Rebecca Eckler is back with two books in one launch: How to Raise a Boyfriend, and her debut adult novel, The Lucky Sperm Club (see sidebar). In asking me to review both books, my assigning editor first made sure that I did not "love, hate, or know" the author. My unbiased opinion secured, I read both Eckler's books with an open mind. I expected to find her writing addictively entertaining, similar to my affection for the TV series Sex and the City and, more recently, Two and a Half Men (despite the loss of respect I suffer for it). I can forgive a lot if something makes me laugh or offers insights into life or human nature I wouldn't otherwise have.
How to Raise a Boyfriend presents itself as a humorous guide to educating your man "or any other clueless guy in your life," and includes a Relationship Report Card by which to rate your male partner, based on Eckler's six-year-old daughter's school report card.
Every chapter takes on a new subject with such titles as, Why Is It So Hard for Men to Answer a Damn Question? and What Cave Did You Grow Up In? Eckler draws from her apparently vast experience with boyfriends for examples of bad male behaviour, as well as from her friends' litany of complaints and embarrassing anecdotes about their own boyfriends and husbands. Little is said about what they like(d) about these men, but they sure love insulting them.
Some stories are shocking and/or amusing, such as one friend's live-in boyfriend, an "impulse" buyer, whom she expects may one day come home with dog food, even though they don't own a dog. Another friend's husband enjoys watching TV with a giant bottle of Dr Pepper and gumballs: "He'll take two sucks on a gumball, take it out, and put another one in," the friend explains. "What grown man, except for my husband, eats … gumballs?"
In addition to her own musings about the myriad ways men annoy her and her friends - and man, can these women complain - each chapter also features the overeditorialized advice of "Freud," Eckler's own $200-an-hour therapist; "guest appearances" from refreshingly unrepentant ex-boyfriends who offer perspective on their own bad behaviour; and the occasional commentary of an unnamed "Grade-A Husband," whose secret to marital bliss appears to be male neutering and spine removal.
The closest thing to simple wisdom comes from Helena, Eckler's Brazilian bikini-wax aesthetician who, after being forced to listen to the author's endlessly mind-numbing complaints for so many years, might be forgiven if one day a routine mustache-waxing leads to the "accidental" removal of Eckler's tongue. Just sayin'.
Every chapter ends with Eckler's own tips on how to manage the problem behaviour in question - Clever Tactics/Advice on Raising Your Man to Achieve At or Above the Expected Level - which is where the premise of the book carelessly falls apart. Eckler's advice about "raising" the perfect man amounts to no more than a haphazard bag of tricks aimed at manipulating men into doing what women want (often involving the promise of oral sex and other sexual favours) - the kind of prefeminist thinking about men and women reminiscent of The Flintstones, specifically the episode in which Wilma and Betty hypnotize Fred and Barney in their sleep and try to trick them into buying mink coats.
Imagine if a man wrote a book like this - How To Raise a Girlfriend* (*Or Any Other Irritant with Breasts in Your Life), with chapter titles like, Yes, Your Ass Looks Fat - Because Your Ass IS Fat! or Shut Up and Make Me a Sandwich! Women and men alike would either be offended or assume it was satire - which, come to think of it, is how many will react to this book.
But with the right treatment, either book could actually be funny. In both The Flintstones and Two and a Half Men, the writers are well aware that their main characters are unevolved idiots; what's funny is watching them try to solve problems through a series of inevitably bad choices.
Yes, I am actually suggesting that if Eckler had as much insight into herself as the writers behind Fred Flintstone or the human train wreck Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen), laughter and the occasional astute observation might have been achieved. You can get away with acting like a bitchy, shallow, needy, immature princess and relationship expert who goes through boyfriends faster than bikini waxes if you know you are one. What's missing here is a shrewd wink to the audience.
Anne Fenn is a Toronto-based humour writer whose work has been produced for print, film/TV, radio and stage, and teaches sitcom writing at Humber College's school of comedy. Her book, The Joy of Failure, has still not been written.