could have half so much joie de vivre as Hale’s, I’d die content.

And, before I say more than that, I must say: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. Go read the book yourself first. Though I warn you, you will probably both laugh out loud and cry your eyes out.

This book is about the friendship between Mormon stay-at-home-mom Becky and British heartthrob film star Felix (think Colin Firth or Hugh Grant – though, true to my own prejudices, I kept thinking of him as Hugh Laurie). Despite what that set-up might lead you to believe, this isn’t a “oh-we-can’t-help-ourselves-we-must-be-unfaithful-to-our-spouses” book. It’s actually about a friendship. Though Hale doesn’t avoid the debate about whether or not two people of the opposite sex can be friends without falling in love (actually, a lot of the plot hinges on that very debate), she keeps her main characters from taking the despicable route.


The real surprise of this book is that it ends up being a theodicy. You don’t find out this is what the author is doing until the very end of the book. But it does, indeed, turn out to be a thesis on, “if there is a God who is both all-powerful and all-just, how can you explain human suffering?” Though I end up disagreeing somewhat with how Hale answers this, I am simply in awe at her attempting it in the first place, and also in admiration over the cleverness of her answer.

I think the difference between her Mormon theology and my Christian theology shows in the answer. In the end (SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER), I think that the way Becky views marriage (as an eternal partnership, vs. the Christian idea that the dead neither marry nor are they given in marriage) decides her against marrying Felix after her husband’s death in a way that wouldn’t have been true if she weren’t a Mormon. My guess is that, written by a Christian, she would have married again, and it would have been a more satisfactory ending. I also wish the idea of suffering existing because of sin had been addressed, along with things like the redemptive work of Christ. But I love Hale’s idea that God was present through Becky’s whole marriage and whole friendship, and saw what was coming, and was taking care of her before she even knew she was going to need taking care of. I’ve never seen a book that attempted quite what Hale attempts here, and I’m seriously impressed. I want to read more by this author.

I think there’s more debate that can be had on this story (Emily read it too, and we had a great conversation on whether Becky and Felix’s friendship would actually be possible in the real world), but this is a wonderful book. Hale’s descriptions on Becky’s good marriage and happy household ring so true and so beautiful, and the conversations between Becky and Felix are laugh-out-loud funny and a delight to read. I read this book all the way through, and enjoyed it so much that I suggested to my husband that we read it together, which we did during our evening chore time (taking turns reading it out loud while the other worked) and we both enjoyed it immensely.

Lots to think about, and even more to enjoy. Shannon Hale, if you ever in any Google search run across this review, you have my sincere thanks for many happy hours spent in reading a really good story.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

p.s. I just want to say that I’m aware that any Mormon readers are likely to disagree with my assessment of how Ms. Hale’s theology influenced the conclusion, and also in my opposition of “Mormon theology” to “Christian theology”. I don’t know quite what to say about that, except that I know you wouldn’t put it the way I did, and that I know it’s a real source of disagreement (i.e., I look at it and sincerely think “X” and you look at it and sincerely think “Y”). But if you’re here, I’m glad you’re here, and I hope the disagreement isn’t enough to make you feel you need to leave. If anything, I hope you take it as an invitation to conversation.


Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Yep, "laugh out loud and cry your eyes out" is an entirely accurate statement. I loved reading it - thank you for the recommendation - and enjoyed discussing it with you nearly as much. :)

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

Have you poked around Shannon Hale's website? ( I like the insight she gives into her process as a writer.

Anonymous said...

The Actor and the Housewife, the story line is too confusing to make sense of, and everyone seems to have their own take on it. Here is mine: is a book about hypocrisy is my take on it -- saying one thing and doing another.

If this a book about the Mormon religion, and its values then it is doing a poor job. The Actor and the Housewife has more than a few jokes and sarcastic comments that ridicule Mormons. In one scene Becky is at a restaurant with husband Mike and friend, Felix, and jokes that she is a Mormon woman with 2 husbands. In other scene, Becky talks to a Bishop about her conflict over the friendship, the Bishop takes a very traditional stance but after being strong armed by Mike, changes his mind completely. The Bishop then admits to fantasizing about his own celebrity crush and fumbles at providing guidance for Becky, looking like a complete idiot. Then there is the potluck scene, where Felix confuses the word LDS for LSD - as in drugs.

If Becky is supposed to be a devoted, loyal and loving wife then why is she engaging in a deeply intimate emotional relationship with a married man (Felix)? The comments between Felix and Becky are full of innuendos that are often sexual, and towards the end of the book they begin to hug and touch each other more. Both seems to fall apart when contact is broken. Clearly this is more than just a platonic friendship. Only after he husband is dead and gone, does Becky decide to be loyal to his the same time wondering if she will find another man to replace even Felix.

It is very clear what the real Becky and Felix would do, in real life.. the one conflicted and torn is Hale herself. The ending of The Actor and the Housewife is a reflection of Hale running away from her own creation, and ditching the readers in the process.