Chris Harrison wrote a romance novel. It took him a couple years and lots of late nights, but given that he’s spent his adult life advising sort of adults how to find love, and given that he’s divorced and has shown no real readiness to settle down again, it seems like that developing this side hustle was time well-spent. But, whether it is time well-spent for you to read the fruits of his labor depends greatly on what kind of mommy you are, and also what kind of porn you like.
The origin of The Perfect Letter can be traced back to none other than Nicholas Sparks, who’s friends with Harrison, and inspired him to write his own tome. Said Harrison during a recent talk:
“We kind of got drunk together one night. We were at a charity event; we started drinking and having a couple bottles of wine. The more that we talked we realized that we had very similar jobs – very different vehicles, but very similar fan bases. We really try to deliver the same things to our fans, and that is escapism and love and romance. And something – no pun intended – sparked in me. I thought if I’m going to write a book, let’s continue with what the people that have been loyal to me can really love. And that is romance and love and intrigue and drama. It’s that currency that no matter where I go in the world works. Everybody can believe in love and wants love.”
In other interviews, Harrison has focused less on the romance and more on the sex, repeatedly referencing the fact that “mommies” will like the book, specifically calling it “mommy porn.”
“Think more Notebook and Nicholas Sparks, less 50 Shades. But there’s some good stuff in the middle. There’s some stuff mommy might want to read at night when the kids aren’t awake.”
I know you’re not supposed to decide about a book before you read it, but in my heart of hearts, I desperately hoped Chris Harrison’s book was so good that I could title this review “Chris Harrison’s Romance Novel Really Turned Me On.” (Other working titles: “I’m Still Wet Because of Chris Harrison’s Romance Novel” and “A Woman on the Subway Saw Me Squirming Uncomfortably While Reading Chris Harrison’s Romance Novel,” though the latter would have, due to our headline length constraints, required significant editing.) I wanted to believe in Chris Harrison’s capabilities. Despite the fact that the shows he hosts depict no actual romantic or sexy moments, who are we to judge what Chris, outside of the confines of an ABC reality television show, is capable of? The moms (and non-moms) who watch certainly squeal for him.
But at least at first, reading The Perfect Letter was a wildly uncomfortable experience. I could feel Chris watching me as I turned the pages, smiling his perfect Hollywood smile. (Perhaps that’s because he literally is doing that on the back of the book.) However, I can read and watch almost anything, trash or non, and I quickly got into the plot, which starts out simple and then becomes so convoluted I kept praying for it to go back to its basic origins (Spoilers lie ahead). It’s The Notebook, but The Notebook had it gone through a meat grinder and been repackaged as a new-and-improved kind of hamburger that inexplicably gets more complicated to eat with every bite.
The Perfect Letter tells the story of Leigh Merrill, a young woman who appears to have it all: she has a great job in publishing, is putting out hottest book of the year, and works with her handsome boyfriend, who happens to be Old Money New York rich. (I’ve literally read this book at least twice before; previous versions were the sequel to The Devil Wears Prada or Tinsley Mortimer’s Southern Charm.)
But Leigh has a lot of history in her home state of Texas, and as the book unfolds, more and more of it comes out of the woodwork. Her grandfather raised her after her wild child mother died of breast cancer, she never knew her father, it’s not only that she left her true love Jake behind in Texas when she moved to Boston to go to college at Harvard, but that he worked on her grandfather’s horse farm, and that they were teens when they met, and that he has a tattoo of a special moment involving the two of them on his arm, and that he murdered someone and went to jail for it, except it was really Leigh that murdered someone and Jake took the fall for it, except that Jake was also involved in using steroids on her grandfather’s horses with his father, except Jake was just a kid and didn’t know what he was doing, and the murder was a mistake, but the dude they murdered sorta deserved it because he threatened to rape Leigh, and she wrote Jake letters in jail for years and years but he never once responded, and eventually those letters come back to haunt her because they’re used to blackmail her by a prison inmate of Jake’s, and while all this is going on she’s also at a publishing conference trying to sign a new book, and her sexually boring boyfriend is trying to get her to marry him, and Jake is just out of jail, and they haven’t spoken in 10 years, and her grandfather is dead and she has no family, and and and and...
It’s a lot.
Harrison is a serviceable writer; there were only a few moments that made me grimace, and the book flowed relatively well. The worst sentences were things like, “There was nothing left to say—her mind was a black hole” or “He might have been in a physical prison, but Leigh had lived in a prison of her own making, unwilling or unable to grant herself parole.”
But we were promised mommy porn, a high bar if you’re going to set it. Along the “mommy porn” spectrum, where Fifty Shades of Grey is a 10 and Confessions of a Shopaholic is a 1, The Perfect Letter is... a 5, maybe? I’m not sure I know a woman, even a Southern one, who’d say, “Don’t stop now, for God’s sake” when her partner pulls away during foreplay, but let’s refrain from judging what anyone verbalizes in a moment of passion.
No, it was mostly the fact that the book’s most romantic moments did feel so very Notebook-y (or The Longest Ride-y) that made it difficult to get into them, coupled with the very convoluted plot. So much of the emphasis of The Perfect Letter is on the letters Jake wrote Leigh and never sent, and all the ones she wrote him and he saved. But the letters aren’t particularly romantic as much as they’re full of anger and frustration, and they’re certainly not sexy. Jake and Leigh’s sex life is mostly limited to scenes of them when they’re teens, which, as anyone who was ever a teen knows, is not going to be hot because of quality as much as it’s hot because it’s all so new. Highlights include the moment Leigh loses her virginity...
A quick burst of pain and then it was done, more smoothly than she had imagined.
Her cries were so loud that Jake often had to hold his hand over her mouth to keep her grandfather from hearing a quarter mile off.
Their first love scene after they’re reunited happens during a rainstorm—a familiar scenario to Rachel McAdams/Ryan Gosling shippers—and the book contains this sentence:
“I waited ten years to hear from you. Ten years without a word of any kind.”
The sex later on was fine.
Leigh closed her eyes and felt the water spraying over them both, a wetness on top of wetness, Jake’s tongue flicking over the center of desire gently at first, then more and more insistent, until she felt a gentle pop and the world was warm around her.
Harrison’s devotion to pleasing women—both extracurricularly by producing The Bachelor franchise, and now with this book—is admirable. But if this is porn, it’s very, very soft-core, and not particularly new or noteworthy. The most tingly feeling you’ll get is if you have a crush on Chris Harrison and you imagine him staying up late at night after his kids have gone to bed, slowly writing out the sex scenes with a fountain tip pen, a glass of red wine at his side. The moment that took my breath away the most was from this one letter Jake never sent to Leigh while he was imprisoned. “They told me you came by again yesterday,” he wrote. “I was in my cell when I heard, reading Anna Karenina.”
Images via ABC and Dey Street Books
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