A Difficult Review To Write.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I read this book over the past week, and was(am?) torn whether to (attempt to) write a review. I totally got caught up in this story; it's keeper for me, and I know I'll want to revisit this couple again. But there's this bit of reluctance to talk about this book in glowing terms because there's an element to it that makes me a bit squirmy.

Figure if this book is still a keeper, despite the discomfort it causes, then it's worth talking about.

This might be the one time I'm glad there was no synopsis/blurb on the backcover, just a bunch of glowing quotes/blurbs. Usually this marketing ploy drives me batty and I put the book back on the shelf. But it was only after I came to understand what the author was doing--and admittedly, it was almost from the first paragraph--that I referred to the backcover again in disbelief and belatedly noticed the short two-line blurb (more of a tag-line, really) that almost blended into the artwork and was easily mistaken for another cover quote. By then the author's voice, and the characters had already intrigued me, so I read on reluctantly.

I tried to write a review earlier today, but I was on page two, single-spaced, of a word doc before I deleted it, it felt like too much yet too little. So I'm going to go for a point form type of list in the hopes of distilling what I like about the book.

1. The beautiful artwork. While browsing through the used bookstore, the image and warm colors (sepia, cream and gold) caught my eye.

2. I love the author's voice, it's spare and elegant.

3. The characters (main and secondary) are fleshed out and not one-note. They felt real. The reasons for how their personalities are shaped, felt authentic. Particularly for the two leads, as the story takes place over 3 years, you see their growth and change.

4. The conflict is rendered in all it's complexities, there's no pulling punches or white-washing of the issues.

5. The situation is presented with sensitivity, ultimately winning over my natural revulsion (that's seems like a strong word, doesn't it? But there was an underlying discomfort for me reading this story, yet I couldn't stop, until I realized that I was pulling for these two to have a happy ending.

6. The lovescenes were just that. The relationship is very physical, but sex scenes were about the emotion, the wonder, the excitement and discovery, and ultimately about the vulnerability of the characters. Very involved and raw, but without crudity or a hint of titilation.

7. While I had my doubts, I came around to believing that these two were truly in love--the pacing was well done. Then I worried that they wouldn't end up together. While this is a lovestory, it's a fiction novel, not a genre romances, therefore nothing was a given.

So why was this such a disturbing story for me? As the mother in her early 40's of a 20yr son, it was an uncomfortable feeling reading about a 35 yr old woman who is pursued by, starts an affair with, and falls in love with the 15 yr old son of her best-friend.

It feels perverse and suspect recommending this story, like I should be posting this under 'anonymous', and yet the emotion and the tale, the writing craft and the characters can't be denied. I'm not one to pay attention to Amazon reviews, but this time round I'm glad to see there are others who loved this book.

So if you have the same 'squick' button as me, but can get over it, this story is worth reading.

From Booklist:

When 35-year-old Aly, a divorced English teacher, meets Tom, the 15-year-old son of her best friend, each feels strongly attracted to the other. As Aly gives in, almost against her better judgment, and begins an affair with Tom, she discovers that most of her colleagues and friends (especially Tom's parents) are aghast at her decision. As for Tom, his love for Aly has cost him his family, his education, and nearly his life. Can this relationship survive? Even though it is difficult to understand just what Aly sees in Tom, in her first novel Highbridge has written a spare and tender account of the ramifications of falling in love with a person whom society deems wrong.

Amazon link.

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raine said...

I'd have to agree that, if I knew what it was about beforehand, I probably wouldn't consider it. Not exactly a squick factor for me, but not my usual read, either.
And 15 isn't just young, but VERY young.
But your enthusiasm makes it sound interesting, and it would depend on what the characters were like, and how they were handled.
Might be a look-see. Yeah.

azteclady said...

Yikes and ouchie and... wow.

See, I understand feeling pulled into a book despite one's personal hot buttons if/when you don't know they are going to be there. And once grabbed by the author's voice (the writing, the characters, the plot, any or all of them) not being able nor willing to quit.

But knowing it in advance, I don't think I could overcome my... well, revulsion is the word that comes to mind, though perhaps disgust would be better.

The funny thing is that if the male was only a handful of years older, I wouldn't feel squicked. As it is, 15 and 35? Very much squicked.

Oh by the way, who's older and who's younger has no bearing on my feelings about it.

vanessa jaye said...

Raine: Eeep!

"But your enthusiasm makes it sound interesting,"

Just to be clear, I'm enthusiastic about the writing/characterization. Not at all about the 15 yr + 35 yr old match up. At all! Like you said, it's VERY young, and as a mother with almost the exact age differnce with my own son, I think I'd have a cow if I found out he'd hooked up with my bestfriend!!

But, as I said, the story/characters stayed with me days later. (and I'm still squirming days, later, btw), but there's some undeniably good writing at work.

vanessa jaye said...

Aztec: Revulsion came to mind with me too. Whenever I think about the story, I immediately mentally envision a ten-foot pole prodding at the subject of the story from across a great distance.

But when i think about the characters (and not the age thing), well, there's a bit of fancination there re the writing and how the writer had them go through a very believeable range of emotions and how the conflict was never soft-peddled in any way.

I'm almost tempted to delete this post. *sigh*

Jorrie Spencer said...

Yeah, I can't really go there, especially with teenagers that age in the house. I would freak if a thirty-something got involved with one of my kids, and it's not about society deeming something wrong, but about the power differential. If it were fantasy or historical, it's a bit different, because there are different social structures.

Also, a fifteen-year-old boy as a credible romantic interest for a thirty-something would be a real, or almost unreal, outlier in terms of maturity and interests. They are incredibly immature! One minute they know everything there is to know about the world and the next they're acting like an eight-year-old.

So, apart from the very real squick factor, I don't know if I could buy it as anything but a hugely dysfunctional relationship.

That said, it can be amazing what certain writers can accomplish, despite the material they choose to work with. Probably there was no blurb for a reason…

vanessa jaye said...

Jorrie, definitely this was the reason there was no blurb on the back. (I've always seen that move as a bit of conceit--ie, big name author/or critically acclaimed author, means no need for synopsis--but now I'll also view it as a warning that the subject matter of the book might be difficult/offputting).

I'm going to touch upon the 15yr power dynamic thing. This is one of the things that the author did credible. Not that you had a 40yr man in a 15yr old boys body, but that given his upbringing and personality he was very self-aware and self-assured and in some ways was more confident the the, erm, I hesitate to say heroine... female protag. Yet on the other hand she absolutely showed the immature boy side to him too. The author really did a great job re characterization. In the end 3 yrs have passed, including a I think it was a year's separation, so the male protag is now 18, he's definitely a bit more mature/bitter and the relationship truly feels not dysfunctional at all and that it could(will) work.

(excuse me while I squirm a bit. I can talk about the story/characters on an objective intellectual level, but once the reality of what I'm stating hits--ie in real life terms--it's just yuck.)

By continuing to point out the positive aspects of this book, it sounds like I'm pushing for it, and I'm not. Not really. There's no getting around the fact that the subject matter is distasteful. But what the author accomplished with her writing was something else all together.

I can now fully sympathize with the recent review Sarah F did at Dear Author (the title was The Reluctant Dom, or something like that). She did a split grade: For the actual writing (characterization, etc) she gave the book a B. But she found certain ideas or themes that the book seemed to espouse TOTALLY offensive and gave it an F on those points.

I think I'd grade this book the same. A big fat -F on the male protag's age, but B+/A- for everything else.

Thanks for posting your thoughts, Jorrie (& Raine & Aztec). One of the things I feared about posting this review was that I'd offend folks by seeming to endorse what is essentially an aberrant and non-acceptable relationship.

Not sure what I hoped to accomplish with this review. :-/ Just felt I had to write something about it because it's stuck in my mind, in both positive and negative ways.

Jorrie Spencer said...

Just to add: I know you know what fifteen-year-old boys are like, having raised one! It's just a topic that gets me going and I didn't mean to sound lecturing.

I imagine the push-pull of the novel made it an interesting experience to read, the premise causing you discomfort, the writing and the characters pulling you along.

vanessa jaye said...

Nope, didn't think you were lecturing at all! The portrayal of the 15yr was one of the things I'd touched upon with the first, looong (and now deleted) draft (attempt) review. So your comment just gave me an excuse to touch upon it.

Trust me, I'm the first one in line advocating physical castration for pedophiles. No exception. I don't think they can be ever be reformed ("cured") and I don't want to hear their bloody effin excuses, either! And while it may be sexist of me to despise the men more, I'll also show my bias/sexism by saying I'm inclined to believe a woman should have that natural mothering instinct to be nuturing & protective-- ie, not exploit/abuse some kid for her own predatory sexual gratification!

See, doesn't take much to get started on this subject either!

So, like I said, a very uncomfortable read for the duration, given my personal beliefs. That the author was able to overcome those bias (to a certain degree) through her writing says A LOT.

"I imagine the push-pull of the novel made it an interesting experience to read, the premise causing you discomfort, the writing and the characters pulling you along"

Yes. Absolutely. That's it in a nutshell.

While i don't want to have all my reading be this interesting, with so many forgettable books out there, I'm actually glad I've had my sensibilities ruffled by this one.

azteclady said...

Oh no, Vanessa,please do not delete it!

It is a good thing to have books that make us think beyond the comfort zone.

I mean, it could have been me writing the post if it had been me at the UBS--sadly, now that I know about the protagonists ages, I know overcoming my instinctive reaction in order to read the book would take all the joy out of reading, so...

ugh, I don't know if that makes sense.

vanessa jaye said...

It makes perfect sense, Aztec. If I had known beforehand what the book was about, I wouldn't have read it. :-/

vanessa jaye said...

Oh, I just remember something--well, I just saw your post, Aztec on the 33yr teacher and 18yr student--while the protagonists first start 'talking' while he's 15and he makes his move after several months of chatting 'casually' (but they both realize that there's a growing attraction (on her part at least--much to her dismay--he's always been crazy about her).

She rebuffs him, then several more months go by when they have no contact until he shows up at her door when he turns 16 and thats when they become physical untill he turns 16. (During the time they'd been apart he dated someone his own age--as she'd advised him--a student of hers, ironically.

I realize 16 isn't *much* better than 15, but just wanted to clarify that they didn't jump into bed right away after lusting after each other for a couple of pages.

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