I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
I am taking my second class in the English Department of our local community college, and in both classes we have talked about Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, “The Hero’s Journey.” The short explanation is that after studying the myths and tales throughout history he found that the typical epic tale has twelve distinct phases or steps. Examples of these Heroes include Ulysses and Gawain, or Bilbo Baggins and Dorothy (of Oz fame). And let’s not forget Batman.
While Campbell was originally writing about men with long beards and big swords, we also find this cycle in a much broader range of stories, including in Romance Novels. One of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors, follows this cycle perfectly. The author is Jae, and the Novel is ‘Just Physical.’
While this novel is a story about two women in love, a lesbian romance, it could just as easily have been about a man and woman or even two gay men. The real story is about much more than the sex and romance. A quick summary: Jill Corrigan is a successful movie actress who has made a career of playing the best friend in romcoms. At the beginning of the story she has recently come out as being gay, but more importantly as having multiple sclerosis. Being gay is not nearly the impediment to her career as is having a condition that could quickly debilitate her. Producers who cast her face the possibility that she could not complete the movie, requiring parts of it to be re-shot with a new actress, a potentially expensive risk to take.
Step One, Ordinary World: Jill has been given a role in an historical disaster movie, mainly because the script writer is the partner of her best friend. She approaches the making of this movie trying to prove that she is a professional, and dependable, actress and her physical condition will not detract from her abilities. She is bothered by what she sees as preferential treatment, such as being given an air conditioned trailer (heat exacerbates the symptoms of MS).
Step Two, Call to Adventure: Enter stunt-woman Crash Patterson. To minimize their risk, the producers have insisted that a stunt double be used, even for such minor actions as tripping over a bedpan, which occurs in her first scene. Both women feel an almost immediate attraction.
Step Three, Refusal of the Call: Despite the sexual chemistry she feels with Crash, Jill refuses to risk having a relationship, afraid that if she allows herself to fall in love, or be loved, her physical condition could deteriorate to the point her partner would be forced into the roll of full-time caregiver. “What if she has to get up and clean the sheets if I have an accident while we’re making love?” she asks her friend Grace. When she learns of Jill’s medical condition Crash has the same concerns. Nevertheless, while shooting on location in San Francisco, Jill and Crash have sex. Jill insists, and Crash agrees, that it will be a one-time thing, not to be repeated.
Step Four, Meeting the Mentor: Jill’s best friend Grace and her partner Lauren have noted the attraction between Jill and Crash. They think that Jill needs a loving relationship and work to put the two women together, initially by inviting them both to a cook-out, having arranged it so Jill will need to drive Crash home afterword.
Step Five, Crossing the Threshold: After driving back from Grace’s home, Jill and Crash fall back into bed together. Jill insists, and Crash again agrees, to the stipulation that they will have a purely physical relationship, no hearts involved, and it will end when they have finished with the filming in six weeks. At this point both women are still concerned about Jill’s condition relapsing, condemning any lover she might have to the roll of care-giver.
Step Six, Tests, Allies and Enemies: The heart of the story. Jill and Crash struggle to be ‘friends with benefits’ instead of lovers. Crash’s mother advises her not to get involved and risk sacrificing her life to be a caregiver. Jill’s mother, barely acknowledging the fact she is gay, constantly sends emails with quack remedies for her condition. Lauren and Grace encourage Jill to be open to a relationship. Jill’s homophobic brother tells her that having MS is a blessing as it keeps her from acting on her perverted desires for other women, ironically as Crash is in the next room following a night of love-making. Jill explodes at Crash after she impulsively ties her shoes for her. Jill feels Crash is telling her she can’t take care of herself and Crash struggles to understand why she can’t accept a simple act of kindness. The underlying conflict of the story become clear here, that Jill, while refusing to allow her condition to determine her professional life is letting it control her personal relationships.
Crash participates in an MS Caregiver support group, where she meets Sally, and later her husband George. George is confined to a wheelchair and is totally dependent upon his wife for his daily activities.
Step Seven, Approach to the Inner Most Cave: The entire cast and crew of the movie sign up for an MS walk-a-thon. Despite her misgivings about being the center of attention because of her medical condition, Jill decides at the last minute to participate. At the event there is a board where participants can write down why they are there. Crash writes “for Jill.” After a lot of thought, Jill writes “I’m sick of being sick.”
Step Eight, The Ordeal: Jill is beginning to understand how she has given control of her life over to her illness. At the event, Jill meets Sally and George and watches as Sally happily feeds him a hotdog, and he just as happily accepts her help. She and Crash both consider if they could fill those roles.
Then Crash has to perform a stunt where she will be set on fire. On a previous shoot a similar stunt went wrong and she received severe burns. Crash is ‘scared shitless’ of the fire, but determined to not let her fear keep her from doing her job. At her request Jill comes to observe the shoot, and Jill is put in the position of offering support as opposed to being to one needing it. She starts to understand how caring is a two-way street.
Jill enters an on-line support group for people with MS and encounters others with attitudes ranging from George’s upbeat outlook on life to “Sucks-To-Be-Me,’ a group member who sees himself as a victim and a loser. Faced with this contrast, Jill begins to consider how she is going to reconcile her life with her medical condition.
Part Nine, Reward: After the wrap-up party following the end of filming, Jill and Crash agree that there is a possibility that they could become a couple. They agree to work towards that in a traditional dating/courting relationship.
Part Ten, The Road Back: The morning after their decision to start a relationship, Jill suffers a relapse. While Crash is in the shower, Jill gets up to join her and her discovers she’s lost the use of her legs, falling and lying helpless on the floor until Crash comes back into the room. Jill is both embarrassed and scared by what has happened, and pushes Crash away. She insists that Crash call her friend Grace to come help her, asking that Crash leave. Jill starts treatment for her relapse, refusing to see or talk to Crash. While in treatment she talks with other women with the same condition and learns more about how they are coping with it.
Having been pushed away by Jill, Crash talks with her mother who, despite her misgivings about her daughter sacrificing her ambitions to be with a woman who cannot care for herself, tells Crash that if that is what she really wants she needs to go for it the same way she would approach any other difficult task.
Part Eleven, Resurrection: Jill, who lives in a fenced and gated property, literally and figuratively tries to lock Crash out beyond the gate. Crash, literally and figuratively, climbs over the fence and refuses to be pushed away. Both women admit their love for each other.
Part Twelve, Return with the Elixir: Jill needs regular injections to stabilize her condition and has always given them to herself, never letting any other person help or even observe her doing so, seeing that as an admission of weakness and dependency. The story ends with her letting Crash give her the injection. The two women are facing life together as a couple, as close as they are going to get to an HEA.
I have often told skeptical friends that Romance Novels are about a lot more than the romance, the best ones are about the women and men involved. “Just Physical” is not unique in following Campbell’s monomyth. Others that I have read include “Simply Love” by Mary Balogh, “Breathing Room” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and “Nothing to Lose” by Clare Lydon. I’m sure there are plenty of others, and I’m looking forward to reading them.
Novel Report: It now stands at 59,197 words. I’m afraid I’ve taken out more than I have added to the story this time. It’s a damn good thing I don’t write for a living.