The Actor and the Housewife
by Shannon Hale
Pub Date: June 9, 2009
I read a galley of this book shortly after it was published a few years back, and moved to Provo for a few months after, where I worked as bookseller at the now defunct Borders Books store in the Riverwoods shopping complex. Shannon Hale is a super popular children’s author, best known for her Princess Academy series, and a fellow Mormon! (And she is fabulous to follow on Twitter.) So I was surprised that The Actor and the Housewife, the second adult title written by Hale after Austenland, was not flying off the shelves in Happy Valley. And recently the author said on Twitter that the book was quietly going out of print. (It’s still available digitally, in some libraries, and for low prices online, so it’s not a rare book yet!) The first time I read it, I devoured the book. I had not read a book by a major publisher that featured Mormonism so prominently and so positively before, and I sang praises for this book for ages afterwards simply because in my sphere it was such a welcome addition. My thoughts on the book have evolved upon reading it again, but I still find it overly a charming story with the added plus of being centered on Mormon life.
The book is about a Mormon housewife, Becky Jack, who stumbles into a friendship with a heartthrob actor Felix Callahan. The way I remember it from the first time I read it was it’s like Hale wrote herself into a fan fiction (without being a total Mary Sue) about being friends with Colin Firth. (The contemporary and personal equivalent for me would be Aaron Paul*, and you can pretty easily project your own fantasy male lead in the story as you read.) The book follows Becky and Felix for a number of years as they face life’s challenges and wonder how on earth they became friends and are so drawn to each other. Becky is very much in love with her husband Mike, and Felix is married to a French supermodel, but of course some conflict enters the friendship because it is so unusual. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this the first time, since it was a Mormon experience novel that tied in aspects of LDS life without belittling it, without apologizing for it. Becky just IS. And at the time I really appreciated that.
Reading this novel again years later, I do cringe a little at the initial “meet cute” of Becky and Felix. It’s a little over the top. But then the thought occurred to me that Hale kind of wrote The Actor and the Housewife in the style of a YA novel, but definitely aimed at adults. It’s an odd angle, but that helped me to read it with a little less cynicism. From other reviews I’ve read, this type of story did not grab a lot of people (which is probably why it’s going out of print), but if you’re an LDS stay-at-home mom especially, or grew up entrenched in Mormon culture, you might find some delicious overlap in Becky’s story, and some fantasy fulfillment as well. It’s a well-constructed fan fiction, and should be enjoyed as that.
The story is separated into three acts, and I think what I most remember about the book is the third act. It’s heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and all the pieces of the story puzzle start to fall into place in a satisfying way. The last third of the book is what has stood out to me the most about the book, and it makes getting through the more treacly parts of the book absolutely worth it. And if you’re active LDS, I can pretty much guarantee you will sob and it will be a lovely sob. I’ll just warn you now.
The book could bring up some good discussion following Becky’s train of thought, the whole “what if?” aspect of the story. What if you suddenly became friends with your “freebie” celebrity crush? Do you agree with Becky’s choices? How would your family and church friends react to this friendship? Is Becky and her social circle people you know? How would you handle similar circumstances in your marriage and with your friends? Do you find people are draw into your life almost inexplicably, and later on down the line you realize why you needed each other?
So while I’ll agree with the assessment that the book isn’t for everyone, it’s by a well-loved author and features LDS characters in a way that doesn’t make them the villain. It’s fun and light and silly, and still give a good punch in the end.
*I have legit had fantasies about meeting Aaron Paul and his wife Lauren, since he’s done filming in Atlanta a few times over the last few years. Mostly it involves going out for pizza or me making them pizza, and we have a silly moment of dancing to Florence + the Machine. Pretty tame fantasy, I know.