Review and analysis of the YA romance novel.
While reading Blackmail Boyfriend I kept thinking of Samuel Butler's quip about Thomas and Jane Carlyle: "It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four." Haley Patterson and Bryce Colton deserve each other only in the sense that they and no one else should be punished with their company.
The nightmarish quality of this book can be traced to three causes: the ghastly personalities of the two main characters; the dumb plot shenanigans; and the awful, awful writing. Taking these in turn:
Haley Patterson is a small, boyishly figured, high school honors student. She would like to have a boyfriend, but her thuggishly overprotective brothers keep chasing everyone off. The book opens with her hearing a rumor that Bryce Colton -- the rich, dreamy object of every girl's lust -- has been telling people that he hooked up with her after a social function. She confronts him, and when he foolishly tries using her as a shield to keep from getting punched, she has one of those brainstorms that real people are too smart to act on: She blackmails him into pretending to be her boyfriend for three weeks.
I'll come back to this trick beginning. For right now, it's enough to note that Haley's play has nothing to do with Bryce himself. She only wants to keep her reputation from being trashed and to show to the student body that it's possible to date her without being pounded into a wet slurry by her older brothers. What are her feelings for Bryce? Well, she feels soft and gooey inside when she looks at him, but beyond that admits nothing to herself.
But even though this is only a business deal between them, Haley instantly becomes bossy and prickly with her fake boyfriend. The strange part is that she doesn't really force him to treat her like a girlfriend in public -- she seems okay with seeing him only at lunch, and doesn't demand any public displays of affection -- but in private she gets shrill and psychotic when he doesn't dote on her. She resents his silences, yells at him when he looks at another girl, demands that he spend time with her, and plunges into black sulks when he fails to ask her out.
From the way he behaves, you might almost think he didn't care to be friends with a girl who is blackmailing him. Funny, that.
Not that Bryce himself comes off any better. He is cold-blooded, snotty, mercenary, anal-retentive, and gets pissy when anything goes even slightly wrong in his life. How fussy is he? He loads his books into his locker in alphabetical order. Most of these personality defects are laid at the feet of his grasping, hyper-critical father who serves as a convenient ogre figure so that Bryce can't be condemned out of hand. Even then, he is so ludicrously frigid that even the other characters call him out for being "emotionally stunted."
This is the guy we're supposed to see as the prize catch at the end of the book. But why? His only assets are his bank account and his looks. Even Haley can't stand him when he's acting in character, and only melts around him when she's got his body to cuddle against.
In short, we have a girl who feels brattishly entitled to the attentions of a peer she is exploiting for her own ends, and an emotional lout who should be a cautionary lesson in how pretty packages sometimes contain awful things.
Having saddled these two with each other, and having set out to write a book that ends with them happily entwined, the author then has to invent incidents that will push them together. None of them really work, because the main characters' personalities are so recalcitrant. Haley is supposed to be lovable because she is an animal person; but Bryce can't stand animals and is too rigid to believably bend in their presence. Bryce is supposed to be attracted to Haley's devil-may-care attitude, but that same attitude makes her act like an entitled [censored] when he's around. Crises are provoked by two bat-crap insane supporting characters -- Bryce's despicable father and his nutso ex-girlfriend.
Finally, there's the bad writing. Haley is supposed to be smart, but she never says anything smart and doesn't act very smart either. Talk that on the page sounds nasty, cutting, and wounding provokes "laughter" all around. The book's hyper-concentrated attention on each tiny nuance of movement and thought slows the narrative to a crawl and cripples the rhythm of the dialogue passages. Here is a typical lunchtime scene:
I brushed at a piece of leaf stuck to my shirt, and sent it flying into Bryce's cold fried rice.
"Watch it." He jerked backward.
"It's not like I did it on purpose." To further annoy him, I reached over and plucked the leaf from his rice with my fingers.
"Have you lost your mind?" He pushed the container away.
"Sorry. I didn't realize you were so sensitive. Here." I picked up his spoon, excavated the top layer onto his napkin, and pushed the rice toward him. "There you go. All the girl germs are gone."
Nathan had a hard time swallowing as he tried not to laugh.
Jane chuckled behind her hand.
Bryce looked at me like I'd offered him a freshly decapitated bunny for lunch.
"Don't touch my food." Bryce sounded exactly like my brothers when they gave me an ultimatum.
I'm not proud of what I did next, but I blame my reaction on years of sibling rivalry. I reached over and held my finger a millimeter above his rice. "I'm not touching it. I'm not touching it."
Nathan clamped his hand over his mouth in what I guess was an attempt not to spit food across the table. Caught off guard, Jane spewed soda all over Bryce. He blinked, like he couldn't quite believe what had happened.
Let's look at just one of these paragraphs: "It's not like I did it on purpose." To further annoy him, I reached over and plucked the leaf from his rice with my fingers.
"It's not like I did it on purpose": A dull reply. Worse, it is childishly defensive in an unattractive way.
"To further annoy him": This is our charming heroine, intentionally acting with small-minded malice.
"I reached over and plucked the leaf from his rice with my fingers": Sheer sloppiness. If she plucked it, then she must have reached over, and she naturally would have used her fingers. "I plucked the leaf off his rice" would suffice.
The entire book is sloppy and laborious in this way.
There is no pleasure to be had here. The characters are repellent when they are not simply unbelievable, and they are magicked into a relationship simply through the manipulations of the author. Passage by passage and page by page the narrative plods along. When the ending finally heaves into view, there is no sense of a genuine climax because the characters haven't earned anything except to have the covers of their book slammed shut.
Notes and Asides
Blackmail Boyfriend is such a mess that it's tempting to write off the entire thing as something impossible to learn from. There are some points worth mentioning, though they are of only two types: the very, very big things that ruin it at as a story, and the very, very small things that I jotted down while reading it.
* Don't let gimmick substitute for structure. The book opens with an inventive situation and closes with a conventional climax. But there is no structure to connect the two. The blackmail gimmick throws Haley and Bryce into an unstable partnership, but there is no progression that lets them honestly work their way through to a stable romantic relationship. Instead of scenes that push them to evolve, they simply warm up to each other until they accept their fake relationship as a real one.
* Don't fall for "melting ice cube" plots. "Warming up to each other" is the surest sign that a story is using the boring "melting ice cube" cheat. I think I've told it before: "Once upon a time there was a thirsty boy who had an ice cube so he left it in a pail in the sun until it melted and then he drank it and quenched his thirst the end." This is a story with no conflict and no evolution: the character just waits passively until the bad scene morphs into a good one. That's what happens in Blackmail Boyfriend: "One upon a time there was a boy and a girl who didn't like each other but they hung out together and gradually they warmed up to each other and fell in love the end."
* A story is allowed to pin one crime on its protagonist. After that, the protagonist needs to be on his best behavior. Note: By "crime" I do not specifically mean an illegal or immoral act. I mean any act that hurts our ability to sympathize with a character. Blackmail Boyfriend opens with just such a crime: Haley's brattish ploy to blackmail Bryce into acting as her boyfriend. This is a trick beginning, and most readers will grant a trick beginning, even an unpleasant one, if there's the prospect of a payoff. But the protagonist cannot continue to commit crimes; in fact, the protagonist needs to work hard to brush away the dent caused by an initial crime.
* "Public opinion" needs a specific face. Almost every chapter has Haley walking around with the feeling that everyone is whispering and gossiping about her. At first it's easy to dismiss this as high school paranoia. But it's not just a "feeling" she has -- Haley says that they actually are talking about her, and there are enough little incidents that with a sinking feeling you realize the author intends to be reporting a fact, not Haley's gut sense. It would be easier to believe that an entire high school is gossiping about her 24/7 if there were a character tapped to play the role of gossip queen and who was actually obsessed with Haley's love life.
* Develop several settings to give the story scope. The novel has enough settings outside of school to feel minimally real. But the school, which is the major setting, is woeful. Lockers, a first period homeroom, the cafeteria, and the gym are the only four locations where anything happens, and the gym only gets used twice, briefly, as a place to talk. Almost all the important scenes at school take place at lunch. Since the entire book is about a high school girl looking for a high school boyfriend, it would help to feel Haley's desperation if the high school and its contents were important enough to be sometimes mentioned.
* If you're going to make characters into caricatures, make them look overdrawn, and above all have fun with them. I'm thinking here particularly of Haley's brothers, They aren't jocks, but they're built like jocks, and their life has no meaning except the Terminator-like purpose of destroying anyone who looks at Haley. It's sounds like a fun idea to go with the wacky blackmail plot, but they exist in a kind of uncanny valley: not exaggerated enough to be fun, but never sufficiently explained so that they feel realistic. They exist only as a plot contrivance.