HUSBAND MATERIAL (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 422 pp., paper, $15.99) is, above all else, terribly funny. Not just tonally upbeat in the way of many so-called rom-coms, but text-your-friends, chortle-’til-you-cry funny. One exchange made me laugh so hard and so long I ached for days — my laughter muscles have not had a lot of exercise in the past few years. The jokes shine all the brighter against some deeply painful moments in this story: This is humor as trauma response, romance edition.
In many ways, I was the ideal reader for HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER (Avon, 385 pp., paper, $15.99), Tessa Bailey’s friends-to-lovers story about a crab-boat fisherman and a music-loving film production assistant. I related to Hannah Bellinger’s fear that she’s a supporting cast member in her own life story; I love a capable hero and was intrigued by Fox Thornton’s anxieties about taking on the role of captain.
But this book keeps insisting there are two kinds of people, the male ones and the female ones. Men: big, strong, dumb and horny. Women: small, soft, mysterious and pure. And perhaps I should have realized this boded poorly and danced out in Chapter 3, where our hero is described as “the maestro of feminine wetness” and a “masculinity maelstrom.” (A malestrom?) Bailey’s reputation is built on being “the Michelangelo of dirty talk,” but I wasn’t expecting her work from her to sound quite so baroque. To hear a 21st-century woman refer to her anatomy de ella as her de ella “femininity” midthrust is jarring, a throwback to the tortured circumlocutions of bodice-rippers past.
If not for this tendency, Bailey would have made my auto-buy list, alongside Kate Clayborn and Lucy Parker. Her voice is otherwise lively and evocative. But that one repeated sour note threw me out of the story so often that it started to feel actively hostile to me as a queer reader. Especially since Fox’s arc boils down to his being “wedged into a category before he even knew what was happening” — framing we see in plenty of queer and trans stories. Bailey uses the language of sexual marginalization and shame to talk about how hard it is to be a handsome, straight, white, cisgender man with a series of willing partners and access to reliable contraception. A plot point about his mother’s supplying him money for condoms in high school is treated as one origin of his trauma — because having had a lot of safe, consensual sex is something this book thinks has tainted Fox. It’s a stunningly sex-negative attitude for a supposedly steamy romance.
My objection is not that the lead characters themselves are straight and cis, it is that the imagination of this book fails to account not only for LGBTQ characters but also for LGBTQ readers.
I am not the word police, telling you what’s permissible. I am just here to illuminate the effect of an author’s choice of language. And Bailey’s choices made this reviewer feel, in a word, lonely.