Two rambunctious, romantic flameouts. One boring wedding. One heated embrace in a quiet coatroom. This is not exactly the recipe for true love. John and Jane’s lusty encounter at a friend’s wedding isn’t really the beginning of anything with any weight to it; even they know that. When they manage to pull back, it occurs to them that they might start this whole thing over properly. They might try getting to know one another first, through letters.
What follows is a series of traded confessions—of their messy histories, their past errors, their big loves, their flaws, and their passions. Each love affair, confessed as honestly as possible, reveals the ways in which Jane and John have grown and changed—or not changed—over the years; the people they’ve hurt, the ones still bruised. The ones who bruised them. Where all of this soul-baring will take them is the burning question behind every letter—a question that can only be answered when they meet again, finally, in the flesh.
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Julianna Baggott is the author of the bestseller Girl Talk, as well as The Miss America Family, The Madam, and a book of poems. She writes popular children’s books under the pseudonym N. E. Bode. She teaches at Florida State University.
Steve Almond has published over one hundred stories and poems—in publications ranging from Playboy to Tin House to Zoetrope—and a two previous collections of stories, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow. He is the author of the bestselling novel Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.
This book is full of superb writing, and that is precisely its problem. Billed as a "novel in confessions," Which Brings Me to You consists of a series of letters exchanged by two young lovers-in-the-making. Jane is a feminist studies professor, and John is a media guy turned struggling artist. Both are a few years beyond their roaring twenties and seeking some of the adult stability they are trying hard to imagine.
They meet at a wedding, proceed directly to the coat closet and nearly consummate their acquaintance. But John demurs at the last moment, blubbering about how he may really like Jane and all, and how he doesn't want this one to end like all the others, etc. The couple agrees to exchange letters -- the retro, ink-on-paper-sort -- and get to know each other by confessing all their sad and lousy loves.
While not a particularly believable premise, it's made interesting by the fact that the letters are written by two authors. Julianna Baggott, writing for Jane, is a creative writing teacher at Florida State University; Steve Almond, voicing John, is a writing teacher at Boston College. They both got MFAs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They are widely published and frequently awarded authors of short stories and novels.
The trouble is Jane's letters sound an awful lot as if they've been written by an award-winning author and writing instructor with an MFA. So, alas, do John's. To say this spoils the fun is to understate.
Take, for instance, Jane's remembrance of high school boys: "I loved them with primal biology; I loved them because of an internal bent, a moist yearning imprinted heavily on my genes, perhaps passed down through my mother, stunted (and highly polished, too) by her need for romance."
And here John remembers: "Eve herself, who smelled luxurious from the shower, smoothed down in amaretto lotion, who went off to work in the city and returned with wads of grubby dollar bills and cabernet on her breath, who smoked on the window sill and wore her floppy breasts in scented bras . . . took me up to her rooftop to make love on the hot tar."
Yo, Jane, John: Quit your day jobs and get fellowships at the Iowa Writers' Workshop!
That said, several of these letters make wonderful short stories, ripe with keen observations, vivid ex-lovers and razor diction. They accumulate into a pair of satisfying character studies. But as each letter ends with its "signature," one is inevitably reminded that the authors have made these characters speak in voices that could not be their own, and, finally, the book falls apart.
How did two such accomplished authors blunder into such an obvious trap? Perhaps the book's epistolary conceit encouraged an unproductive sense of competition. In any case, it feels as if Baggott and Almond couldn't resist trying to outwit and outperform each other, at the expense of the work's integrity.
A man and a woman competing rather than cooperating on the playing field of love? Imagine that.
Reviewed by Craig Stoltz / Reviewed by Claudia Deane
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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