Review: “Pretty Sally Couldn’t Marry Albert” by Jefferson Parrish

The cover of 'Pretty Sally Couldn't Marry Albert' by Jefferson Parrish

So, since I bought a bunch of ‘asexual’ fiction stories from Dreamspinner Press, I decided to go ahead and review them. Last month, I reviewed a bunch of titles from the Harmony Ink Press imprint. This month, I’m reviewing titles from the “Dreamspinner” imprint.

Also, I am in New Orleans right now. And this story is set in the New Orleans metropolitan area (after all, it’s a story by “Jefferson Parrish“). Thus, this is a very appropriate time for me to post this review.

What Is This Story About?

Albert, who has recently experienced a stroke which impaired his left leg, spends much of his time with his widowed sister and her children. They find some sentimental keepsakes which Albert’s mother had gathered, including a valentine’s card from ‘Pretty Sally’. Kyle, Albert’s nephew, finds out that ‘Pretty Sally’ was in fact Harry, Albert’s high school buddy who had a serious crush on him. Kyle decides to get in contact with Harry…

What Sexual and/or Violent Content Is in This Story, If Any?

There is an off-page blowjob, as well discussion of the possibility of other sex acts. There are references to violence (the explosion which killed Albert’s brother-in-law, abusive personal relationships) but no violence in the story itself.

Tell Me More About This Story

In the beginning I was a bit confused by the shifts in POV among various characters. I think it would have helped me if there had been clear breaks in the POV shifts.

I liked the setting (Louisiana/Arkansas), but the characters and the plot … did not grab me. It’s not that it was particularly bad or anything – I just don’t have much to say about it.

So, Asexuality?

The word ‘asexual’ is used twice. The first instance is:

“So did you ever get it on with a guy?”
Albert suppressed his irritation. “Yes. Thought maybe that was why the women weren’t doing it for me. But the guys were just as bad. I guess I’m asexual.”

Based on this (and the overall context of the story) Albert seems like the kind of person who coined the term ‘asexual’ on his own to describe his own lack of sexual attraction to people without realizing that it is a label used by many people at that there are communities of people like him.

The second instance is:

“So—this Harry. I’m figuring you had an intense emotional connection with him. I mean, all the valentines. Year after year. ‘Your true friend.’ ‘Your friend forever.’”

Albert squirmed a little. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“So if you’re asexual and everything, why not go for the emotional connection? I mean, would it kill you to let this Harry suck you off if you really like him?”

There is an interestingly implicit assumption that to ‘go for the emotional connection’ sex has to be involved. That could be strictly interpreted as Harry making sex a condition of the relationship, and Albert accepting the condition in exchange for emotional connection, but considering that at this point in the story nobody has even talked to Harry about the kind of relationships he may or may not want at this time, I think making this kind of assumption is unwarranted.

I, as an individual, bristle at this type of assumption, because I have read a lot of accounts of real life asexuals who have believed that they must put up with sex they do not want in order to satisfy their need for emotional connection, and the relief and joy they feel when they learn that this is not so.

I have to admit, my reaction to this story was a little bit like El’s reaction to Coffee Cake, though my reaction to this story is milder than her reaction to that story.

[Warning: I am about to go into spoiler territory. If you do not want to go into spoiler territory, skip to “Was This Story Written by an Asexual?”]

Albert and Harry do get into a sexual relationship after all. There is this scene:

“No, Harry. It’s what do you want?”

“You’d let me….”

“It’s not like it’s some great treasure that needs to be guarded and that nobody can have. If you want it, you can have it. Why should I deny you pleasure, Harry? I’ve always been crazy about you. Just never been crazy about sex, is all.”

And, after the blowjob, there is this section:

“Not that kind of need, Harry. I see someone who looks at my body, my cock, with such raw need that it makes me want to give it. To know I can fill that need. It’s not your mouth on my cock, Harry, or my dick up your ass. It’s your eyes when you take your pleasure. I want you to want me.”

So, this is a story of “asexual has sex with non-asexual to make non-asexual happy”. This is a complicated trope, and a complete discussion of it would go beyond the scope of this review (here is a place to learn more about this trope). However, I will offer a few thoughts on how this trope works in this specific story:

1) I think this story avoids the worst potential pitfalls of this trope. It is Albert, not Harry, who initiates, and it is clearly a consensual thing. Harry does not act like he is entitled to sex just because he is non-asexual (if anything, it’s Kyle who has attitude issues). And sex does not ‘fix’ Albert’s asexuality.

2) At the same time, I think this story could have been more sensitive to asexual readers. It is realistic in the sense that people often do not handle asexuality well in real life, but if I were writing something like this for an asexual audience, I would have handled certain things more carefully. For example, at one point Albert makes a statement which indicates that all asexual men are like him. Albert may very well believe that if he hasn’t had any contact with other asexual men, but if an asexual male reader who is unlike Albert were to read this story, that statement could be alienating.

3) I think this could have been a fascinating premise for a story – a recently disabled asexual man who is dealing with new feelings of being useless and a burden who leaps at the chance to have a sexual relationship with someone who had a crush on him in high school just so he can feel needed/useful again. Alas, the story does not go in the direction – instead, it treats the establishment of a sexual relationship as a Happily Ever After (and it even teaches Albert to think more positively about disability – it’s thanks to this newly sexual relationship that he realizes he’s going to be cured and won’t have to deal with the long term emotional realities of disability! Because the promise of a cure is the only way anyone can ever feel positively about disability.[/sarcasm])

Was This Story Written by an Asexual?

I don’t know. EDIT: See comments.

Hey Sara, Do You Like This Story?

The short answer is ‘no’. To say I dislike this story would be an overstatement – it’s a fairly solid ‘meh’ as far as I’m concerned. I am glad I bought it during a sale, because at $2.99 this story is seriously overpriced.

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5 thoughts on “Review: “Pretty Sally Couldn’t Marry Albert” by Jefferson Parrish

  1. “For example, at one point Albert makes a statement which indicates that all asexual men are like him. Albert may very well believe that if he hasn’t had any contact with other asexual men, but if an asexual male reader who is unlike Albert were to read this story, that statement could be alienating.”

    This is my biggest pet-peeve in asexual fiction, and it’s the reason I disliked “Coffee Cake” as much as I did. I hate (yes, *hate*) when authors portray an asexual character as The Only Kind Of Asexual. Because it sounds like Albert is sex-positive ace, and a sex-neutral or sex-averse asexual man might very well be offended or, like you said, alienated. So that’s hugely upsetting to see in a novel with an asexual MC.

    Great review though! I love your format for these reviews, it’s very well done 😀

    • I’m glad that you appreciate the review, and thank you for writing that review of “Coffee Cake” so I could link to someone writing about something similar!

  2. Pingback: Reviewing Asexual Fiction from Dreamspinner Press | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  3. Thanks for giving me an education. Especially about the lingo (ace, etcetera, and its various flavors). I was surprised when this story was accepted. I’m guessing that it was relatively early in the asexual genre. I didn’t know anything about the asexual community when I wrote it. And I didn’t even mean it to be that.

    I have to agree with your “meh” assessment. I have written other, much stronger, stories that were rejected. But I scratched my head when it was accepted, and went with the flow.

    For me, the only characters that came alive under my pen were the sister and her children.

    I approached this as a plot problem. Boy meets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets boy, the old formula. It occurred to me that the “boy loses boy” part is usually the weakest part of the plot. Laughable miscommunications, unintentional missed dates, and so on. And then an idea–what if boy loves boy but doesn’t want to have sex?

    This was not from life experience. It was a plot device.

    For the record–asexual? Well, yes. Because I’m nearly 72. I’ve hung up my spurs. So I have some sympathy: believe it or not, I’m still approached. I guess everybody is someone’s sexual ideal. But in my youth? No. Exactly the opposite.

    Have I had any first-hand experience with asexuality? No.

    I stumbled into this arena with no idea of what it was really about. So thank you for your honest review, and the education.

    It’s never too late to learn!

    • Wow. For the record, you are the first writer to respond to my reviews of these asexual fiction stories in the comments (I have gotten a few responses privately via email).

      Just to be clear, in the asexual community, ‘asexual’ is generally considered to be a sexual orientation like ‘bisexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ (which is complicated by other factors, such as the split attraction model of orientation, because asexuality is complicated). Asexuality is usually considered to mean not experiencing sexual attraction rather than one’s level of libido (though that again is complicated, because asexuality is complicated). So, most people who identify as asexual would understand what you just said as meaning that your sexual orientation has changed because you are older. If that is exactly what you mean, cool! I just thought I would let you know that that is how your statement is likely to be interpreted since you admit to being unfamiliar with the asexual community.

      Anyway, as a reviewer, I am flattered that you bothered to respond at all. And I appreciate that you handle criticism well – though all of the writers who have responded to my reviews have been civil, I have read that there is a writer of an asexual novel who responds in a bad way when asexual readers point out the problems with that novel’s depiction of asexuality.

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