Literature Review: Tough Love
February is known for Valentine’s Day, sweetness and love, but the seething romance novels always end the same way with a plotline you can see coming. They are friends, but will they become lovers? Read “The Sexy Bookstore Workers” to find out. Love takes many different forms, whether it’s obsession, power, or uncomfortable distance. With February now behind us, this book review examines the underlying, less discussed forms of love.
“With the Teeth” by Kristen Arnett (Riverhead Books)
“With Teeth” is a romance steeped in discomfort, but thanks to the talents of Kristen Arnett, it’s never too much to bear. Sammie is married to Monika and they have one son, Samson. The novel follows Samson’s growth from a strange, quiet child to a strange, unfamiliar teenager as Sammie and a largely useless Monika try to help him as best they can. The title of the book comes from a scene where a young Samson acts out in the backseat of the car and bites Sammie’s arm. In a moment of rage and bad decisions, Sammie bites him back, and their respective marks bind the two together, though they feel distant.
The book opens with a scene where a man in a truck tries whether or not to kidnap Samson, who almost goes with him. Sammie is shaken and here we discover her anxious personality. “I wanted to explore what it would be like for a queer woman – a woman who chose to be a mother – to be pretty bad. Not a super mom at all,” Arnett said.
Sammie – who was pregnant with Samson and feels a greater connection to him than Monika – is at the center of the story, and her isolation from new motherhood is palpable on every page. She makes rash decisions like spying on a neighbor and getting into sexual situations as Monika increasingly wants to be distant. Separated from her partner and her son, Sammie finally feels a great divide.
“Sammie is a character who feels completely disconnected from her body after having a child. It’s not just hers anymore; the body feels like it belongs to everyone around her, especially her child,” Arnett said. As Samson’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic – as he enters each scene and his breath is held – the dynamic between mother and son is explored in a whole new way.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like addictive or wholesome reading – we are, after all, peeking into one woman’s story of depression. But like Dolly Alderton’s book “Ghosts”, in which the protagonist frequently engages in a “schadenfreude shelf” with his friends where they gIf you’re talking about awkward, awkward situations that happen to other people, you can’t really look away from “With Teeth.”
“I kept comparing this in my mind to sitting in a bar and hearing a couple at the table next to you on the first date from hell. It’s deeply uncomfortable, isn’t it? But you keep listening to it,” Arnett said. “It was very honest to write a book that refused to let the reader look away from the car accident.”
“Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas (Simon & Schuster)
Meet Vladimir Vladinski, an acclaimed new novelist who recently arrived on a college campus in upstate New York to teach as an adjunct professor. Our anonymous narrator, a beloved English teacher in his late fifties, immediately becomes obsessed with him. Sexual tension runs through each of their interactions – their first meeting at her home, at college, and then during a day at the pool to which she invites him and his family. “I wanted to be intimate with him, so deeply intimate… It was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me, or else a world, a bottomless pit – a continuous experience of the exhilarating sensation of falling , ” says the narrator.
There’s only one problem: the narrator’s husband, John, is facing sexual assault allegations. John, a fellow professor, is waiting for his audition to see if he can stay in college. Our narrator has conflicting feelings – the women were quite old, but they were students, but that was before a rule explicitly prohibiting this relationship was enacted. She is finally annoyed by her husband, jaded to share a living space together. She prefers to fantasize about Vladimir and his genius writing abilities.
Playwright and author Julia May Jonas knows that the power dynamics between young Vlad and the older narrator as well as the allegations against the narrator’s husband are touchy subjects, but Jonas wants to challenge what fiction is capable of. “I, as a human being and an art consumer, want to know what people, good guys, bad guys, and people in the middle, really think…and not try to get to that, d exposing that, seems to me more dangerous than any work the reader might have to do when faced with an image or situation that they don’t agree with,” she said. We have enough organized and polemical self-presentation on the Internet, we don’t need it in fiction.”
The narrator’s life becomes increasingly troubled as her daughter arrives in shock after a breakup and other professors on campus want her to stop teaching due to her affiliation with her husband. “We just want to know when you’re going to throw his ass off,” a group of college students tell him during office hours.
She is, however, energized by her closeness to Vlad and uses this raw emotion to start a new novel – her third – and writes it feverishly on sticky notes in her car. “The desire energized my muscles, my organs and my brain. Desire replaced my blood with a bubbly, expansive liquid,” she says. She’s delusional about him as a date to discuss her new approaches, and as Jonas said, “as many of our crushes or obsessions are, [it’s] all in her mind – she’s really unable to touch reality when it comes to him.
The intoxicating and complex examination of the dynamics of power and lust will have you hanging on to every last portrayal of Vlad – all told by a troublesome, interesting and complex narrator who is always on the verge of going too far.
“Bath Haus” by PJ Vernon (Doubleday Books)
Oliver Park is an anxious young man who, against his better judgment, enters a gay bath one night without alerting his longtime boyfriend, the respected doctor Nathan Klein. Once there, a chilling altercation ensues that leaves Oliver with a bruise on his neck and the need to dodge the truth. Not wanting to admit Nathan, he says he was mugged at a race one night. His lies pile up, compounding his worries. Oliver’s life spirals out of control with lies and roadblocks preventing him from uncovering the truth. On the constant tightrope of anxiety that runs through the book, PJ Vernon says, “Tension is the lifeblood of any story – as soon as it breaks down, we risk losing readers.
Things get worse as Oliver goes to the police with two separate stories – one, the truth about the bathhouse, and the other, the fake assault, which Nathan makes him tell. The two are confessed to the same policeman, who can’t trust Oliver now through the half-truths.
Vernon says personal anxiety played a part while writing the book, and in an effort to make the characters’ lives interesting, he had to face the task of making everything worse. “Personal anxiety can feel so viscerally and undeniably real, it was a no-brainer for me from a creative standpoint,” he said. “Fear has had so much power and control over my life in the past that it was about time it started paying the bills!”
Throughout the storyline, we also get a glimpse into the past life of Oliver, who has been entangled with a drug addict in the past and now relies on Nathan to keep him in check. This power, whether through his physique, his comfort, or his finances, still has a hold on Oliver and makes his deception against Nathan particularly difficult to deal with. “Toxic co-dependencies unfold in same-sex relationships, and we need to see them in the literature. We fought so hard for the option of marriage, but what happens when we get divorced? Nothing like a little gay-sexual-murder-gaslighty fun to start a tough conversation.