So, approximately three million years ago, when I was naively and optimistically making out my lists for this year’s reading challenges (LOLSOB), I perused the suggestions for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt for a romance starring a single parent. I didn’t find anything there that struck my fancy, but another group suggested It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Avon, first published 1994. Remember this). I’d never read this particular author, but I know she’s a big name in romance, so I figured sure, why not. I went into this knowing full well that romance has changed immensely since 1994 (THANK GOD), but also curious because my library copy was almost pristine. This book is still very much in print, to the point that new copies are being purchased and circulating. This is important to my review. Buckle up, folks. I don’t usually eviscerate novels, but this one deserves it.
(Disclaimer: This book, and thus this post, is chock-full of content warnings. The book contains mentions, often graphic, of molestation and rape by a family member, racism, misogyny, multiple uses of the N-word, fatphobia and comments on eating disorders that haven’t aged well, kinky sex roleplay that involves one partner pretending to be an underage girl BUT WITHOUT INFORMING THE READER THAT THIS IS ROLEPLAY UNTIL AFTERWARDS, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, alcoholism, a mistaken abduction and sexual assault that briefly traumatizes a main character, a drunk driving death, and multiple depictions of Donald Trump where he’s portrayed true to life, being only too happy to help pull one over a main character. This is a tough time for all of us and we’ve all got far too much on our plates. I won’t be offended one bit if you’re not able to handle more and need to stop reading here. Be well, friends.)
It Had to Be You starts out with Phoebe Sommerville attending her father’s funeral in a wildly inappropriate outfit and holding her toy poodle, who then pees all over the top of the casket (yes, really), but before that unfortunate incident comes this line, which tipped me off to exactly the kind of mess this book was going to be:
Beads of perspiration from the midday heat glimmered on skin that ranged in color from a glistening blue-black to a suntanned white. Like plantation slaves, the National Football League’s Chicago Stars had come to pay homage to the man who owned them.
Uh, yikes. Followed by this super fun typo (how has no one noticed this in all the time this book has been in print?):
A Gold Coast socialite, who fancied herself an expert on small dogs, since she owned a shiatsu…
Let’s try this again.
Two very, very different things. If anyone’s looking for a copy editor, I’d make an awesome one! 😉
Dad, who was a disgusting Donald Trump-style blowhard misogynist creep, owned the Chicago Stars football team (located in, surprisingly, the county I live in, and about which the author makes some seriously puzzling statements about tractor pulls and religious crusades, by which I’m guessing she meant revivals? I can’t speak to those- there are sections of this county that can be pretty Christian [looking at you, Wheaton] so I can’t say what happened here in that regard in 1994- but I asked my husband, who grew up here, about tractor pulls, and he was baffled. Outside of county fairs, I can’t find any evidence of tractor pulls here in the past. So weird. We’re right next to Chicago, it’s not like we’re super rural), and has left the team to his daughter Phoebe in order to humiliate her. If she’s able to help the team win the championship, she’ll get it keep it, but if not, ownership goes to her rapey cousin Reed, her father’s clear favorite. Phoebe’s also left with custody of her standoffish half-sister Molly, who’s trotted out now and then as a plot device.
At first, Phoebe doesn’t give a crap about the team, but the head coach, Dan Calebow, a good ol’ boy from Alabama (I think) isn’t having any of that. How DARE that bimbo act this way! He’s furious, furious enough to use the word bimbo at least nineteen times throughout this book (although the actual count may be several more, because I think I started counting after having been irritated by it multiple times. And no, Ms. Phillips, tempering it by having Dan call her ‘my brainy bimbo’ doesn’t make it better). Dan is a total alphahole, a complete 90’s romance man’s man, misogyny and grossness all over the place. He and his Congresswoman ex-wife have a friends-with-benefits relationship going on, leading to an early scene where Dan picks up a teenager from a convenience store, follows her to her house, then proceeds to spank her and have sex with her in her father’s office. It’s only AFTER the chapter has ended that Ms. Phillips clues us in that it’s actually Dan and his ex-wife ROLEPLAYING here and he’s not actually engaging in statutory rape. I was DISGUSTED by this, to the point where my hands were shaking and I had to read the scene twice to make sure I was reading it right- was he SERIOUSLY having sex with a girl who told him she was 16?!!?!?!?- and should have put the book down. NOT COOL, SUSAN ELIZABETH PHILLIPS. NOT COOL AT ALL. Alas, I read on, because the world needs to know how terrible this book is.
Phoebe, who has put on a show of being a dumb blonde most of her life, and Dan are obviously on an enemies-to-lovers trajectory, but before we get to that, we have the problem of Phoebe’s hips. They’re nearly their own character in this book. I wish I were joking:
There’s a lot of weird imagery in this book as well, along with fashion that was never, ever in style (and definitely not on gay men in the 90’s, which is who was wearing this particular get-up). Consider, if you will, these following paragraphs (which have nothing to do with each other, but which both include a lot of wtf):
Blond, handsome, and bigger than life, he looked like a born troublemaker. Instead of a knit shirt and chinos, he should have been wearing a rumpled white suit and driving down some Southern dirt road in a big old Cadillac hooking beer cans over the roof. Or standing on the front lawn of an antebellum mansion with his head thrown back to bay at the moon while a young Elizabeth Taylor lay on a curly brass bed upstairs and waited for him to come home.
Ignoring the fact that a grown man is littering and howling at the moon (what even?!??), with the white suit, all I can think of is Colonel Sanders from KFC. But then there’s Phoebe’s gay male friend in this outfit:
He wore a fitted black silk T-shirt with camouflage pants, orange leather suspenders, and motorcycle boots.
I know the 90’s weren’t exactly known for great fashion, but come on!
And there’s a lot of weird, puffed-up masculinity and misogyny. For example:
“…Bobby Tom’s from Telarosa, Texas, and being forced to live in the state of Illinois for even part of the year challenges his idea of manhood.”
Viktor beamed like a proud father, fluffed Phoebe’s hair, and nudged her toward the kitchen. “Do your women’s work. We men are hungry.”
He turned to Phoebe and held out his hand. “Pass over the keys, honey lamb. There are certain things a man still does better than a woman, and driving a car is one of them.”
Dan grinned as he unlocked the driver’s door and reached inside to flip the automatic locks. “Climb inside, ladies. I’d open the doors for you, but I don’t want to be accused of holding back anybody’s liberation.”
For one, I don’t think I can take seriously any grown man who goes by the name Bobby Tom, so he can take his idea that having a penis is only valid within the state borders of Texas and cram it up his cramhole. And come on, Phoebe, you let your friends talk to you like that? Nah, girl. You can do better. Have enough self-respect to shut that shit down hard. And later on, there was this gem:
Didn’t she realize this was DuPage County? Women didn’t dress like this in DuPage County, for chrissake. They went to church and voted Republican, just as their husbands told them.
EXCUSE ME??? This is a deeply diverse area, of which I’m very proud, and we have women from all walks of life, from women who show plenty of skin in the grocery store to women who wear niqab at the library. And we’re all perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves, thank you VERY much. UGH.
At one point, Phoebe goes over to Dan’s house late at night in an attempt to confront him, only to get caught in the middle of what Dan thinks is a kinky sex game with his ex-wife. Phoebe, who has no idea what kind of weird things Dan does with his ex, thinks Dan is hauling her into the woods to rape her, and the whole scene is horrifying. And then there’s more of this:
Phoebe and Dan develop a physical relationship (Phoebe is, of course, playing the whore to the Madonna preschool teacher that Dan is also seeing but not touching), but their relationship is…uncomfortable to read at best. Phoebe has some serious and understandable baggage from being raped and molested by her cousin in the past, but Dan isn’t aware of this until later, and there are some disturbing sex scenes where she tells Dan not to stop no matter what she says, then freaks out when he doesn’t stop, which, as both a reader and a woman, is deeply insulting.
Phoebe works hard and inspires the football team by instructing them to picture the other team naked (which is endlessly funny to the team and pisses Dan off), and of course they start to win and win big. But at the championship game, the one that matters, the crazed father of one of Dan’s former team members kidnaps Phoebe and threatens to kill her unless Dan throws the game. What’s a coach in love to do?
To be honest, this entire book was insulting, from Phoebe’s faux pre-drugs Anna Nicole Smith act, to Dan’s toxic masculinity and misogyny, to the disgusting abuse hurled about in memories of her father, to the completely unnecessary trauma scenes. Part of this is that this book is pretty geriatric when it comes to romance. Twenty-six years ago is practically prehistoric when it comes to romance, and it’s obvious that the genre has come a long, looooooooooong way since then. But it obviously hasn’t come far enough. This book, with all its throwback, regressive attitudes, is still in print, and like I mentioned above, my library copy seemed fairly new, with no creased pages and a cover that showed no signs of wear. Meaning, of course, that…
This book is still in print, and what that tells me is that some romance publishers don’t necessarily think that women deserve better books, books where we aren’t called bimbos nineteen times throughout the pages and made to suffer rape and other forms of trauma in order to further the plot. I know that’s a bunch of crap, because I’ve read far better romance novels, where women rightfully give men who belittle them the middle finger and bestow their time and attention on men who prove themselves worthy of it. ACTUALLY worthy of it. Why should we be subjected to reading stories where women degrade themselves by falling into the arms of someone who, just pages ago, referred to them as a bimbo? Why does rape still continue to be a plot device in 2020? Why should books with abject racism and fatphobia still take up shelf space and space in our minds?
What I’m saying is that for those publishing companies still championing this kind of garbage by keeping books like this in print- you can do better, and your readers deserve that. This is one author I won’t be reading again. My time is worth more than that.