Friday, April 22, 2016

Compensatory Romance: Charlotte Stein's NEVER SWEETER

   

     "Mom, that boy is hitting me!"
     "Oh, honey, that's only because he likes you..."





Female readers: when you were a girl, did you ever have an exchange like the one above with your mother, or another older authority figure? I know I did. The words were meant to make me feel better, and they did, to a certain extent. Though I certainly didn't like getting pushed, or hit, or having my hair pulled, thinking that such behavior was less about how much a boy hated me and more about how much he liked me bolstered my wilting self-confidence. But at the same time, the words also unconsciously taught me that it was okay for boys to hit me. Though boys could be violent, said violence was simply a stand-in for caring feelings boys were did not know how to, or were not allowed to, express, and so I should not protest, at least not too much.

I couldn't help thinking of such exchanges as I read Charlotte Stein's latest erotic romance, Never Sweeter, book 2 in her Dark Obsession series. In the novel's prologue, Letty, a senior in high school, is walking home after her car has broken down and comes across her long-time tormentors, fellow students Jason, Patrick, and Tate. She knows once they see her, they "were going to pull some stunt," but even she could not believe that they would force her off the road: "They weren't going to actually do it for real. Bullies like them never really did anything. It was all just safe things that made their target feel like shit" (Kindle Loc 89).

Yet Letty spends the next two years in rehab, recovering from the injuries she sustained after Jason's truck shoved her off a bluff. And none of the boys was prosecuted for the act—"just an accident," Jason tells the police, who believe him because he's popular, and a sports star.

The book itself opens when Letty starts college, two years late, only to discover that Tate, the worst of her three tormentors, is not only attending the same school, he's actually in her film studies class. Yet each time their paths cross, there's no sign of the cunning, cruel, feral bully of her high school years. In fact, Tate seems to be making a major effort to be nice to the girl whose life he once made a living hell. And to compliment her. And to help her feel less skittish around men.

When Letty makes her first female friend at college, she cannot help but think of how different it is to have someone who believes her side of the story: "Clearly, Lydia would never tell her that she had to stop doing whatever she was doing that goaded Tate. There would be no calls to the college's office to talk about the transfer she should get, instead of the one he should" (Loc 480). And she's thrilled to find someone who can help her keep in mind the old Tate, the one that Letty is certain is waiting just around the corner, ready to spring a new humiliating trap on her as soon as she lets her guard down.

When Letty and Tate are assigned to partner on a project about the depiction of sex in film, though, their relationship takes an unexpectedly sensual turn. Watching White Palace, Dirty Dancing, Nine and a Half Weeks and others turns them both on, something that Tate is not at all shy about noticing. Or talking about. Or acting on, at least when it comes to himself. And Tate's sexual self-display, combined with his ever-increasing displays of emotional vulnerability, lead Letty to do just what she could never have imagined doing: enjoying hot sexy times, and touchingly emotional times, with her one-time enemy. Yes, despite their harasser/harassee history, Letty and Tate fall for one another. And such is Stein's skill as a writer that she has the reader cheering for (and turned on by) this unlikely outcome.

One aspect of cultural work romance novels do, Catherine M. Roach argues in Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, is "to try to make up for the costs to a woman's psyche of living in a culture that is still a man's world" (11). Roach terms this work "reparative," but I wonder if the better word might be "compensatory." Though both words are synonyms for "make amends," reparative also has an additional meaning that compensatory does not: to remedy an undesirable condition or situation; to restore or repair. Reparative suggests that something is going to be changed, fixed, mended; "compensatory" makes no such promise.

And it seems a far better word to describe what occurs in Stein's novel. Neither Tate nor Letty can go back and fix the past, the past in which Tate made Letty lock herself in the janitor's closet, or called her "fatty" and "thunder thighs," or put up flyers at school with her picture "telling everyone to watch out for the whale that had gotten loose from Sea World" (Loc 3576). In fact, the entire idea that your tormentor is actually tormenting you because he secretly loves you is deeply compensatory. Presented as reality within the novel—Tate, it turns out, was secretly in love with Letty all the time he tormented her—outside the novel, it serves as a fantasy, a fantasy that can make a reader who has been bullied feel better about the experience, even if, as is far more likely in real life, her own tormenter acted out of cruelty and privilege than out of frustrated caring.

Towards the end of the novel, Letty dumps Tate, because she believes she found evidence that he really is just conning her into thinking he cares for her. But of course, since this is a compensatory fantasy, Letty is mistaken, and the two tearfully reunite. During their getting-back-together conversation, Tate reveals that he only started bullying Letty after she called him a "jug-head" and turned him down when he asked her for a date. Letty then feels guilty for having started the whole vicious cycle, and, of course, for not trusting Tate this time round.

But Stein does not allow Letty to accept the guilt that such a plot turn initially seems to dump on her plate. And she uses Tate as her mouthpiece to explain why none of this is Letty's fault:

"But you're not fucking responsible for shit that I chose to do. You didn't owe me your love. You didn't owe me a polite yes. It was not on you to let me down gently and somehow ward off punishment I was fucking stupid enough to think you deserved." (4030)

Yes, the very zenith of compensatory fantasy: not only does the hot, sexy bully turn out to be in love with you; he also turns out to be a closet feminist.


Is reading Stein's compensatory fantasy a first, positive step toward restoring a bullied girl's stolen self-esteem? Or, more problematically, does it encourage the reader to side with the purportedly "loving" bully?

I guess the answer lies in whether said reader will tell her own daughter that she's "not fucking responsible" for a bullying boy's actions, or feelings, and should not stand for being teased, tormented, or hit by a boy just because he likes her.

Or whether instead she just ends up repeating the old line, "Oh, honey, he's only hitting you because he likes you..."





Never Sweeter:
A Dark Obsession Novel
Loveswept, 2016

6 comments:

  1. I didn't read it as a 'compensatory' fantasy but as a transformation story. The hero was a jerk when younger and changed as he matured (as many people do). So he wasn't a 'loving bully' at the point of the romance, and therefore there was no choice for me between self-esteem and loving the bully.

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    1. Rhyll: I think you can definitely read this as a transformation story. But the book's focus, its energy, is not at all on exploring Tate's transformation, is it? It's like, bang, he's a jerk, then, fast-forward two years, and bang, he's a super sweet guy. And an informed feminist, too! I agree that people can change as they mature, but Tate's transformation seemed so extreme that it almost seemed magical, wish-fulfilling, to me. And hence the idea of compensation.

      After Letty discovers that Tate deeply regretted his actions, Tate says to Letty, "didn't you wonder what happened to me during the past two years?" But the story doesn't talk much at all about what happened to him during that time, beyond allowing us to read the emails he wrote to Letty (even though he knew they would never get to her), telling her of his guilt and wish to make things up to her. At the start of the story, I thought maybe he had been put in court-ordered psychological counseling, he seemed so different!

      Tate definitely wasn't a "loving bully" when the actually romance starts. So this is not an icky book that convinces abused young women that they should love their bullies.

      But Stein does choose to make his actions back in high school due (at least in part) to his romantic feelings for Letty. She could have just chosen to have him be a jerk in high school, and fall for Letty only after he had transformed. But she didn't. So I have to ask, why did she make that decision? Which agan leads to the idea of compensation.

      To my mind, compensatory is NOT the same as reparative. This story doesn't fix or erase the bullying that Letty endured, or that Tate dished out. If it did, then for Letty, and for the reader, there WOULD be a choice between self-esteem and loving the bully. But there isn't, at least not the way Stein constructs her story.

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  2. I haven't read the novel, but I have seen severe physical and emotional bullying in the class I was part of for my first nine school years (now 30-35 years ago), I say this is not something I would ever want to read. I did my best to fly below the radar most of the time. But there is nothing even remotely romantic about bullying, and I would much rather read a novel where the bully victim turns her/his back to the former bully and proceeds her/his life successfully on her/his own.

    As for my daughters (I have two) or for my son, I would say, "tell them to stop" or fight back. And if that's not enough, and if it truly is bullying it often is not, then take further actions.

    /Sara

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    1. Hi, Sara:

      I can totally understand why someone who witnessed bullying, or who has been the victim of it, might not be drawn to this book. But on the other hand, Stein wrote the book in response to her own experiences of being bullied, I believe. The book's dedication reads "For all of you everywhere who know what it's like," and the acknowledgements include this line: "But most of all I'd like to thank the twelve-year-old me, for not giving up. I did tell you it would get better."

      So this is not a matter of a writer papering over the horrors of being bullied, but a way to reimagine them, to take control of them. A book in which a protagonist triumphs over a bully is one way to create a fantasy of empowerment. But a story in which the bully transforms into the protagonist's ideal romantic partner is a fantasy of empowerment, too.

      What people do in real life when faced with bullying is a whole other topic. Which is why I asked the question I asked at the end of my post.

      Glad you would advise your kids not to accept being bullied.

      My kid has never been subjected to bullying, but I know from reading about the topic that many kids, especially girls, get push-back when they complain to school authorities. So sometimes it's not just an easy either/or choice, to accept or to fight back.

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  3. I think what I'm struggling with is that she's getting a compensatory love, from the person who tormented her. I have experienced love that made me feel better about prior abuse. I think there are relationships that help self esteem and faith in yourself. For me, Letty getting that love from Tate feels squicky. It feels like Letty finds his love redemptive. That reminds me of how some abusers will treat you the best right after they've beat you up, or give you compliments that actually feel better because they've called you ugly so many times. The relief of feeling love from the prior abuser is not something I like to see offered as a happy ending.

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  4. I think what I'm struggling with is that she's getting a compensatory love, from the person who tormented her. I have experienced love that made me feel better about prior abuse. I think there are relationships that help self esteem and faith in yourself. For me, Letty getting that love from Tate feels squicky. It feels like Letty finds his love redemptive. That reminds me of how some abusers will treat you the best right after they've beat you up, or give you compliments that actually feel better because they've called you ugly so many times. The relief of feeling love from the prior abuser is not something I like to see offered as a happy ending.

    ReplyDelete