When I was young, I loved The Bachelor. I was enthralled by the unnecessary conflict, envious of the contestants’ thin bodies, and desperate for the love stories that unfolded over the course of weeks. Inevitably, the couples would fall apart less than two months after the reunion special, so I’d never revisit seasons—all the kisses on non-descript beaches or perfectly quaffed appearances abandoned for a new narrative. I wanted a happy ending and would sacrifice awareness for it over and over again.
It’s no surprise, then, I started picking up contemporary romance novels as I got older. When I saw The One by Julia Argy, I knew I had to read it. Argy’s main protagonist is Emily, a lifetime devout Catholic who has just lost her job as an office assistant. Due to her conventional beauty, Emily is stopped in the middle of a Boston street and convinced to join a Bachelor-esque program, The One. With no professional prospects and a desire to take a break from her monotonous life, Emily accepts.
The One catalogs Emily’s time on the show as she struggles with balancing the role of an invested contestant seeking a fairytale ending, and burgeoning feelings for another female contestant. As Emily advances further throughout the competition and the main “boyfriend” falls deeper in love with her, she must decide if her “perfect life” is worth playing pretend.
In television shows such as The Bachelor and the fictional, The One, contestants are typically barred from using any technology. Thus, Emily is trapped in a bubble of booze, catfights, hours of waiting, and unfulfilling romantic encounters. Written primarily in the first person narrative, Emily’s chapters read almost as diary entries—a form of escape in a constantly surveilled, claustrophobic environment. Emily’s narrative, however, is rivaled by short chapters that follow Miranda, a cut-throat producer of The One and Emily’s handler, as she vies for the recognition of being the best in her field. These accounts are written in third person to contrast Emily’s first-person point of view. As readers, we are privy to experiencing Emily’s struggles on the show with her, while we watch Miranda pull strings and maneuver her way to the top, almost like we’re watching a show ourselves.
One thing unique about The One is the fact that Emily is a bit dry as a character. The pillars of her identity: she grew up religious, she’s conventionally thin and beautiful, and she thinks she wants to be in love. Emily moves through the show with a sense of boredom and naivety, consistently stating that she’s just trying to be “good,” and seeming a bit oblivious to the fact that she has the free will to take herself out of unfulfilling situations. Interestingly, the aspects of her character that infuriate the reader at times and make her seem dull, are actually what makes her the most relatable. Life is not this grandiose production and we are not characters. Ultimately, we know nothing about the people that we see on programs such as these—only what’s spoon-fed to us.
Furthermore, Argy’s work is brimming with criticism of our current socio-political climate. While at times it does seem a bit forced or unexplored, The One makes an extremely well-rounded argument against how society treats its own people as a commodity. Shows such as The One are just examples of capitalism manipulating viewer desire for, as Argy states, a “pleasing narrative arc.” People like you, me, and Emily are conditioned to believe in a “happy ending” or a perfect life and are left sorely disappointed and unfulfilled when reality falls short.
Argy also makes an astute point on the perception of self in the context of what society tells us we should be. In forcing ourselves to be what we’ve been told to be and want, we’re prevented from being anything at all. It isn’t until Emily breaks the heteronormative arc that she has been actively trying to purport that she shows real character and initiative. As Emily finds herself falling away from the persona that she held in order to appease Miranda, the main boyfriend, and viewers, she comes to a realization:
“Women and men alike have sold me on ideas of romance, goodness, and happiness that roiled into a toxic sludge in my brain, where sickly flowers grew as my dreams warped.”
Living in the times that we do, it’s understandable that we crave happy endings and perfect resolutions. The question that The One by Julia Argy poses, however, is how far are you willing to go and what you are willing to compromise for a tidy conclusion.
by Julia Argy
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Published on April 18, 2023
Angie Raney is a recent graduate of DePaul University where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Spanish. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has been published in publications such as Crook and Folly, Silver Birch Press, Fleas on the Dog and more. Currently, she work as the Fundraising and Events Assistant for StoryStudio Chicago.