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Book Review: A Practical Handbook for the Boyfriend by Felicity Huffman and Patricia Wolff

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On the dust jacket of this delightful book are two caveats: "Boyfriend not included" and "The thing is, he’s not going to buy this book, so you’ve got to buy it for him." Aye, there’s the rub: for I suspect most guys would sooner put knitting needles in their eyes than read, let alone buy, a how-to book on how to be a better boyfriend — precisely for the reasons outlined in the book itself.

More’s the pity, but women who read this book will likely find themselves nodding their heads in agreement throughout. The authors — Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame and producer Patricia Wolff — make no bones about their central premise that "Men are from Mars, women are from Bloomingdales." Their claim that "women have more neurons connecting the right and left sides of their brain than men do — four times as many, in fact" lays the foundation for this hilarious study of socio-sexual dissonance. (For any naysayers out there, it’s easy to find hard evidence of the male/female behavioral dichotomy even in the most mundane of circumstances, like the supermarket aisle. A new study I just stumbled upon concludes that men have a lot of trouble grocery shopping because they get overwhelmed by all the choices and – who would have thought? – hesitate to ask for help.)

In any case, those extra connective female neurons do help explain why women are such an eternal puzzlement to men, and the authors do their best to help boyfriends navigate the complicated, often convoluted female emotional terrain. In Chapter One, "All Women Are Crazy," the authors take pains to explain why the "crazy" cliché — the flip side of "all men are jerks" — is not (exactly) true. Women are an everlasting mystery to men, they claim, because "reality is relative," and women’s reality is very, very different than men’s. Thus, statements like "I don’t want presents for my birthday" should be translated to read: "Get me something anyway — surprise me!" while "No honey, I’m fine" actually means "You’ve really made me sad/angry/upset, and let’s have a really long talk about it."

The book does, indeed, cover the gamut of issues large and small (but for women, as the authors assert, the small can be huge), from meeting to cheating to farting to toilet etiquette to "the tragedy of unruly nose hairs" and everything in between. "Do I Look Fat?" gets a chapter all its own ("When guys have a gut, they rub it affectionately and give it a nickname. No woman has ever named her thighs"), while Chapter Five, "When Do You Become a Boyfriend, and Who Decides?" is summed up in two succinct words: "She does." Dreaded man-clichés are also covered: the chapter on "I Need Space" examines in quip-crammed detail why "your girlfriend will panic when she hears these three little words, in much the same way you panic when you hear 'male pattern baldness.'"

Conversely, the authors have a good understanding (for a woman) of how the more straightforward male mind works, and their sensible advice is laced with plenty of empathy for the virtual minefield a boyfriend with good intentions must attempt to navigate. Considering that women can deconstruct any relationship with a laser-like intensity that would put Derrida or a rabbinical council to shame, the authors succeed in presenting their premises in delicious, bite-size servings, with plenty of diverting sidebars, lists, and cheat sheets like "What’s Sexy to Your Girlfriend" ("bringing her a cup of coffee in the morning" and "keeping an eye on her when you are at a party" both make the short list) and "Ten Things You Should Never Say on the First Date" (e.g. "You look a lot like my mother"; "You have beautiful legs; they’d look great wrapped around my neck") to help the "medicine" go down, as well as terrific illustrations and retro-style graphics throughout.

Stereotypical? Perhaps, but think classic comedy routine by a man (or woman) riffing on the differences between the sexes and you’ve got the gist. Even if your boyfriend is one of those rare breeds who loves to clean, hates sports, and can outtalk you (like mine), there’s plenty of essential truth in the hyperbole presented here, along with some sobering (and even scary) messages.

Those men who sneak a peek at their girlfriend’s copy of the Handbook when no one’s looking will also uncover examples of the darker side of women’s wrath, like the girlfriend scorned who snuck into her ex-boyfriend’s place and used his toothbrush as a rectal thermometer. It’s also a given that a girlfriend’s girlfriends will know everything — and I do mean everything — about the most intimate details of the relationship. And the authors caution that your bad-boyfriend words, deeds, or hubris may come back to haunt you later (give your… er… member a cute name, and you may run the risk of encountering your ex in a bar and "being greeted with: 'Well, if it isn’t Mr. Wondernoodle!'")

But despite the levity, the basic message of the Handbook is a sensible one — a little research into the labyrinthine workings of the female mind, along with the ability to listen (or fake it really well) and to understand the significance behind even "simple" words and gestures that show you’ve been listening (and care) can reap huge rewards for a boyfriend in training. Furthermore, the authors encourage men to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em; if it’s clear things are not working out, make a clean break (but not on a Post-it, Sex and the City-style).

Women have been trying to understand and predict the behavior of men as long as men have pondered the enigma that is Woman, the difference being that how-to books like He’s Just Not That into You and The Rules, along with countless women’s magazine articles, are openly (even desperately) perused by women everywhere. Since men typically eschew any guidelines for navigating a road trip, let alone their love life (after all, "Moses was lost in the desert for forty years," because "he wouldn’t stop for directions"), the most the typical girlfriend can do is hope that their boyfriend sneaks a furtive peek at this book when she’s out (competently) grocery shopping — and be too hooked to stop reading (at least until she gets home).

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About Elvira Black

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Many thanks, Natalie!

  • chrys

    I think i’ll get this book for my boy-toy. I hope its helpful!

  • Gabriel

    I read this book in about an hour; it was mediocre. It had the subliminal intent to inspire guys to become better boyfriends just so they could have sex more often with less effort, which I believe is counterproductive to the reason the book was written and reveals the Author’s true belief that all guys are the stereotypical jerk that only thinks about sex.