Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bad Romance

Upon reflection, I do not harbor as much ill-will towards this book now as I did when I first finished it.  In the heat of the moment, some parts of the book (or lack therof) really bothered me.  However, after letting this marinate in my brain for about a week, I feel more equivocal.  I can see the good and the not-so-good in it.  I'm growing in my ability to weigh the positives and negatives of a book in my brain instead of having a knee-jerk reaction.  At least, I think I am.

I am very glad that YA lit is taking on abusive relationships.  Abuse by a romantic partner has been taboo for so long, and society's reaction--still!--is to blame the victim.  After millennia of being gaslit, women* simply assume that this behavior is normal.  That a partner telling you to whom you can speak and where you can go is protective, not controlling.  That you should be grateful that he cares.  That you should be grateful you have a partner at all.



Ever since her mom married this gross guy and moved them to the middle of nowhere, California (i.e. the Central Valley), Grace has been miserable.  At least when they lived in L.A., even though they were poor, they made the most of it.  Now, Grace's stepdad is basically a gender-swapped version of Cinderella's stepmother.  He's awwwwfulllll.  Definitely abusive.  The stress of living with Prince Charmless exacerbates Gracie's mom's OCD, which manifests in needing everything to be clean.  All the time.  Every day.  And it's Gracie who gets the job.  She must go straight to school and then come straight back home.  Is there a speck on the windows?  Clean them all.  A weed in the yard?  Pick them all.  It doesn't help that Gracie's family is poor and she relies on her money from working at the Honey Pot, a cookie shop in the mall, for money to buy important things.  Like food and clothing important.  Add to that her mother's serious restrictions on parties, friends, and general going out, and Grace paces the well-worn treads of her caged life like a wild animal.

So Gracie, understandably, feels left out.  Especially when she's been told her entire life that she's not pretty, just "interesting," which is code for "ugly."  No way that hot high school rockstar god Gavin would ever notice her.  Besides,  he already has a girlfriend: the gorgeous Summer.  But then Gavin and Summer break up, and Gavin tries to commit suicide.  Gracie thinks this is awful, of course, but also terribly romantic in a self-destructive, Byronesque way.

Grace writes him a letter, he says it saved him, they flirt, they are a couple, they are IN LOVE!  They are messily in love all over the page.  Gavin restricts Grace's movements and her interactions with her friends, and she accepts this as him being protective.  But he keeps flipping out on her, accusing her of cheating.  And Grace's friends beg her to leave him.  But she doesn't care.  She is IN LOVE.  She doesn't even apply to her dream school, NYU, because of the dream of staying in central California with Gavin.  There is a lot of abuse, and one instance of date rape (partner rape?), before Grace leaves him.

This is a situation that far more people suffer in than the majority of us think.  It seems so easy for those of us not in an abusive relationship to say "GET OUT!"  Hearts are both strong and fragile things.  They can be broken and manipulated, but still feel enough emotion that the idea of leaving the person who hurts you is worse than the hurt itself.  In the afterward, Demetrios reveals that she is writing from experience, and I think that's why this relationship doesn't feel as over-the-top-Lifetime-movie as the one in The Girl Who Fell.

However, even though Bad Romance addresses a relatively taboo topic in teen literature, it's not a great book.  It's full of missed opportunities and presents cheating as a potential escape route for Grace.  And then there's the narration.  Let's start with that, okay?
Narrative style has a huge impact on the story and if readers are going to connect with it or not.  Grace tells the story as a letter to her ex.  Gavin is always referred to as "you" in the story, which can make for some very hairy sentences.  I often found myself rereading, wondering which "you" was an addressed "you" in conversation, and which one was Gavin, and it was all very awkward.  I'm trying to figure out why Demetrios chose this framework for her story, and the only thing I can think of, aside from it being hipster-pretentious, is that Gavin is a songwriter, and songs are generally addressed to a person, especially if they're love songs.

Intellectually, I understand where the author is coming from.  On a practical level, it makes the reading experience unbelievably difficult and comes off as pretentious.

It's especially irritating when, on the drama field trip, she gets to know a junior named Gideon.  And Gideon is just perfect for Grace.  She can only think about him.  She dreams of kissing him.  But she can't--she's Gavin's girlfriend.  And Gideon keeps hounding Grace to dump Gavin and get with him instead.  Like that's what she needs!  Another pushy guy in her life!  Oy.  Thankfully, Grace realizes that she has to live for herself now, but that's after she gives up her dream of going to New York City because Gavin couldn't deal with being away from her.

But the idea that cheating on Gavin with Gideon would be okay because Gavin is abusive doesn't sit well with me.  You may disagree, and that's fine.  But to me, cheating is not a fun plot point or something that can be overlooked.  It's a deep betrayal.  Grace had the opportunity to break up with Gavin and then get with Gideon, but that's not how it plays out.  And Gideon is a tool for encouraging this behavior, because the person who will be punished by Gavin is Grace.

Finally, this book is just so white.  And that doesn't make sense to me, particuarly given the setting.  This title is set in the Central Valley of California, where, my friends and coworkers assure me, there are most definitely brown people.  There are only TWO people of color in this entire book, and they still read as default white.

Nat, Grace's hardcore Christian BFF (the other BFF, Lys, is a punk-rock lesbian, and I guess this is supposed to be funny?) is Latinx.  We only know that Nat is brown from this line: "It's still conservative--J. Crew, neat and tidy--but it hugs her Cuban hips and booty."

I asked my friend Faythe how likely it would be that in California, the only brown person in the school would be Cuban.  And that there would be one brown person.  She said that she has Cuban friends, but is laughing forever at the idea that there would only be one person of color in the town.  Plus, Nat's ethnicity is sexualized--it's only worth mentioning that she's Cuban because her butt and hips are curvy and therefore sexy.  Honestly, if that one line weren't in the book, I would have assumed that this entire town was completely white, and that bothers me.

The sneaky second not-white character is Grace's tempting almost-boyfriend Gideon.  When he's introduced, there's mention of him finding his "roots" in Asia (where???).  "He's wearing a shirt covered in Chinese characters" and he's draws "Mount Fuji on the map we've been making."  When Grace imagines his house, she thinks there might be "Indian Hindu songs playing in the background."  Is she trying to say songs in Hindi?  Help!  When she actually goes to his house, it's got Buddhas, yoga mats, and a Zen rock garden.  And we never do figure out where Gideon's family comes from.  Is he Japanese-American?  Indian-American?  Where in Asia (the CONTINENT of Asia) is his family from?

I want teens to be able to see themselves in books.  Books need to reflect the population of their setting, because kids from that area know if it's being misrepresented.  And this just made me angry and sad at the same time.  And I started to think to myself, "Why is this new crop of books about abusive relationships only about white kids?"  I started to wonder if authors feature white characters because white people feel like a person in an abusive relationship is only a victim if they're white.  I haven't heard anything about a black girl or a brown girl being in an abusive relationship and being shown compassion.

While the subject matter of Bad Romance is timely, and needs to be something that we, as a society, can discuss openly and honestly, that doesn't make up for the lack of representation and the distracting narrative style.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.


*Obviously, abusive relationships can and do exist between people of many different gender expressions.  The books that have been coming out lately focus on a teen girl's experience, and so that is what I am using in my review.  I hope that more books come out that explore this topic in an intersectional manner.




2 comments:

  1. I haven't read this one and I don't plan to because I haven't loved the author's writing previously. One thing worth knowing for this one is that the book was originally conceived as a biographical text about the author's own teen experience before it was rewritten/reimagined as a YA fiction novel. It doesn't excuse everything but it might explain at least some of the choices.

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    1. Yes, Demetrios addressed that in her afterword. I almost wish it had been more biographical...

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