Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Report: Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love by Cathy Day

I was on http://www.amazon.com/ recently when I stumbled upon a book written by my former college writing professor, Cathy Day. (Everyone always called her that, never the more formal Professor Day or even just plain Cathy.) The book is called Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love, and it's a memoir chronicling Day's year-long mission to get back into the dating game while following the Indianapolis Colts. Cathy Day was one of the most popular professors in the English department at The College of New Jersey. Students clamored to get into her classes, and I still remember my sense of victory at having scored a spot first in her creative writing class, and then in her fiction workshop my senior year. She was one of those professors who offered candid but heartfelt feedback on our stories, not because she was the boss, but because she wanted us to do better. She kept long office hours, answering our questions about what to do with our English degrees. She taught us that becoming a writer wasn't about being struck by inspiration, but about sticking it out and chipping away at draft after draft. Yet despite all this wisdom, she seemed strangely like one of us.

So, I knew I had to read Comeback Season. I finished it last night, and it turned out to be one of the best books I've read in a long time. In the book, Day is thirty-seven going on thirty-eight. She's an assistant English professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She's published an acclaimed short story collection, The Circus in Winter. She's devoted her life to writing and couldn't be happier professionally. But she's watched nine ex-boyfriends marry the women they dated right after her. She's weathered a seven-year relationship (with a guy, incidentally, who was the reason she ended up at The College of New Jersey). She's the new kid in a city where she knows no one. And she's sick of being alone. So, despite her reluctance she asks neighbors to fix her up and dips her toe into the wild world of online dating. And it isn't easy. All she wants is a nice guy she can talk to, but finding one who isn't a freak or intimidated by her success proves to be an enormous challenge. So, she turns to the Colts for support. Although an Indiana native and a lifelong sports fan, she's never followed them seriously. But Peyton Manning inspires her with his perfectionism and the way he gets up after being pushed down. Day applies similar tactics to her dating game plan. She's indefatigable in her search, uncompromising in her criteria, yet always kind to the players and willing to risk getting hurt.

Comeback Season is brave and honest. Just as Day puts herself out there online in search of potential soul mates, she puts herself out there for her readers. Her story isn't a pat, rosy-hued novel in which all of her problems are tied up in pretty ribbons by the last page. It's real, authenticated by the sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious details that separate easy stories from those that dig deeper. It's this depth that makes Comeback Season more engrossing than most novels (although it certainly reads like one). The fact that it all really happened lends credence to the ugly truth it reveals, namely that women must choose between love and career so early on they don't realize there's a competition.

Comeback Season is also funny. Because dating is funny, and Day has just the right straight-shooting style for reporting its many quirks and misses. The book is warm too, drawing much of its heart from Day's descriptions of her native Indiana, flashbacks from her childhood, and anecdotes about her close-knit family.

Here's one of my favorite passages:

"The dream of becoming a writer was forming inside me. For some reason, IU's recent victory, coupled with my viewing of Hoosiers, made me think I might have a shot. I wanted so much to become somebody, to win the game for all the small-town girls who never had a chance to go to college or write a book or see the world. I didn't want to marry the boy I was holding hands with. I wanted to make something like the movie I'd just seen, something about Indiana and the way it made me feel inside." (142)
I admit I was little teary-eyed by the time I read the last sentence.

If you're a sports nut, a writer, or have ever had your heart broken (and I think that covers just about everyone), then you'll enjoy Comeback Season.

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