AfterEllen.com Book Club: “And Playing the Role of Herself”

July’s book club selection of And Playing the Role of Herself by K.E. Lane garnered more discussion on our Goodreads page than any previous book in the club. Like all good discussions, the comments included a healthy balance of both praise and criticism, and brought up a lot of interesting questions. So let’s jump right in:

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Fanfiction turned into novels: good or bad?

Many readers noted when this book was chosen that it began as online fanfiction, and book clubber Folkpants pointed out that that’s exactly how it read: like good fanfiction in physical book format. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a reason fanfiction is so popular, as many AfterEllen readers surely understand. And like a lot of good fanfiction, it sucked me in, particularly at the beginning, a factor that is just as important for me as other “literary” qualities. Indeed, almost everyone on Goodreads, including the ones who were also critical, admitted that overall, it was still a quite enjoyable read.

But here’s the gulf that fanfiction has to jump when it’s turned into a full fledged “novel”—fanfiction is based on characters we are already familiar with, whose development has already been crafted by other writers, who we are already invested in. When you turn those fanfiction characters into totally original, new people, even when the readers can guess who they were probably based on, you have a lot more work for yourself to make them both believable and interesting. And it seemed most readers agreed that this character development was probably what was lacking the most in And Playing the Role of Herself. I think the best moments were when we got to learn of Caid and Robyn’s families, or their lives before they met each other, which helped fill them in as real people.

But it still seemed to fall short in explaining why they often acted the way they did—Caid’s  incredibly short temper; Robyn’s emotional flakiness. I agree with book clubber A when she says, “Really Robyn’s whole source of insecurity was only revealed in one comparatively brief conversation about a previous S&M-type relationship that ended badly. For me, that wasn’t enough to explain and validate her behavior.” Along with not knowing them as individuals well enough, we also then don’t get a full picture of why they love each other so deeply, other than the initial physical pull. As Tamara points out, “In the beginning, I really liked the book, the two protagonists had a great chemistry and it was fun to watch them. But soon I noticed that all the author really does is describe how they look, what they are wearing today, and how beautiful they are.” It’s like, after 100 pages or so, we get it: THEY ARE BOTH REALLY BEAUTIFUL. They have great sex. And perhaps for fanfiction, this is enough, as this fantasy-esque release is something we want out of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for a book I’m shelling out cash for, I think I want more. And I think there were hints of more in here, but for some reason they didn’t completely sell me. Don’t get me wrong, I still want the sex, but I need to be able to really empathize with characters to truly invest in them.

But maybe some of us are just taking this too seriously. Or maybe some of you believed the character development WAS done well. What do you think?

The attack on Caid: necessary or not?

There was also some contention about whether the violent attack on Caid near the end of the novel was unnecessary, or in fact served a useful plot device of conflict.

For me, this plays into my bigger criticism of the novel, that it was simply too long and in need of some good editing through the second half. There were essentially two conflict devices used to confirm Robyn’s commitment to Caid: Caid going “missing” on the hiking trail, and then the attack. It wasn’t necessary to have both, and by the time we got to the attack, nothing much had changed in the advancement of the story since the hiking plot point, so it did seem somewhat gratuitous. That said, it was certainly dramatic, and in a lesbian romance, I don’t mind dramatic—if it’s useful. Also, the Emotionally Stunted Lover Who’s Only Able to Throw Themselves Into Love After Their Partner Has Had a Near Death Experience trope has been done so many times that it would have been more interesting to have had both the characters just deal with their shit on their own like grownups.

Should Lane have taken it further with outing Caid and Robyn to the public?

In the vein of acting like grownups, I also wished that we could have seen the full story arc of Caid and Robyn eventually outing themselves and their relationship to the public. Now, this was published seven years ago, and even in that seven years, a lot has changed, so maybe Lane would write a different ending now. But with so much written about Robyn’s fake relationship with Josh, it felt disappointing to not see that fear of public scrutiny and honesty dropped completely, even if it was implied that was where it was going. But perhaps that would have made it even more of an unrealistically perfect ending. What do you think?

OK, but good things:

Criticisms aside, once again, there is something to be said for the fact that so many still enjoyed this read. There’s something within us that needs romance stories, and there was a lot of good romance here. I do think that Lane is a good writer; her dialogue and descriptions were often wonderful. We felt like we were on the set of a TV show (another thing—I actually wanted more of the TV show!); we could feel that beach in Key West. Accordingly, I would definitely read other works she writes, although as many have lamented, we haven’t seen any news on that front since this novel.

What are your thoughts? And what are some of your other favorite lesbian romances to consider for next time?

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