Frankly, I admired Chris Harrison’s decision to write a romance novel. It’s nice to think he does something with his off-hours besides getting massages and drinking whiskey, which would be understandable escapes given that his day job is hosting The Bachelor and its spin-offs.
On-screen, Harrison is perfectly cast. He’s a bro to the bros and a sympathetic friend to the ladies (often referred to as “girls”). His demeanor has just enough gravity to make viewers and participants feel like the show’s romantic competitions are real and important, but he also knows just when to break character and comment on a particularly absurd moment.
With the publication today of Harrison’s debut novel The Perfect Letter, we have an opportunity to find out what’s really going on in the host’s well-coiffed head. What has he learned about relationships from his many years of goosing men and women into premature engagements? When given a blank slate to create a purely fictional scenario, can Chris Harrison concoct one that’s as compelling as reality TV?
The answer, of course, is no—as, really, we could have safely guessed. To ask almost anyone to write a novel that’s as weirdly riveting as that death stare between Ashley I. and Kelsey on a canopy bed in the middle of the desert is to ask for failure. (Even so, Harrison’s literary debut does not omit the canopy beds.) So, on its own terms, how is The Perfect Letter?
Well, the basics are in place: Harrison has crafted a fairly sturdy plot. His protagonist is Leigh Merrill, a New York book editor in her late 20s who begins the book on the cusp of greatness: she’s just landed a long-awaited novel from a legendary author (“the biggest publishing coup this side of J.D. Salinger”), and her boss is ready to give her both her own imprint and an engagement ring. She’s a graduate of Harvard, where we’re informed she liked to hang out on “Harvard Commons” (which doesn’t actually exist, but never mind that) and chose a surprisingly remunerative “major” (which would actually be called a concentration, but never mind that).
Leigh has a secret history, though, and it begins to emerge when she travels back to her hometown of Austin, Texas for a conference and learns that her high school boyfriend has just been released from prison. What was he in the big house for? Suffice it to say that the recounting of events from Leigh’s late adolescence would necessitate trigger warnings in multiple senses of the word—including the Roy Rogers sense.
Unsurprisingly, things get steamy. If The Perfect Letter is ever made into a movie, there will be a lot to look at: Harrison isn’t one for furtive fucks. He likes to have his characters strip down and admire each other (“He pulled off her panties and left her naked in the white blanket, sitting back to look at her”; “Naked, he looked both stronger and more vulnerable than she’d ever seen him”) before they unite their bodies and explode with pleasure. (The young Leigh, we learn, led her first conquest to the hayloft, “the one place she knew no one would look for them,” because of course, on a ranch, the hayloft is totally the last place you’d ever think to look for two horny teens trying to have surreptitious sex.)
Things ultimately wrap up in a fairly satisfying manner after some classic confrontations involving dueling lovers, a grizzled old man in a desert shack, and a million dollars in cash. There’s one plot strand, involving a mysterious man with whom Leigh flirts despite the fact that he might or might not be her father, that’s left dangling—but forgetting one out of about two dozen plot strands isn’t a bad record for a first book.
What’s most strangely deficient in The Perfect Letter are the basic mechanics of using words to describe characters’ actions in a consistent and comprehensible manner. Some chapters go off without a hitch (so to speak), but early on, things are a little rocky. As you might expect from someone who hosts a show where people are constantly having food set in front of them but never actually eating it, restaurants are Harrison’s kryptonite: any time his characters need to eat or drink, the author starts to stumble.
This is particularly acute when a server is involved. Harrison’s characters are constantly “flagging” servers (invariably identified as “waitresses”) for drinks. Can you remember the last time you actually waved at a server because you wanted a drink, and it worked? Maybe that’s how they do it in Austin, but Harrison’s servers also seem to exist in weird wormholes that warp time. For example, consider this episode involving Leigh and her friend Chloe:
“There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?” Chloe asked. She sat back in her chair and blew out a long, low breath. “Well, let’s hear it, then.”
Leigh flagged down the waitress and ordered them both a couple of fingers of bourbon on the rocks.
“Damn,” Chloe said moments later, watching the waitress put down their drinks. “That bad, huh?”
Seemingly, those double bourbons arrive so quickly that Chloe doesn’t even have time to comment on Leigh’s order before the drinks are set on the table. Those high-powered book editors must tip well. Of course, the server might have got the idea that the two friends were feeling impatient: a few pages earlier, Leigh and Chloe ordered food, and Leigh wasted no time digging in.
They chatted about Chloe’s band, a few old friends, Leigh’s job. The waitress was putting down the fattest carne asada burrito Leigh had ever seen when Chloe asked, “So how’s Joseph lately?”
Leigh was midbite, her mouth so filled with steak she couldn’t answer right away. She swallowed slowly, buying herself time.
I read this passage several times, trying to understand exactly what this episode would have looked like to the waitress. Finally, I decided that the only way things could have unfolded exactly as Harrison describes would have been if Leigh literally smashed her face down into the burrito at the very moment it was being placed on the table, so that by the time Chloe finished her four-word sentence, Leigh’s mouth was already full of steak. Again, I can only hope she tipped well. (At least she knows the difference between a burrito and an enchilada, which we later learn is somehow not true of her publishing-executive fiancé.)
Then there’s the mystery-within-a-mystery that I call The Case of the Bottomless Bloody. When Leigh shows up hung over to deliver the conference keynote, Saundra, the conference director, slips her a couple of aspirin tablets and a little hair-of-the-dog in the form of a Bloody Mary. Over the next several pages, the drink comes up again and again.
Leigh nearly hugged the woman. “You’re a magician,” she said, tossing back the aspirin with a gulp of tomato juice and vodka.[…]
Leigh sipped the Bloody Mary, trying to be careful of her white dress.[…]
Leigh took a sip of her Bloody Mary and continued.[…]
Leigh took another gulp of her Bloody Mary.[…]
She was sipping her Bloody Mary and nodding while someone else asked her a question.[…]
She jumped down from the stage and ran toward the door, trying to catch him—spilling red Bloody Mary on her white dress, of course.
After a nap, Leigh wakes up hungry: “Two bites of bagel and a few sips of Bloody Mary hadn’t been enough to calm her stomach.” A few sips? Leigh has a longer, more intimate history with that drink than with most of the humans in her life. Maybe Leigh is fooling herself about how much she’s been drinking, because she must have been pretty tanked to fall asleep in her bra—as Harrison makes a point of noting that she did. (Like many male writers, Harrison likes to keep readers apprised regarding the presence or absence of his heroine’s brassiere.)
There are a few syntax slips, too; my favorite comes when Leigh is musing about her youth. “Over time,” she remembers, “New York started to feel like a beacon, calling to her from her bedroom in Texas with its pink canopy, its parade of stuffed animals.” There must have been a Furry convention at Javits.
Where Harrison really comes into his own is describing the picturesque locations his characters visit. When Leigh arrives at her conference accommodations, for example, you totally know she’s just checked in to the fantasy suite.
The Austin Writers’ Conference was located on a vineyard just outside the city limits, a stunning old Texas estate in the Hill Country dotted with tiny stone guest cottages, a dining pavilion, and an enormous stone-and-timber mansion that would serve for the next week as the conference center. As the guest of honor, Leigh had a little cottage to herself on a hillside with the view of the valley below, the mils of green vineyards and rolling hills. A cozy place with a single room dominated by a large canopy bed, a fieldstone fireplace, and a river-stone bathroom, it was too large for Leigh, but she’d nearly cried at the beauty of the view, at her first taste of home in a decade. The hills were purple with bluebonnets, and as she’d stood at the window watching the sunset turn pink and gold, she couldn’t remember why on earth she’d ever thought to leave.
You can tell that Harrison is in his element there: not just in Texas—he’s a Dallas native—but in the world of spacious luxury. The Perfect Letter isn’t as hot as Fifty Shades of Grey, but like E.L. James, Harrison seems to believe that quirky bohos are somehow able to afford and maintain vintage VWs like Chloe’s orange whip, which makes multiple appearances and is always explicitly identified as a Karmann Ghia.
Give Harrison credit for aiming high and dispensing with false modesty. The novel’s title is also that of the instant classic that Leigh convinced her star author to publish after decades of silence, and Leigh ultimately decides that her next star author is her jailbird ex, whom she informs, on the basis of the unsent missives he penned behind bars, that he’s a gifted writer. “I have an eye for this kind of thing, Jake. It’s the one thing I know how to do, and do well. Your letters, what you wrote—they’re as good as anything I ever read.”
As an author, that’s a bold statement to put in the mouth of a seasoned editor when you’re writing those letters yourself and making them available for your readers to peruse. Early in his incarceration, for example, Jake writes:
I lie on a mattress of stones, waiting for sleep that never comes. I saw you today, even though you didn’t know it. I saw you in your blue dress, the one with the white polka dots, the one like a shower of meteors streaking across the sky. Your hair was tied up in a ponytail. The sun was shining on it, all that long dark hair. I wanted to reach up, pull the rubber band out, and let it fall through my hands like water. Bury my face in it and drown deeply. Drown in it. I thought if I could just touch you one more time, if I could feel your hands on me again just once, I could go back into the prison and stay behind bars the rest of my life. I would face the death penalty, if it meant I could touch you once more before I go.
As good as anything you’ve ever read? Probably not, but it’s good enough.
Harrison knows how to give his readers what they want, right up to the end of his acknowledgements on the book’s final page. “You are the most devoted, passionate, and loyal fan base of any show on television,” he tells Bachelor Nation. “All of you were in my heart and mind as I wrote this love story. And now I will take a moment and say my goodbyes!”