What Happens When the Sappiness of 'The Bachelor' Meets the Plotting of 'Inception'?
Experiencing Chris Harrison's The Perfect Letter is similar to that of the show he hosts, The Bachelor: you love to "hate-read" it.
The Perfect LetterPublisher: Dey Street
Length: 320 pages
Author: Chris Harrison
Publication date: 2015-05
Let’s cut to the chase: Bachelor host Chris Harrison’s début romance novel, The Perfect Letter, is -- perhaps astonishingly -- quite good. If you enjoy romance novels like Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook (which Harrison cites as an inspiration), you’ll probably enjoy The Perfect Letter. Or, if you’re one of the many people (like me) who not-so-secretly watches ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette every Monday, you too will probably find yourself unable to resist The Perfect Letter. I found that, despite having started with the firmest intentions to talk smart ironic talk about this hilariously “meta” cultural product -- one that will sell solely because of who its author is -- I honestly appreciated The Perfect Letter’s cleverness and craftsmanship. It’s not transcendentally awesome Great Literature, but then again, it doesn’t aspire to be.
Whoever was in charge of writing The Perfect Letter’s jacket copy describes Harrison, who has hosted The Bachelor since 2002, as a “modern day love expert”. I bristled at that phrase: How does hosting a reality show make someone an “expert” on love? What even is a “love expert?” But then, I think I was supposed to bristle at it. You see, one of The Bachelor’s most stable conceits is that cynicism -- the attitude to which many of us default when watching reality TV -- always loses, and true love always wins.
Harrison plays a major role in reinforcing this fairytale narrative, aided by ABC’s team of producers and editors, who make the crucial behind-the-scenes choices of what footage to include on the show. Week after week -- even on the delightfully trashy spin-off Bachelor in Paradise -- Harrison steps in to reassert the show’s frame: The best contestants have gone there sincerely hoping to find love. Some of them just might form a genuine connection with another person (despite the omnipresent cameras reminding them that their actions will be scrutinized on national TV). So, you win, jacket copywriter: I suppose the ability to insist, straight-faced, on the primacy of love in the complexly ironic world of reality TV does count as some kind of expertise.
The novel’s protagonist’s name is Leigh, which tells you everything you need to know about her. She’s a rich white brunette, raised by her grandfather, a kindly but strict Texas rancher who once sold a thoroughbred for $15 million. Her mother died when she was young. She got an actual pony for her tenth birthday, but preferred to spend her afternoons reading Marguerite Henry novels (about horses) in the hayloft. She’s Harvard-educated and has a successful career in book publishing, a choice whose apparent obsequiousness it’s hard not to sneer at. One just has trouble imagining someone famous like Harrison needing flattery -- here, publishing people, a story about someone just like you! -- to get his manuscript printed, but then, perhaps ego-stroking is always good marketing.
“Writing a book set in the publishing world was actually not a self-serving attempt to suck up to writers or critics,” Harrison tells me in an interview, “but if that is a positive byproduct, then I’ll be O.K. with that. I honestly feel the story has less to do with the world of publishing and more to do with the art of writing. I understand it’s set in that world, but it’s the lost art of writing that really meant something to me and sparked my interest. I’ve not thought too deeply about how The Bachelor and other reality shows might be a cause of this in our society, but that is an issue I might be talking about in my next therapy session.”
For my part, I cannot say I felt particularly strongly about Leigh, like or dislike, though Harrison’s portrait of her life is nuanced and fairly believable. He takes the trouble, for example, to have her get stuck “following a delivery truck with a bad muffler” on the way to the New York airport. In an ending scene, where it would be tempting to omit texture and detail, he pauses to describe “the tack room, where her grandfather stored the bridles and saddles, blankets and bits.” For the most part, however, Leigh comes across as a helpless vessel whose main narrative function is to register really intense emotion. Now, I would point out that this depiction robs her of agency -- a gullible little girl who weeps, feels the ache of regret, is tossed about like a boat on stormy seas -- but then, you already knew that. Leigh also undergoes a remarkable (if predictable) character transformation. (“Fear is a powerful force, Leigh -- it keeps you from hearing your own heart”).
The key features about Leigh, though, are her wealth and (we imagine) her beauty, the utter effortlessness with which they permit her to glide through life, the freedom they afford her to think almost exclusively about love. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, too, traffic in aspirational, upper-middle-class fantasy. The show’s contestants frequently have “jobs” too openly ridiculous to bother ridiculing: Dog Lover, Free Spirit, Former NBA Cheerleader, “Pantsapreneur”. It's not that I’m against any of those things; just that one wonders how such people afford to live when they aren’t being paid to be on TV.
And oh, the McMansions! The cookie-cutter fancy homes to which contestants inevitably are taken on the “hometowns” episodes: So nice to meet you, ma’am, that vase is lovely! These make it clear that most of the show’s contestants come from at-least-decent money. Chris Soules, the most recent Bachelor, was sold to audiences as a classically American type, a flannel-wearing, combine-driving farmer from Iowa. (“Prince Farming” was the mot du jour.) But even he is sitting pretty: he’s also a “Farmland Investment Specialist” whose net worth is estimated at $1.5 million.
None of these smarty-pants observations really matter, since The Perfect Letter is a success on its own terms, and it is (sorry to the haters) a genuine work of art by a real person who at least seems to genuinely care about love. Which is, at the same time, exactly what’s so captivating (or, for some, infuriating) about Chris Harrison and The Bachelor in general. Although both show and book revolve around thoroughly predictable narratives, they’re both kind of irresistible, for the banal and obvious reason that we all feel and care about love. We want others to have it, no matter how obnoxious and superficial -- Ms. Leigh Merrill, rich white book editor! -- they may seem. That’s why I struggled to keep my ironic distance from the material: fairytale love stories like The Perfect Letter engage with profound and fundamental questions of human culture, which is why we show them to children.
The Perfect Letter’s basic story is as follows: Like a contestant on The Bachelorette who’s winnowed it down to the final two guys, Leigh has to decide between marrying her boss at the publishing company -- a wealthy Manhattan socialite who proposes in Chapter 1 -- and the possibility of rekindling her love with the dark and mysterious Jake.
“Leigh discovers what many ‘Bachelorettes’ discover,” Harrison said, “that we amazingly have the power to love more than one person at a time. What Leigh has to figure out is who truly brings out the best in her, who really fits in her life. When I talk to people on my television show, we often talk about that intangible thing we like to call chemistry. You can’t really describe it and you can’t force it with anybody, but you certainly know when you see or feel it.” At the same time it’s obvious from the second you meet Leigh’s boss, and the structure of the novel, that they have no chemistry.
Leigh encounters Jake when she returns to her hometown of Austin, Texas to give the keynote address at a writer’s conference (no big deal). Leigh and Jake were each other’s first loves, but they share a dark past: One night, in Leigh’s grandfather’s barn, one of the ranch hands -- a man named Dale, who’d been involved with illegal horse-doping -- strangled Jake and threatened to rape Leigh. When he came at her, Leigh shot him with her grandfather’s gun (in self-defense). But (stupid teenagers!) Jake decided they should lie about the incident and say that he was the one who pulled the trigger. Ruh-roh, Reorge.
Leigh tried to tell the truth at trial, but it was too late: everyone had already fixated on Jake and decided he’d done it. So, he went to prison “for her,” served ten hard years, during which time she wrote letters to him constantly -- only he never wrote back. Then, one night, a box full of letters mysteriously appears in Leigh’s hotel room. Fast forward a bunch and Leigh undergoes a profound transformation that leads to -- you guessed it! -- the conclusion that she really loves Jake. They live happily ever after, the end.
Despite its predictability, one of The Perfect Letter’s major assets is its pacing. Perhaps not surprisingly, its rhythms seem borrowed from reality TV: in the book’s middle section, whenever (TV voiceover voice) a shocking twist you won’t believe happens, the narrative cuts away to a flashback, a recounting of the tale of Leigh and Jake’s young love, undone by tragedy. Harrison, in other words, sets up cliffhanger after cliffhanger -- predictable, yes, but there’s no denying it works. As you might expect, however, Harrison’s overreliance on this conceit is also one of the novel’s weaknesses (just as it is one of the show’s). The twists become too predictable too rapidly, their efforts to be (TV v.o.v.) shocking eventually become boring. OMG, what will happen next? Cut to commercial.
Harrison’s novel also has a curious metafictive element, which Harrison probably did not intend as a comment on the relationship between his novel and his persona on The Bachelor, but which serves as one regardless. In The Perfect Letter, Leigh’s publishing company, Jenks & Hall, has just published a novel called The Perfect Letter. Its author, a legendary romance writer named Millikin, is (probably) a stand-in for Nicholas Sparks, who initially suggested that Harrison consider writing. “I had the fortunate experience,” he said, “of running into and spending an evening with Mr. Sparks at a charity event in San Diego. The more we talked, the more we realized our worlds and our fan bases are very similar. That night Nicholas asked if I’d ever given thought of writing a book. At the time I honestly hadn’t given it much thought…” I’m sure you guess how it ends.
But the plot thickens: Leigh’s keynote at the writer’s conference waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days when folks wrote letters to each other. She praises the tradition of the epistolary novel, the novel in letters, and even closes her conference remarks with the phrase “the perfect letter”. At the close of each of the middle chapters, we encounter reproductions of Leigh and Jake’s letters to each other. But wait, there’s more! The ultimate resolution involves Leigh opening her own publishing company and Jake becoming a writer. His first book will be a, you guessed it, epistolary novel containing the letters they sent each other, which is supposed to be the very novel we are reading.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Harrison was up to with this meta-textual, Inception-style infinite-loop thing. Is he, a TV personality whose existence we know only through his carefully managed public image, being sincere about any of this love stuff? The Perfect Letter certainly deepened my impression that he is, i.e., that he does it all because he cares, that this novel was his labored-over literary fantasy, pursued in stolen moments over the course of many years. But then, I think I might be a sucker for wanting to believe that, especially since the book can’t quite seem to resist calling attention to its own constructedness. After all, Chris Harrison is first and foremost an actor, one whose “true passion” is appearing on “live TV”.
But then, I should let him tell it: “It was important to me to set this book far away from my Bachelor world… Although many lessons learned while hosting and producing The Bachelor shows are in this novel, there are also many aspects of my personal life in The Perfect Letter.” He added coyly: “There are many characters and scenes in the book that are very personal. Obviously the names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, or in some cases the guilty!”
In the final analysis, then, although it is tempting to view Harrison’s book solely as crass profiteering, love is so universal that one imagines even well-to-do actors and TV personalities must feel it, too. And I am (and we are, I hope) pro-love. Romance novels about girls who love horses, in short, are not the problem in our society. Harrison’s love story is cheesy and predictable, but also genuinely fun to read -- and its mastery of titillating-but-not-overly-so sex scenes is certainly worthy of Sparks' oeuvre.
What’s more, Harrison’s facility in describing deeply-felt emotion is impressive, even if sometimes overdone. Check out this passage and tell me there isn’t something unique and apt about his “made of glass” metaphor: “Her grandfather had put his arms around her, but she shrugged him off. The old man was partly to blame, too, and Leigh felt all the anger in her settle, finally, on him. If he hadn’t forbidden Leigh and Jake to see each other, none of this would have happened. She made herself stand still and not embrace him in return. Her whole body felt like it was made of glass.”
What oozes through is feeling, the same special sauce that makes The Bachelor so successful. So, you win, Chris Harrison: love always wins.
Benjamin Winterhalter is a writer and journalist (and former attorney) whose work has also appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Baffler, and The Morning News. He is a contributing editor for JSTOR Daily and is nearing completion of his first book, a collection of personal essays.