Notes from the Keeper Shelf: “You Were Perfectly Fine”

I miss talking about books.

It is hard to talk about books when you write them. If you’re going to review, do you have to be willing to negatively review in order to calibrate or somehow “earn” your positive ones? Will negative reviews, if you write them, hurt someone’s feelings or alienate readers? If you’re reviewing the work of someone you know (and the longer you’re around the community, the more people you will know), how do those friendships shape those reviews? What if you recommend books and people don’t like them? And besides, shouldn’t you be using the writing time you have to, you know, write?

But here’s the thing: my life as a writer began in early 2011 before I’d jotted down a word of fiction. My kids were newborn; I was breastfeeding and changing diapers continually and sleeping about 93 minutes a day. Oh, and I had a new Kindle. “I’m interested in women’s popular fiction,” I thought. (It was one of the subjects of my then in-process dissertation.) “Maybe I should read a romance.”

I literally Googled “best romances” and found lists at AAR, Smart Bitches, and Dear Author. So I started with an inspie a friend recommended (I did not like it. at all.), and then I moved onto Lord of Scoundrels. That was followed by approximately 200 more titles over the course of six months, mostly historical romances, but then contemporaries, romantic mysteries, paranormals, etc. I was hooked.

The reason I kept reading romances was not just because they were fun and sex-positive and female-centered and revisionist and amazing, but because of those (and other) blogs. It was about the discussion community around the books as much as it was about the books themselves. When I started writing, in NaNoWriMo in 2011, it was because I wanted to write a book that could be dissected by the blogs I’d come to love.

For reasons I’m not qualified to parse, the discussion sphere of romance has quieted. There are still book and review blogs of course, but the conversation seems driven by promo as much as by criticism.

With this in mind, I have many and varied writing goals for this summer, but one of them is this: I’m going to talk about books more. I’ll probably stick with things that are at least five years old and I can’t guarantee all of them will be romances in the RWA sense, but they’re books and stories I love and want to discuss. I hope you’ll join me here, and maybe explicate some of your favorites and share the links with me (hint, hint).

The first is a 1929 short story by Dorothy Parker called “You Were Perfectly Fine.” The page numbers are from The Portable Dorothy Parker; be advised I’m going to spoil it shamelessly.

SPOILER ALERT

First published in The New Yorker, “You Were Perfectly Fine” is a morning-after tale about Peter and unnamed woman (who might have a romantic relationship or history) discussing an epic party that occurred the previous night. She clearly recalls the events; Peter does not.

“Do you think maybe a drink would make you feel better?” she said.

“The hair of the mastiff that bit me?” he said. “Oh, no, thank you. …Tell me, was I very terrible last night?”

“Oh, goodness,” she said, “everybody was feeling pretty high. You were all right.” (151)

Those become the central question of the piece: what precisely did the man do? Was he “terrible” or was he “all right”?

The short story–and at four pages, it’s very short–is written almost entirely in dialogue. There is little to no description and the characterization relies solely on the conversation. So the reader has to supply the tone with which the lines are delivered.

With some prodding, the woman tells Peter he almost got involved in fist fight with a friend when he (Peter) hit on and then dumped a drink down the back of the other man’s girlfriend (152), that he was nearly ejected from the restaurant for singing loudly (152), that he harassed the wait staff (152-3), that he fell on ice on the sidewalk while walking home (152), and finally that he proposed to her (153-4). To all of these vignettes, Peter replies with some version of, “Oh, dear, oh, dear” (152).

There are several potential readings of this conversation. The first is that Peter is boorish and the woman is punishing him for his bad behavior, perhaps even inventing or exaggerating what he did in order to make him feel appropriately chagrined. This is a somewhat misogynistic reading as it implies women can/do lie and manipulate men, but in support of it, he keeps prompting her to tell him more, and her stories get longer, more detailed, and increasingly over-the-top. At some level, she’s enjoying this, whether or not she picks up on his discomfort and might be trying to increase it.

One thing that complicates this take is we do have independent verification of one her stories. When she tells him “you did sit down awfully hard” on the ice, he says, “That would explain what’s the matter with my–Yes. I see” (153). So she didn’t invented his fall, though that is but one detail. Maybe he did stumble and bruise himself, but the rest of what she tells him–specifically his proposal–is invented.

Another much more tragic take on her tale is that Peter is an alcoholic, that he habitually over imbibes, behaves badly, makes promises, and perhaps acts violently (he does almost get involved in two fights according to her). Of the proposal, the woman says, “Don’t you know, how you told me I had never seen your real self before? Oh, Peter, I just couldn’t bear it, if you didn’t remember that lovely long ride we took together in the taxi! Please, you do remember that, don’t you? … I think that taxi ride was the important thing that ever happened to us in our lives” (153). Does she desperately want to believe that he loves her, that they can be happy together, and that he’ll change? Or has she had enough and is she making him pay for being a cad? I read her tone here as sarcastic, but I could see someone taking her literally.

Interestingly, Peter does make a half-hearted attempt to end their engagement, saying, “I don’t see how you could ever want to speak to me again, after I’d made such a fool of myself, last night. I think I’d better go join a monastery in Tibet” (154). But she shrugs him off: “As if I could ever let you go away now! Stop talking like that. You were perfectly fine” (154). Is she torturing him? Or she is genuinely (though perhaps delusionally) happy?

Obviously I can’t resolve these two readings. There’s enough evidence in the text to support them both, and as Parker is a Modernist, the instability and uncertainty is the point. But I want to suggest there’s one more option: that the woman is conning Peter, but he knows it and is letting himself be taken in.

When I started writing, I discovered that my reading changed in many ways; one shift was that when I re-read, I am now often surprised because the text I recall isn’t the original version, but instead something I’ve edited in my head. It’s the text + my commentary and changes. So, for example, I would remember a scene in a book being about love overwhelming good sense, but a second reading would reveal it was actually about clear-eyed self-sacrifice. A minor difference, sure, but as a reader, I’d started thinking about how I would write the scene, which is distinct from how the writer actually did write it.

The only evidence I have for my third reading of “You Were Perfectly Fine” is Peter’s extremely weak attempt to end the engagement. If he didn’t want to marry this woman, why doesn’t he say so? He’s feeling hung over and blindsided, but he could extricate himself, though perhaps not without hurting the woman’s feelings. He is making a choice here as much as she is. And that’s how I would write it, if I were to write it. (Though of course they’d have to eventually talk about why they both did what they did and we need a much more celebratory HEA.)

Regardless, the story has stuck with me since I first read it. Parker’s reputation has been limited to the few quips that have entered the parlance (e.g., pearls before swine), but while we know her name, it seems to me that she’s under-read. Whatever is happening in “You Were Perfectly Fine,” it is slyly funny, observant about gender, and a puzzle for the reader. I highly recommend it.

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5 thoughts on “Notes from the Keeper Shelf: “You Were Perfectly Fine”

  1. OMG Emma, I went down a similar path: baby, Lord of Scoundrels, becoming entranced with the discussion community, writing about it etc etc. And then I (mostly) stopped writing about romance after I was published in the genre. (It also seemed ethically suspect to be writing about certain books when I was making friends with authors.) I miss the discussion, so I’m going to follow all your posts eagerly.

  2. I’m up for discussing/dissecting books. I started reading romance in high school (Amanda Quick’s Seduction), and I haven’t looked back. I’m not published yet, but I’ve already been thinking about the potential dilemma.

    • Writing about someone really established (like Amanda Quick or Loretta Chase) feels less problematic to me, but I very much understand the concern. I just don’t want the discussion/criticism dimension of romancelandia to disappear.

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