Four months before the release of The Feminist and the Cowboy, Alisa Valdez confessed that her “unlikely love story” had ended, and in a manner that was not so much Cinderella, but more Macbeth.
Not only was the relationship over, but it had all along been strung with sinister threads: physical abuse and psychological cruelty (by the cowboy) and what can only be described as periodic bouts of sanity (by the feminist). “When Bad Things Happen to Psychotic People” might have been a better subtitle for this memoir.
Until now, Valdez was best known for two things: a frothy catalog of “chick lit” novels, and the 3,400-word tantrum she wrote her supervisors at The Los Angeles Times when resigning 12 years ago. (She also once worked for The Boston Globe, but presumably left there less wordily.) Huffing about discrimination and “genocide” via racial labels, Valdez, whose father is Cuban, quit journalism to write novels full time.
The Feminist and the Cowboy, the story of Valdez’s love affair with a rancher she met on Match.com, is her first foray into nonfiction books, although at times the memoir itself reads like chick lit. Portions of it, in fact, suggest that Gotham was trying to reel in the Fifty Shades audience with the narrative’s themes of power and submission. Valdez spends much of this book succumbing, and this occurs at great expense to her feminist credentials, which were already thin, given her backlist.
All this makes The Feminist and the Cowboy look like a train wreck of a book, an accident of publishing that should have been hastily withdrawn like Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies last year.
But here’s the thing: The book works. The author is self-absorbed, neurotic, needy, whiny and immature — prone to repetition, embellishment and grandiosity — and she continues to date a man who, for all his Hollywood good looks, bullies and lies to her. But damn if she can’t write, despite all of that.
Even though we all know how it ends, this book is a page-turner. And despite the author’s frequent rants against conservatism (Ayn Rand, and the people who read her, are labeled sociopaths), and her tendency to go on and on about things we’d rather not hear about (the batteries!), even a heartless conservative can care about her in the end.
In this way, the book is much like that infamous resignation letter, which, at first read, looks like a diatribe of the insane, but, at its core, pulses with meaning and heart. In that letter, she says she’s quitting newspapers to work on fiction, not knowing if anyone will buy her books or not. “I will work for my conscience, my soul, and my heart, and my child. If that means I live in a small room in the back of my father’s house, so be it. I will be happier there, writing my truth in ‘fiction,’ than I am here, writing your truth in ‘fact.’”
In journalistic circles, Valdez was mocked for this letter, as she has been for The Feminist and the Cowboy, and not without cause. A serious writer can’t describe a sexual encounter with the sentence “The earth moved” and not expect a vigorous raking. She’s excessive, not only in the length of her sentences but in the emotions they reveal. And given that Valdez was with “the cowboy” (unnamed in the book, but later revealed to be named Steve) for only one month at the halfway point of the book, it’s reasonable to conclude that not only was the relationship too rushed, but so was the book proposal.
But that’s why God — or Harlequin — invented sequels.
And those most dismissive of Valdez may simply be envious. The woman has published seven novels and this memoir, sold a million books in 11 languages, and done all this as a single parent. Maybe The Feminist and the Cowboy is more cautionary tale than love story, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a beautiful mess, both the book and its author. B —Jennifer Graham