Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the dual read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give our on-the-spot commentary as we read and team blog a book. (You can feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is the pinkish-purply owl...frankly, it depends on the day of the week!)
This week's book has been described as a "disturbing and engrossing" psychological thriller, and Kirkus says it's about "reckless redemption" and not for the faint of heart. To read a Kuehn book is to delve into the bits of humanity that you might not yet have a name for, to be profoundly uncomfortable with your thoughts, and to realize that the species as a whole has more in common with a rabid pack of hyenas than you'd prefer to believe. In the name of full disclosure, we enjoyed meeting the author in person last autumn at KidlitCon over dinner, and were glad for the chance to team read this novel.
NB: Here There Be Dragons. This is as close to a "reader advisory" as we get. This novel contains some disturbing ambiguous scenes of abuse, violence, partying, sexual activity and disturbing depictions of mental illness. Older teens and those who enjoy digging into the twists of our psyche will be just fine. *dusts off hands* Now! We're going to talk about this book - sans spoilers - and we hope you'll join us. We're...
& Two readers,
With one book.
When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family's California vineyard estate. Here, she's meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she's meant to do a lot of things. But it's hard. She's bored. And when Sadie's bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.
Emerson Tate's a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That's why Emerson's not happy Sadie's back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won't ever let him.
Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That's what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.
But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it's all of theirs.
We received copies of this book courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin Press for our tandem review. You can find DELICATE MONSTERS by Stephanie Kuehn at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you.
tanita: Wow, well, I started this novel Tuesday night at bedtime, and when I realized what a mistake that was I stopped -- took a deep breath, and ...finished the last ten pages Wednesday morning. I read most of this book in one setting, not because I couldn't put it down in the way that warmly memorable characters or snappy dialog or whatnot pulls you along, but because I kind of couldn't believe the stuff that was happening... I kept saying, "No, seriously!?" The things that were happening to the characters throughout the narrative kept me reading.
Sarah (aquafortis): I agree with that assessment entirely--it was very hard to put down, in a kind of train-wreck way. Each of these characters is battling their own private slide downward into morally dangerous territory. Battling their own worst selves, and often ignoring the better angels of their nature. It was both difficult to read and difficult to set aside.
When I think about character likeability, I first think about the book THAW, by Monica Roe which was a Cybils finalist some years back in YA Fiction, where I just could not like the character but he redeemed himself through personal growth. I feel like I have levels of not-liking which are sort of like those stupid survey choices:
- I would actively hang out with this person and could see them being a good friend!
- I would probably like this person
- I would be okay with this person, but I'd probably never hang out with them
- I would actively dislike this person
- Person is a sociopath
The main characters in this book are somewhere between active dislike and sociopath for me. What I found myself wanting more of as I read was what made them this way in terms of background, environment, childhood...and yet it was clear that I wouldn't be able to know that kind of thing until the author revealed it, because it would tip her hand, maybe.
tanita: As I read this book, I kept a few notes. Ten chapters in, I wrote, I can see the rough shape of a tragedy forming -- and boy, could I.
As I read, I also thought about things like "likeability" in characters. The characters in this book make me feel by turns discomfort and active dislike. No one feels... safe, or truly friendly. Which I noted as an interesting observation, followed by... What do I need from characters in books I read? For them to be my temporary friends? Not... really. Do I need for them to allow me to accompany them on a journey as they grow/change? Not always, but more of that, I think. So, then, I asked myself, Do we get what we need from the characters in this book? Do I see potential in the characters for growth or change? Do I want to go with them on this journey? No. Yes. Maybe.
Which, for me, is what makes Kuehn's books masterfully frightening. Because I'm being dragged on this trip regardless, and I don't sometimes understand why, or where we're going, and I'm absolutely positive that I won't know where I am when we get there, or like what I see. For some people, this kind of book is utterly, appallingly addictive. You just have to know what happens next...
AF: Her writing consistently astonishes me.
tanita: Oh, yeah. Such beautiful writing - really confident, clear writing. The sort of writing that makes you have to read slowly to let the concepts sort of hydrate in your brain before they bloom...
So, beautiful writing about ...sociopaths. Unreliable narrators. Murky scenarios, where doubts and fears and good and bad are all rolled in, as Dorothy Parker says, "a crazy plaid." I roll my eyes a lot when I hear people say, "Man, Stephanie Kuehn must have really dark places in her soul," yadda, yadda, yadda. That isn't true - this is fiction, and we all have dark places in our souls; we writers merely take license and delve into them. I applaud the author for her ability. I think it's amazing that she has the language to articulate and explore these places.
AF: All of Stephanie Kuehn's books are very well crafted, but this one in certain ways impressed me the most because the characters are the most challenging for me as a reader. As a writer, creating a character who is unlike you is a challenge to begin with, but the thought of creating--and KNOWING--a character that is so very far removed from the "normal" conception of functional reality that most of us live in...What a task to set oneself, but she lives up to it and somehow blends the beautiful and the terrible in a way that quietly hooks you...
tanita: ...with those sociopaths. It's hard to know how to feel about characters who really would have no feelings... about ... you. People are so charmingly canine; we're ready to wag our tails and lick anyone who wags their tail first. But, cats are kind of sociopaths, and people who, like cats, go their own way - who may or may not do anything more than crouch in a corner and stare at you with eyes that are all pupil... for most folk, they're flat-out disturbing, discomfiting, and we're not really sure they belong indoors. Of course, inside or out, they're apt to chase us, toy with us, and wound us - and then abruptly get up and leave us alone. I'd say that if this book were about cats and dogs, Sadie Su would be a giant, fluffy Persian cat.
As I was reading, I wondered if it was significant that Sadie is very wealthy. Can you blow people off like that and really own your crazy so well if you're poor? I mean, Emerson is poor in a rich person's paradise (and the depictions of the Napa Valley, where I've lived, were spot on)... but he's invested in "normal" really heavily.
AF: I'd love to unpack issues of class a little more. I thought that was an interesting aspect of the book that I almost wanted to see investigated in more depth. One of the things that put me off about Sadie's character right away was her snobbishness about the West-Coast public school environment. As a primarily public school kid, it's the kind of character trait that makes me think "blah blah BLAH boarding school East Coast Europe WHATEVER snore," but it's also an important factor that sets her apart from her fellow students and has informed her identity. Her family's wealth, and its dysfunction, create an intriguing backdrop for Sadie that makes me want to know more about what has formed her character--so that I CAN have more of that sense of empathy. Or maybe it's that BA in Psychology still lurking in the back of my head, wanting to know what makes people tick.
tanita: You make a good point.
Because almost every depiction of the bipolar or depressive or other mentally ill folk in fiction depicts them as Seriously Deranged ...I was a little uneasy about some of the negative portrayals in this book ... to me, such extreme depictions make people say, "Oh, I'm not like that," and can make it harder for people not to fear people with a disease, and for others to acknowledge that they have it. To that end, I found myself wishing that the author had spent more time on the character of Emerson - although, maybe the time spent was enough, in spite of the label placed on his family. Maybe the author was deliberately brief, because all of Emerson's issues and all of his guilt loops had a simple and straightforward answer: as his friend Trey said, when you screw up, you apologize. His issues, despite his family having been touched with mental illness, were in some ways much more straightforward.
AF: Yes, I loved that simplicity of Trey's advice. THAT moment felt like it could have been a turning point, and I think I really wanted it to be. I guess Emerson's final act in the novel was his way of apologizing, and while that felt very real, I wanted more to be made of the question of whether it was an act of escape or an act of redemption; generosity, or cowardice. There is a lot of complexity there, and as you said, there is a danger to the possibility of oversimplifying portrayals of mental illness. And I know some of my repulsion is connected to the fact that I really cannot handle animal abuse (in fiction or reality), but it also seems to be a frequent shorthand in fiction for "bad person," for sociopathy, and I have trouble with that.
tanita: And then there are those other characters in the novel, and you find yourself sifting through levels of "bad." Who is worse, someone who actively acknowledges that they'd just as soon rabbit-punch you in the back of the head, or someone who sneakily trips you and helps you up after you fall down a flight of stairs?
AF:What was interesting, too, was the arc of each character. Maybe "arc" isn't even the right word, because all three wandered back and forth between redeemable and irredeemable. (I guess it's safe to say none of them is static!) In the end, we are faced with the dilemma of moral ambiguity, "levels of 'bad'" as you mentioned. And yet we also understand WHY they do what they do--it isn't arbitrary behavior. On the contrary, the action of the book, the characters' actions, seem in many ways inevitable. That's one of the things that's so disturbing.
tanita: I've read interviews with the author where she talks about empathy and compassion. Part of why she writes this way, she says, is to reflect the way that she feels about people - it's never one way. You can be afraid of someone, attracted to someone, and repelled by them and want them desperately to both hang with you and to leave you alone. We're all a pastiche of particular (and peculiar)... reactions to and interactions with other individuals. I think I have learned to think about empathy in a new way, since reading her books - empathy is simply the ability to feel what other people feel, in this respect. You may or may not understand or be able to like them better because of it, but you GET them.
AF: Yes, exactly. And, yet...
tanita: I get a sense that you didn't like this book very much. I feel that's okay to say... I realize I admired this book, because of the writing... but just as I can't say I like something like Stephen King's MISERY, I can't say I like this novel. It's masterful and disturbing, but ...well, it's disturbing. It's, as you said, real and raw, and this kind of "real" scares me far more than chainsaw wielding maniacs (rare in real life) and stuff like vampires and zombies and rabid unicorns (so far nonexistent). And I think I read sometimes to be ...comforted? To be comforted that my worldview is right, or shared, to be comforted that Whatever triumphs over whatever Conflict the character is going through, to be ...reassured. For people who read to have their worldviews challenged, to get a frisson of Otherness and horror, this is definitely their book.
AF:I feel the same--I admired the book very much, and was amazed at the depth with which she explored the characters and their torturous worlds. But I can't like them. I really wanted to like Emerson, really wanted to like Miles, for much of the book. But as we gradually learn more and more...as the story unfolds...I went from "wanting to like" to just wanting to understand, and even that I had some difficulty with because I wasn't sure about the nature of the mental issues, whether there was bipolar or dissociative issues...and then Miles as a character kept a LOT of secrets from us throughout the book.
This is the Stephanie Kuehn book whose characters I have connected with the least. Their unreliability, their unpredictability, their destructiveness and sadism, pushed me away. That's very much something personal, not a comment on the writing itself.
I could still see this making a really good movie, because of the mysterious "following just behind the character's head" sensation that the author creates. In writing, we end up being SO close inside each character that we don't see what they aren't thinking about, if that makes sense.
tanita: I keep hearing people talking about this ending being "up in the air." It a little bewildering for me because it's not up in the air, at least it isn't for me. I know exactly what's going to happen - a happening that's been played out repeatedly in past years in conflicts between teens and the "warrior" mindset police confronting them. There's a certain air of tragic inevitability here; maybe tragedy is the destiny of these teens. Maybe they're past the point where an apology would have made a difference. And yet... and yet... even to the last scene, I wanted something better for them all. Not gonna lie, they broke my heart a little.
AF:I think, with the ending, it just went fast for me...choppy movie-like scenes where, instead, I wanted it unpacked a bit more. Not that they need to have explanatory soliloquies, but...Something. Maybe I'm just a completist who wants to understand everything and not have the end of the story left up in the air. :)
tanita: So - tragic, disturbing, enigmatic, ambiguous -- yet brilliant in a way that leaves us uncomfortable. Those are the descriptions we'll stick with. Thanks for reading along with me, and thanks to our readers for joining us for another round of In Tandem.
Psst! If you're in the SF Bay Area, Stephanie Kuehn is having the book launch for DELICATE MONSTERS on June 13th at 7:30 p.m. at Mrs. Dalloway's Books. Check it out!