I suppose it’s not surprising that someone let Chris Harrison write a book. The diminutive all-American host of The Bachelor and Bachelorette has participated in some 29 seasons of romantic Hunger Games, during which time he’s perfected the art of soberly watching men and women choose their future fiancees via a series of melodramatic flower handouts. It doesn’t much matter whether the bachelor/ette is bubbly or reserved, smart or dim-witted, good at juggling two-dozen potential significant others or hilariously ill-equipped. Regardless, Harrison is there, be-suited and poker-faced, his benignly sympathetic countenance a cross between the earnest enthusiasm of Carson Daly hosting The Voice and the thinly veiled smugness of Alex Trebek on Jeopardy. Harrison has no qualms about proclaiming each season of The Bachelor “the most controversial ever,” and is a master at addressing “Bachelor Nation” without smirking. One might even think he believes in it all: the frenzied, tumbling romances; the grand proclamations; the too-soon engagements. At the very least, Harrison knows one thing about love: It sells.
It seems logical that Harrison’s experience watching relationships develop would come to bear in his first book, an unapologetic romance novel that shouts his Bachelor affiliation from its front cover. But budding affairs play little part in The Perfect Letter, which instead centers on Leigh Merrill, an up-and-coming New York book editor who is forced to contend with her past when a speaking engagement brings her back to her Texas hometown. Waiting there is Leigh’s high school sweetheart, Jake, who has just been released from prison after serving a 10-year sentence over events for which Leigh was at least partially responsible. Guilt over their history, confusion over Jake’s refusal to answer any of her letters, and curiosity over what might have been between them weigh on Leigh. As does the fact that her New York book editor boyfriend, who also happens to kind of be her boss, has just proposed.
So no new romances. No new anything, actually—The Perfect Letter is exhaustively predictable. From its setups to its entirely underwhelming reveals, there isn’t much in this book that doesn’t seem culled from the sprawling canon of existing romance novels. Forbidden teenage romance; tragic accidents; fated lovers forced to spend years apart. Stacked up against former Bachelor Sean Lowe’s For The Right Reasons and former Bachelor contestant Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, The Perfect Letter is at least fiction—theoretically creative. But Harrison still dutifully vomits out what Bachelor Nation undoubtedly clamors for, which is all to say that Leigh’s doting editor boyfriend never stands a chance.
While I’d expected little by way of plot originality from Harrison, I had hoped against all odds that he might be a decent writer, or have hired one. I wondered whether years of hearing identical-looking people spout identical-sounding platitudes at each other on camera might have instilled in Harrison a wariness of cliche. Nope. The Perfect Letter is 300 pages of cliches. It is a novel that includes dialogue like “I promise I’m real if you are,” and phrases like “they were free to pursue the path their hearts, and their bodies, chose for them.” At one point—specifically, “He might have been in physical prison, but Leigh had lived in a prison of her own making, unwilling or unable to grant herself parole”—I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt.
The only place where Harrison veers from what might otherwise be considered a Bachelor-appropriate vanilla romance of epically banal proportions is the sex. Which is to say that Leigh has it, multiple times, and none of the details are hidden behind the walls of a fantasy suite. Even when Leigh loses her virginity, with Jake when the two are (admittedly, monogamous and mutually besotted) teenagers, it’s a self-assured experience:
“It had been surprising only in that she’d enjoyed it more than she would have thought given what Chloe and the other girls at school always said—that it was unusually fast, and painful, and awkward. But maybe it was different when you really loved someone, she thought.”
Later, Leigh has adult sex with Jake and it’s equally enthusiastic. The “hard, flat muscles of his chest” are mentioned often, and Leigh moans “like a man who’d thought he was dead suddenly come back to life.” (I mean, ???) Harrison is circumspect when describing Jake’s…Jake bits—this is romance you guys, not erotica—but he lets slip a few suggestive gems, like “between them, the growing weight of ten years of lust and longing, the swell of want.” Inelegantly overt sex scenes are always painful, but there’s something particularly priceless about reading one written by (or perhaps ghost-written for) a 43-year-old man whose face I see on television once a week for half of every year.
Because yes, I’m a member of Bachelor Nation (#BachelorNation, if you will.) Not a card-carrying member, not a proud member, but a member nonetheless. Somewhere around 2010 I started watching The Bachelor/ette (I blame The Soup), if not ironically then at least in pursuit of schadenfreude. But one cannot honestly sit through two weekly hours of B/ette without having to admit some greater fundamental enjoyment, without conceding, in one’s heart of hearts, some small pleasure taken in the bumbling sparks that fly between the bachelor or bachelorette and his/her small army of prospects. “Statistically, at least one of them has to be a potential match, right?” I ask my cats as we watch the endless rose ceremony in muted low-level fast-forward. “It’s like starting your night in a bar where everyone is single and hot and the only person to talk to is you.”
The Bachelor/ette is dumb television, but it can also be earnest, and in that sense I suppose The Perfect Letter is a natural side project for Harrison. But what the former offers in sheer entertainment value—whether that’s an envy-inspiring skydiving date, or an extremely awkward helicopter ride—the latter lacks in charisma. The Perfect Letter is, for lack of a better word, boring. If given the opportunity, I would not award it a flower in the ritualistic flower handout ceremony. Sorry not sorry. I didn’t come here to make friends.
TITLE: The Perfect Letter
AUTHOR: Chris Harrison
PAGES: 304 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: A Nicholas Sparks fart
FIRST LINE: “Leigh Merrill had grown up surrounded by men.”