Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Cubicle Next Door (book) by Siri L. Mitchell

This synopsis is as non-spoilery as my synopses get (since this is a romance, though, you should already have a good idea how it ends).  My commentary, on the other hand, contains a few spoilers.

Synopsis:

Jackie Harrison is a civilian who works at the Air Force Academy, basically doing "all things computer."  For the most part, she loves her job, but she is not happy when she learns that her office is going to be divided up into cubicles and that she's going to have to share her space with the new history instructor and former pilot, Lt. Col. Joseph "Joe" Gallagher.  She's determined to hate Joe, and he's just as determined to make her like him.  Jackie blogs about him on her anonymous blog, The Cubicle Next Door, calling him "John Smith."  It isn't long, however, before it becomes clear to all those who read her blog that she's actually starting to fall in love with "John Smith."

This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that Jackie's blog has somehow become a nationwide sensation.  Everyone's reading it, including Joe.  Jackie keeps blogging about Joe, trying harder to keep from revealing anything that could give away her identity.  As she gets to know Joe better, she also comes face-to-face with her own emotional issues, issues which might keep her from ever having a normal relationship with him.  Hours after Jackie was born, her mother abandoned her and went to India.  Jackie was raised by her grandmother, and her mother only contacted her once after that.  All her life, Jackie has been determined to be the exact opposite of her mother.  Her mother fell in love with an Air Force Academy pilot and got pregnant out of wedlock - Jackie father died in Vietnam without ever knowing he was going to be a father.  So, determined not to go crazy with love like her mother, Jackie has never dated anyone and certainly doesn't plan to ever date a pilot.  That makes her not-officially-a-relationship with Joe somewhat...problematic.

Jackie has to figure out what she wants from life.  Does she really want things to go on as they have been?  Can things even stay the same?  Her grandmother, who has been Jackie's rock her whole life, is making it clear that, although she's getting on in years, she doesn't need Jackie to take care of her and doesn't want Jackie to have her whole life revolve around her.  Jackie can't seem to stop her budding feelings for Joe, and when she tries she's miserable.  What's Jackie going to do?  Can she overcome her own issues before Joe decides all the effort isn't worth it and moves on, leaving her all alone?

Commentary:

I bought this book during a moment of "I have nothing to read" boredom - that was a fairly long time ago, before I built the TBR mountain in my living room.  I knew nothing about it, other than that the cover looked kind of fun (although I have an urge to attack the hair of the woman on the cover with a brush) and the description on the back sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, this book was a real slog for me.  I did not like Jackie.  At all.

For one thing, she was the most judgmental person in the entire book.  I can understand her not wanting to share her space, so I was willing to forgive her initial determination to dislike Joe.  However, she was judgmental of everyone.  There was Estelle, who she disliked for not being very computer literate and only really got to know better because Joe was friendlier to Estelle than Jackie has ever been and told Jackie what he'd learned about her.  There was Oliver, who Jackie disliked because it felt to her like he was taking her grandmother away from her.  Then there was everyone in the U.S. who is not exactly as environmentally-conscious as Jackie thinks they should be.  The SUV drivers.  The plastic straw users.  People who buy individually-packaged snacks.  People who don't recycle.  This list could go on.

Which brings me to the next thing I didn't like about Jackie - her environmental leanings that came across as not only being annoyingly strong, but also a bit hypocritical.  She lectures Joe about the SUV he owns and the plastic straws he tries to use.  She rants on her blog about everything Americans do that hurts the environment.  She makes her own shampoo, and her grandmother's house (which Jackie also lives in) is the only place in the neighborhood with a xeriscaped yard.  And yet.  When Joe goes on a trip and leaves his SUV in Jackie's care, Jackie drives herself, her grandmother, and her grandmother's friends to Cripple Creek in it, marveling at the convenience and how safe she feels in it.  She eats out at fast food places with Joe all the time, instead of telling him "no" and eating the lunch she packed on her own or, since she knew Joe would do this every day, just packing him a lunch too to get him to shut up.  Even if you only consider things like sandwich wrappers and paper cups, there's plenty of waste going on when you eat fast food.  When she's getting ready to go to a dance with Joe, she lets her grandmother and her grandmother's friends dress her up.  Not only do they use old hairspray on her (ozone-depleting aerosols), she also allows herself to enjoy a fox fur wrap.  I probably wouldn't have found all this quite so annoying if Jackie hadn't made such a big fuss about being environmentally-conscious all the time.

Examples of Jackie's charitable behavior (sponsoring orphans, cleaning up trash, supporting microloans to help those in poverty-stricken areas make better lives for themselves, etc.) did not make me like her more - actually all that did was make me dislike her more.  Even though she didn't really advertise her goody goody behavior, there was still something about her that made me think of people who do good things mainly so that they they can feel better about themselves.

It's really hard for me to enjoy a romance novel (or chick lit - I suppose this book might be more accurately called Christian chick lit) when I don't like the heroine.  It especially doesn't help when I don't even like the hero.  I found Joe to be a wee bit too pushy at times - he hardly ever took "no" for an answer, figuring that, deep down, Jackie really wanted to do all those things he dragged her into doing and would probably later thank him for forcing her to do.  True, she did enjoy herself, but still - when a girl shows that much reluctance to do something, sometimes a guy should just accept that "no" means "no."  Joe was the kind of guy who would just exhaust me in real life - other than showing up for Jackie's grandmother's poker nights, he was more a "go out and do stuff all the time" kind of guy than a homebody.

For the most part, though, I did like Joe more than I liked Jackie, and I had a lot of trouble understanding why Joe continued to pursue her.  The only thing about Jackie that provided him with any kind of encouragement was that it usually wasn't too hard for him to get her to agree to do thing with him - even though she didn't really want to, she went skiing with him, saw a Bollywood movie with him, participated in a race with him, and more.  She was so unpleasant and negative most of the time, however, that it was really difficult to tell why he persisted in liking her and wanting to be with her.  It wasn't until the "big reveal" at the end that it became a little clearer why he didn't just give up.  But still.  I'm not sure if, had I been in his position (and if I were a guy), that I would have continued to pursue her, even with a few blog posts saying what she really felt as encouragement.

There were a few things about this book that I liked.  First, I liked the setting.  It's rare for me to actually come across a book set someplace that I've been before, and, with this book, I constantly had the pleasure of saying "I know that place!" and "I've seen that before."  Colorado Springs icons and locations were everywhere in this book.  The Air Force Academy stuff was also pretty interesting - I had no idea that stuff like that "mock class session" happened.  Second, I liked that the Christian stuff wasn't overwhelming - in fact, there was so little of it in this book that I could imagine that someone who wanted to read a Christian romance/chick list book might be upset.  Third, I enjoyed the "big reveal" at the end of the book so much that even I, who hated Jackie's blog posts and the accompanying comments, found myself flipping through the book so that I could reread those comments from a new perspective.  I had figured that at least one of the comment writers was someone Jackie knew (I had thought philosophie was Jackie's grandmother), but I had never figured (SPOILER) that Joe was theshrink.  Looking back at theshrink's comments, though, it made perfect sense - most of theshrink's comments were jokey, some were serious, and one comment even told Jackie who he was.

The few things I liked about the book weren't enough to overcome my overall dislike of it.  I couldn't stand Jackie, I didn't really like Joe, and I didn't find Joe's interest in Jackie to be believable.  The nationwide interest in Jackie's blog wasn't believable, either - why would thousands of people eagerly read blog posts as vague as the ones Jackie wrote about Joe?  And the comments on the blog posts - has Mitchell ever read blog post comments before?  Mitchell's comment writers weren't real people, they were one-note jokes who wouldn't shut up.  Only occasionally did the comments feel like something real people would write, rather than something Mitchell thought sounded insightful or funny.

Read-alikes:
  • The Guy I'm Not Dating (book) by Trish Perry - I haven't read this one, but it's more Christian chick lit starring a main character who has met a great guy...who she's determined not to date.  Instead of being put off by this, the guy sticks around even more.  Sounds a bit like Joe, although the main female character in this one sounds a little less angry.  The Christian aspect seems to be a little more prominent in this one than in The Cubicle Next Door.
  • Train Man: The Novel (book) by Hitori Nakano - Not a Christian romance, but the romance in it is entirely chaste - in fact, I think the one or two kissing scenes in The Cubicle Next Door are steamier than anything in this book.  This book is composed entirely of posts from a real-life Japanese Internet forum that allows for completely anonymous posting.  Train Man, one of the posters, describes an incident where he stepped in when a drunk salaryman began harrassing other people on his train.  Afterward, Train Man was contacted by one of the grateful passengers, a pretty young woman.  Others on the forum give Train Man advice and encouragement (or sometimes tell him he doesn't have a chance) as he describes trying to get to know the woman, dubbed Hermes, better.  If thought the idea of a blog describing a budding romance capturing the nation's interest was intriguing, you might want to try this.  Whether or not you believe Train Man and his experiences were real, the posts themselves are all real, and the comments ring much more true than any of the blog comments in Mitchell's book.
  • The Last Blue Mile (book) by Kim Ponders - Did you enjoy The Cubicle Next Door's setting as much as I did?  Then you might want to try this one, even though, from the sounds of things, it has nothing else in common with Mitchell's book other than its setting.  In this one, a general is charged with finding the parties responsible for a rape and a cheating ring in order to salvage the Air Force Academy's reputation.  This is not Christian fiction.

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