Utah author Shannon Hale has pulled a publishing coup. After writing a string of popular youngadult books, including the best-selling, Newbery Medal-winning Princess Academy as well as the well-received novel Austenland, she has enough clout to get a respected, non-LDS publisher to put out a novel—The Actor and the Housewife— where the main character is Becky Jack, a Mormon housewife from Layton with four kids. Not a housewife with magical powers. Not a Laytonite who solves murder mysteries. Not a mother of four with a hidden meth habit. Not even a Mormon who’s having an affair with a high councilman. When Hale writes, “a warm burning sensation flashed in her breasts,” it’s because Becky’s nursing.
While Hale may be breaking new ground in the rest of the world, the response in her home state will likely fall along the usual cultural divide. On one side are those who will say the last thing they want to read about is a stereotype and religion they are already more familiar with than they want to be. Conversely, many LDS readers may see this book as the world finally coming to its senses by reading about a character who lives up to church standards. Both groups will be wrong.
Becky is a fully realized character capable of carrying an entire book. She’s fun, nonjudgmental, a part-time writer of romantic comedies, and stays home with her kids just because that’s what she really likes doing. However, while Becky’s completely devoted to her husband, Mike, the main crux of the plot is that Becky’s best friend is another man.
And not just any man: She’s pals with Felix Callahan, a handsome, famous, British actor along the lines of Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, who is himself married to a famous beauty. Becky and Felix’s friendship is a look at the age-old question: “Can a man and a woman be friends without sex getting in the way?”
It seems that the LDS answer to that has been a pretty convincing, “Best not to try and find out,” which is a major sticking point for this book. The hardest part to believe isn’t that a famous actor is friends with a Mormon housewife; it’s that the Mormon housewife’s bishop—and her husband, who’s in the bishopric—are ultimately OK with it. In a religion where the phrase, “Avoid the very appearance of evil,” has launched a thousand sacrament meeting talks, many LDS readers will find themselves disapproving of Becky, who doesn’t cross the line in her relationship with Felix but repeatedly walks up to it.
While Hale does a good job of exploring the many different aspects of the Becky-Felix friendship, one point that could have been brought out stronger is that Becky is getting something from Felix that she doesn’t get from Mike. While Mike’s a nice guy, a good father and she loves only him, he also reads hunting magazines in bed, will watch golf on TV all weekend, would prefer a vacation in Vernal to Los Angeles and thinks watching people dance is “a bit too close to sissy.”
Meanwhile, Felix listens to Becky’s stories about her cat, engages in wordplay, sings karaoke and shares her affection for romantic comedies.
Maybe the unintentional lesson of this book—ironic, given its release at this point in LDS history—is that what a Mormon housewife could really use to make her life complete is a gay best friend. Becky even asks Felix at one point, “Why can’t you be gay?” Since he’s got a British accent and appears on Broadway, “You’re already at thirty percent. Couldn’t you just hike that up to fifty-one?” It seems what Becky is ultimately searching for is a male friend who can give her the things the straightlaced (pun intended) husband she loves can’t—but who also doesn’t want to have sex with her, and thus doesn’t present the threat of excommunication.
THE ACTOR AND THE HOUSEWIFE
By Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury USA , 2009