Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Learning to Grieve: Linda Holmes' EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER

How many times have you looked at a happily married couple and thought, "wow, how perfect are those two for one another?"

And how many times has that image of perfection been at all close to the truth?

To everyone in her small (very white) Maine hometown, Evvie Drake seems to be living a perfect fairy tale. She and her high school sweetheart, Tim, attended college together, maintained a long-distance relationship during his medical residency, then married and moved back to Calcasset, even though they could have run off to the big city as so many other young Down Easters had done. Tim was "effortlessly charming" to everyone he met, and served his small community with pride and care, and the house he bought for his wife was far more luxurious than the small cottage in which she grew up. Even Evvie's hardworking lobsterman father thinks "my Eveleth is so lucky, that Tim wants to be her husband" (Kindle Loc 1152). For ordinary Evvie to have caught good doctor Tim seems luckier than hauling in the season's largest catch of lobsters.

Which is why when Tim dies in a car crash, everyone in town understands Evvie's debilitating grief.

Everyone, that is, except Evie.

Because nobody besides Evvie knows that when she got the call from the hospital a year earlier, telling her that her husband had been in an accident, she'd been just about to leave: leave Calcasset, leave her marriage, and above all, leave her too perfect to be real husband. The third person narrator doesn't tell the reader why Evvie was poised for flight; everyone else in town, including Evvie's own family, thinks Tim was the perfect doctor, the perfect husband, the perfect small town guy. This disconnect between her own far less rosy memories of her marriage and those of everyone else around her, and her need to keep her aborted flight from town a secret so she won't be accused of heartlessness toward the dead and departed Tim, has Evvie just as stuck—in Calcasset, in the house that she hates—as if she had really been grieving for a beloved spouse. As the narrator explains at the start of the story,

It had been almost a year since Tim died, and she still couldn't do anything at all sometimes, because she was so consumed by not missing him. She could fill up whole rooms with how it felt to be the only person who knew that she barely loved him when she'd listened to him snoring lightly on the last night he was alive. Monster, monster, she thought. Monster, monster. (Kindle Loc 137)

Her best friend, Andy, worried that Evvie is spending too much time by herself ("You know...it's not good to be alone too much. It'll make you weird" [232]) persuades her to rent out the small apartment attached to her house to his old college buddy, Dean, who wants to get away for a few months from his life of notoriety in New York City. A former World Series-winning pitcher for the Yankees, Dean's case of the "yips" (an inexplicable loss of fine motor skills in a mature athlete; in baseball, the ability to accurately throw the ball) has become so disastrously embarrassing that he's been voted "First Athlete We'd Throw into an Active Volcano" by the fans on a popular sports website. Tired of the taunts and interviews and endless analysis, Dean decides to officially retire, and needs a quiet place where he can take it easy for a while while he figures out what to do with the rest of his life. Since Andy presumes that Evvie is doing the same, he guesses that they'll have a lot in common.

At first, Evvie is reluctant, but she changes her mind when it turns out that Dean is as wary of talking about baseball as Evvie is about talking of her widowhood:

     "I do think we should have a deal." She looked at him expectantly. "You don't ask me aboput baseball," he said, "and I don't ask you about your husband."
     She blinked. "I didn't ask you about baseball."
     "I know. I didn't ask you about your husband."
     "But you want to have an official arrangement."
     He rubbed his eyes. "I don't know how much you know about it, Evvie, but I have had a shitty year. A shitty couple of years. And I have talked about it a lot. And I think maybe you're in the same position. If you're okay with this, you'd be doing me a favor, and you'd be doing me an even bigger favor if it can just be normal. I'll say hi, and you can say hi, and we won't do, you know, the whole thing with the mysterious sad lady and the exiled... fuckup." (454)

After Dean moves in, he and Evvie keep things pleasant, chatting amiably about books and television and small towns versus big cities, light, funny conversations that steer well clear of baseball and grief. But Evvie watches as Dean as he throws pine cones in the pitch-dark of the Maine evenings, and wonders if he has truly given up his dream of throwing again in the majors. And Dean listens when Evie "punch[es] a little hole in the rowboat in which they'd decided to float" by telling him about the memorial service she's attended for her husband, and perceptively asks why she doesn't include herself in the list of people for whom the "memorial thing" was great (745). And hears the confession that tumbles out of Evvie's mouth:

"I felt bad," she said, "because they all loved him so much, and I didn't. I mean, I loved him originally, a lot, but I didn't when he died. He wasn't nice to me. He didn't hit me or anything, but he was sometimes pretty nasty. And then he died, and now when I'm around people who miss him, I don't know what to do. Sometimes I can't sleep because I don't miss him so much, which sounds crazy. But...that. (755)

After a few more rounds of punching holes in the rowboat of their non-discussion agreement, Dean proposes that they call the agreement off, and choose to be friends instead. And after that, attraction begins to leak through the gaping rowboat hole. But when Evvie's penchant for making everybody happy all the time runs smack into Dean's tiny but still not entirely extinguished desire to pitch again, will nurturing hopes once set aside lead to a new start? Or only to a dead end?

Evvie's struggles are all behind the scenes, hidden from her family and fellow townspeople, and often even from herself. Dean's, in contrast, are everything public, appallingly visible to millions who shiver with the horrified glee of schadenfreude at the once elite athlete who now throws even worse than they do. But both are struggling with how to grieve: for a dead husband Evvie no longer loves; for a career Dean still does; and most importantly, for the selves each worked so hard to construct in each of those roles: cheerful, uncomplaining wife; dominating never-fail star pitcher. Even if those constructions did and continue to do each of them more harm than good.

With its slowly-developing romance, and its focus on the many ways that both Evvie and Dean need to learn to "start over," Holmes' story is closer to women's fiction than it is to full-blown romance. And its storylines do not all end in the easy triumph common to genre romance. But with its sensitively-constructed characters, amusing and clever dialogue, and all too believable depiction of one woman's gradual understanding and acceptance of how she was once gaslighted and emotionally abused, Evvie Drake Starts Over might just be the most quietly charming work of feminist romantic fiction I've read this year.

Photo credits:
Breaking the Yips cycle: Peak Performance Sports

Linda Holmes
Ballantine Books, 2019

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Romancing Outrage: Aya de Léon's SIDE CHICK NATION

Side chick, n:

The other woman; also known as the mistress; a female that is neither a male's wife or girlfriend who has relations with the male while he is in another relationship (Urban Dictionary)

(African American Vernacular, slang) A mistress; a woman one dates in addition to one's girlfriend or wife, usually in secret (Wiktionary)

Dulce García knows exactly what it means to be a side chick. Wooed by a far older man when she was only fourteen, Dulce thought she'd won the role of princess in a Disney movie, a girl destined to live happily after with a man who promised to take care of her. Instead, her prince turned out to be a pimp, asking her to sleep with others as a favor, and then as an expectation, and finally, not asking at all. Dulce's eighteen before a group of activist former and current sex workers helps her flee from the violent man (see previous books in the Justice Hustlers series).

But the patterns Dulce learned during her years with her pimp are hard to escape. Her next long-term boyfriend hooks her with the line "Would you do me the honor of letting me pay your bills?" This boyfriend doesn't ask her to sleep with anyone else, but before long he stops taking her out and lavishing money on her, even interrupting their time together to read and answer texts from some other woman. Dulce knows she's about to be demoted from side chick to nonentity, and steals her boyfriend's drug dealing stash so she can flee to the Dominican Republic where she has family.

But small-town life in the DR is too slow for Dulce, and she's soon picking up wealthy men in hotels on different Caribbean islands, staying with her sugar-daddies for days or weeks at a time, entertaining them while their wives and girlfriends wait for them back in the States. Even while on date with Xavier, a Puerto Rican reporter now living in the U. S., a man who actually seems to like her for herself, Dulce instinctively answers the call from a past sugar daddy looking to hook up again. And lies to Xavier about the man who's picking her up in the middle of their dinner.

But then Hurricane Irma slows the flow of sugar daddies visiting the Caribbean to a trickle. And Dulce finds herself sleeping in a storage room in San Juan, waiting for the next hurricane to hit.

Hurricane María...

If you are looking for a narrative of personal redemption, a story in which an unworthy heroine is punished and made humble by the elements and by the suffering of herself and others, and is thus made worthy of love and respect, Side Chick Nation is not the book for you. All the anger in de León's narrative is for those take advantage of vulnerable people like Dulce: abusive husbands, boyfriends, and pimps; privileged reporters complaining about the tough conditions they have to live with in order to report on the conditions in Puerto Rico post-hurricane; relief workers and rescuers more eager to dish out verbal abuse than material aid; and above all, the United States, the colonizer that continues to bleed its territory dry. Though she writes with tension and suspense of Dulce's physical trials during and after María hits the island, de León is far more interested in the ways that the natural disaster, and the United States' lackluster response to it, demonstrates a longer term pattern, a pattern illuminated by her book's title. Puerto Rico, like Dulce herself, is no more than a side chick to the powerful, alluring, but ultimately exploitative country that "won" her more than a hundred years ago.

But is every man, and every American, on the market for a side chick? In the aftermath of the hurricane, Xavier is back in Puerto Rico, worried about Dulce and hard in pursuit of the real stories behind the devastating natural disaster. Savvy Dulce, knowing that Xavier might just be her ticket out of the devastated country, finds her way to the hotel where he and the other American reporters are being housed. But as Xavier invites her to work with him covering the story, Dulce's joy in writing, a joy she had almost forgotten after being lured into a life of prostitution, reemerges. But will her past as a sex worker stand in the way of her new dreams? And can she trust any man, even one as seemingly kind as Xavier, is not ultimately out to exploit her?

In her Author's Note, de León explains that she was developing a different storyline for this fourth book in her Justice Hustlers series when María hit Puerto Rico. Writing within the confines of the genre conventions of the series makes for an uneven narrative; heists in which the previous members of the Hustlers ladies, but not Dulce, participate, are important to "the larger story [de Léon is] hoping to tell about colonization, climate change, and the need for women of color to be leaders in transforming both," but don't feel integral to Dulce's personal or romantic arcs (Kindle Loc 4976). Nor do the side stories of New Yorker Marisol, the protagonist of The Boss, and her cousins back on the island. But as De León argues in the conclusion to her Author's Note, "heist fiction has proven a fitting genre for this story: as these characters have had to battle law and custom to find small pockets of justice and reparation, similarly, the extended family of Puerto Rico will have to keep battling laws, customs, history, and entrenched power structures to get the justice and the reparations that the island deserves" (4976). No woman—and no territory—deserves to be anyone's side chick.

Photo credits:
"Somewhere there's a guy..." Urban Dictionary
"Ten thousand miles...": "American Propaganda: Controlling Public Opinion in Puerto Rico."

Aya de León
A Justice Hustlers novel
Kensington/Dafina, 2019