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The apotheosis of the bitchy ex-girl-friend, or a review of Shattered Glass

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The biggest disadvantage of reading so many books so quickly is that the clichés, like thrusting alpha males, tend to come hard and fast. They are more obvious and annoying in bulk. My background doesn’t help since I’ve been trained to identify and analyze literary patterns. And much as I love romance and erotica, they are definitely genres that are strongly driven by familiar conventions. Some like the Happy Ever After I don’t mind (because honestly what’s the point of reading a romance with a downer ending?)

Other conventions are more dubious, however. Villains are an especially weak point in most romance novels. An inordinate number of romance heroines (and heroes) suffer from obsessed, crazy, abusive ex-boyfriends-turned-stalkers. They are also commonly cursed with narcissistic, overly skinny, conventionally gorgeous mothers and/or sisters, who make their lives hell. (Though luckily, they usually have eccentric but loving grandmothers to make up for it.)

Shattered Glass, Dani Alexander’s superb debut novel, tells the story of Austin Glass (also the narrator), who discovers in the first scene that he is very attracted to a young man. The problem is that Austin is not only straight, but about to get married--to Angelica. By the rules of the genre, Angelica will have to be dumped, and our initial impression is a hearty “good riddance.” She’s a walking compendium of nightmare girlfriend attributes: Almost her first words to Austin are, “Just park anywhere. You can afford the ticket.” She’s a super wealthy trust fund baby, whom Austin describes as “elegant and beautiful.” She’s also a total Bridezilla, having changed the color scheme for their wedding six times and made Austin order five different suits from a custom tailor. Most ominously of all, she’s a LAWYER, and not just a lawyer, but a “barracuda” and workaholic.

In the land of romance conventions, a woman like this exists for two reasons, to drive the plot by creating obstacles for the real couple and to make clear how the new love is a more genuine, lovable, completely superior human being. To achieve the first end, she stalks, persecutes, or deceives the hero and/or his new love. To achieve the second end, she compulsively watches her weight and wears expensive designer clothes.

But here’s the thing: Angelica is not a villain or even a bitch. None of our first impressions are fair or tell us who she is. Among other things, she’s Austin’s best and most loyal friend in the world; far from persecuting the new love, Peter, she puts aside her own pain at her break-up with Austin to save Peter’s foster brother, which she is able to do because she’s a kick-ass defense attorney. She is decent, honorable, and smart. Her money and beauty are part who she is, certainly, but do not make her an awful person. Austin describes himself as the “douchebag of the year” towards her, and he’s not exaggerating. That’s exactly the right term for a man who dumps his girlfriend of three years, eight weeks before their wedding.

Alexander’s approach is artistically a triumph, but it is also deeply ethical. Angelica is not the only character in this novel who defies easy assumptions. In a move the author repeats again and again in this novel, Alexander sets up a stereotype only to add nuances and complications until it is no longer recognizable. The evil-ex, the homophobic father, even the gang-banger rapist are portrayed as actual human beings with good and bad qualities.

It parallels the hero, Austin’s, own trajectory of discovering all-of-a-sudden at age 26 that he’s gay. “Not bisexual. Not a passing interest in someone of the same sex. Straight--so to speak--to gay.” Austin’s brilliantly funny snarkiness is both true to him and deeply misleading, a cover for the wrenching upheaval he undergoes over the course of the novel, as he is forced to reevaluate and jettison just about every assumption he’d made about his life, past, present, and future.

There’s another parallel here: with the romance form itself, a genre that has been marginalized and dismissed because of longstanding assumptions about its readers (many of them relentlessly cultivated by the old established publishers of these works). With the advent of indie-publishing, their reign is over. Like Austin, both readers and writers of erotica and romance are waking up, accepting our desires, proudly coming out of the closet. We are emphatically more than we seem—as evidence of this I offer the novel Shattered Glass.

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