It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Love in the Time of Slick Willy, the Juice and the Donald.
This one was quite a throwback. Since this summer I've been making a conscious effort to better understand the genre I've been so engrossed by recently by reading some of the best known books in the romance canon, and It Had to Be You came highly recommended. It's one of Eloisa James's favorite books and appears on many best of all time lists. But reading It Had to Be You was an unsettling, frustrating experience for me. This pioneering, popular and well-received sports romance was published in 1994, the year of Nicole Brown-Simpson’s death, and former football superstar O.J. Simpson’s ill-fated low speed chase/attempt to evade arrest for killing her. It was also the second year of the Clinton presidency, two years before Monica Lewinsky burst into public consciousness, and, perhaps most important, just a few years after “Backlash” told of a powerful postfeminist reactionary political wave sweeping across America. That’s all to say it was a heady time, right on the cusp of some sort of transition in gender and racial politics.
So I should have been prepared for what a contemporary romance set in the testosterone heavy world of the NFL might look like. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that the sexual politics made my head spin. And yet it still threw me for a bit— the gender dynamics aren’t pretty. They’re neither reactionary nor progressive, yet unsettling all the same. It was an unsettling time. For all that’s wrong with 2019, this book made me incredibly happy that it’s not 1994 and that I could leave that world by closing the book. When I think about reading It Had to Be You I'm reminded of that terrible, scornful, old-school, Victorian set down— that someone is no better than they should be, meaning they're lacking but that's to be expected because of who they are or where they come from. This novel made me think its gender politics were awful and yet possibly realistic for the time, in other words, no better than they should be. The gender dynamics between the characters are too muddled and confused to be truly enlightening or thought-provoking, but they are unsettling. So maybe that's as it ought to be. Intentional or not, it was a terribly unsatisfying and muddled time for women. It Had to Be You certainly reflects that.
The heroine, Phoebe Somerville, is an heiress, a buxom “bimbo”, secretly celibate sex-bomb, and a kind and intelligent woman who craves the love she never had growing up. She’s also a rape survivor, who’s suffering from a great deal of trauma and tries to use her body and her sexuality as armor and as a tool of manipulation in every aspect of her life even as she feels ashamed of her body and uncomfortable and insecure about her sexuality.
When Phoebe inherits (with conditions of course) an NFL team from her horribly abusive, recently deceased father, she amps up the overt, outrageous sexuality and downplays her intelligence as she enters a new workplace dominated by men. She thinks she’s adapting to the way the world sees her and using her body and looks to her advantage, and it appears that we are supposed to understand that this is a workable strategy, but it’s also clear throughout that this strategy causes her great pain. It makes her hate herself and puts her continually at odds with her employees, other businesspeople, and her potential love interest who is also a colleague.
Is Phoebe's false sexual flamboyance and bravado a source of strength, shame, or success? Or all three? More to the point, why is this her only professional strategem? Phoebe’s choices are cringe-inducing. I found it very hard to keep reading at times. But then I questioned myself. Am I slut shaming this heroine, am I being prudish? Possibly. But I don’t think so. So the question remains: Why are bare cleavage and the sexual manipulation of men the predominant way that Phoebe uses her talents in business dealings until the very end? While she’s at it why does she not on her own at least learn something about the industry independently rather than solely relying on her burgeoning relationships with the men in her organization? And, above all, if it’s a smart strategy why is it such a continual source of pain? The workplace plotlines strained my belief in the character and the narrative as a whole.
In contrast, the love story and Phoebe’s reawakening after sexual trauma are handled incredibly well. The connection between Phoebe and Dan and how their physical relationship progresses is believable, specific, not at all cliched. Their relationship hinges on consent and trust as much as chemistry, and Phillips handles it beautifully.
It is hard to write a novel that is both sexy and gritty about social reality in that particular historical moment while avoiding being particularly political or preachy. That's a hard needle to thread with the social forces, hard choices and traps women faced navigating a still hostile working world in the wake of the women’s movement. Phoebe is navigating an unjust situation and system. That is inherently political. It Had to Be You seems to want to be on the side of gender equality but not idealistic, not too orthodox, not too feminist maybe?
But the problem with the way Phoebe's written transcends gender politics. It's more fundamental than that. People say and do disrespectful, humiliating things to Phoebe; Phoebe says and does humiliating things to herself. And that lasts pretty much throughout the book in terms of her professional persona even though she grows in her personal life. Self-objectification and playing dumb are her favorite business strategies. And that's the contradiction I couldn't quite believe. Quirks and imperfection are human. Phoebe is human and therefore an imperfect heroine. Plus, all women struggle with self definition in a world that values and condemns female sexuality, but I'm unconvinced that she would choose to be imperfect in this particularly sexually exploitative, self-sabotaging way for this long in her professional life. I don’t buy that it would have gotten her the positive results she’d need to want to stick to that strategy for well over a decade. These choices make the book no better than it should be.
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