When you don’t connect to a book on an emotional level…
A while ago, I reviewed the book of a friend of mine. It was the first time in a very long time that I was disappointed, and it wasn’t easy to give the book the three stars I gave it. I ended up not reviewing in on my blog because I felt it was too difficult, there was too much off in it. Instead, I wrote a much more generic post about one of its biggest shortcomings. Today, I review another book, by another friend, and this time I do review it, in an attempt to understand why this book didn’t floor me, as I had expected it to.
Toxic, by Avylinn Winter, is by all means no “bad” book, quite the contrary. It took Avylinn exactly five minutes after I was finished and reluctantly had pressed send on my 3-star rating to call me. We talked about it, about the reason the book ends the way it does (genre and publishing house pressure) but I wasn’t ready to discuss it in any detail. My emotions were still too fresh and raw.
So let me get the difficult part out of the way first: it’s never easy to critique the work of people you care for, even less so when you can’t slap that five-star rating on them. I really like Avylinn. She’s a fellow author from Sweden, we’ve met a couple of times at author events, and I’ve known her since before she was published by Pride Publishing, a Bonnier subsidiary, one of the great behemoths of global publishing who acquired Pride in 2015 to make money off the back of the great gay romance surge of 2014. I wonder if they regret their decision, after everything that’s happened in late 2015 and onward… Oh well, their choice, and one they can afford. Back to Avy. I read one of her Wattpad stories (she’s quite the superstar there with hundreds of thousands of readers!!!), and I liked her direct and gritty approach to difficult topics, her excellent command of the English language.
I was looking forward to reading Toxic, a story about domestic abuse, simply because I am drawn to difficult topics, and this is something that I had never read from an LGBT perspective. The story is told from the view of Adam, written in the first person. I had listened to Avy read a chapter at a recent Con in Berlin and I felt the book had great potential. We had talked about it, the research going into it etc. What I didn’t realize was that the chapter she read was the first one. The book literally kicks off with a rape scene, or at least the sex (not very graphic though) is non-con, or “dubious consent” as the publisher dubiously calls it on the book’s homepage. Hence the warning labels at the beginning of the book. If you’re trigger happy, this may not be a story for you!
The chapter left my mind spinning: what about the backstory? How can Gabriel go from (presumed) “straight jock” evicting his childhood’s best friend from their shared dorm room to a “gay rapist”? The leap was enormous, and I just didn’t understand it. My first reaction was, of course, to take it slow. Many books start off with a bang, to capture the reader’s attention, often an editorial choice. I had to read the scene several times to actually understand what had happened. The actual rape is described very superficially, quickly, using romance genre key phrasing (“arousal”, “cage around his heart” etc.), and you miss it if you blink. I pressed on, eager to find out why Gabriel had become such a monster. I never got that answer. Maybe it’s due to the style of narration (first person) that makes it impossible for Adam to even know why Gabriel became who he is in the book, maybe it’s the genre that rules the story, maybe it’s the first-person voice. Every flashback to Adam’s childhood portrays Gabriel in a positive light, making the “change” in chapter one even more difficult to comprehend. I asked Avy and according to her it was a conscious choice since she wants us to see it from the “victim’s” perspective, and obviously, Adam wouldn’t know why Gabriel changed, and the fore, the first person narrative prohibits makes it impossible to divulge such information.
The challenge for me became even greater as I read on because I couldn’t relate to Adam either, not emotionally. I just don’t understand why he doesn’t leave Gabriel after the second beating, how he keeps internalizing all the blame, turning it on himself. And before you tell me, but “that’s the way victims of domestic abuse tick”, I know all that. I understand it, and I also understand just how difficult it is to get out from underneath it all. Maybe my hopes were that Avylinn would help me understand “why”, not just how. I still don’t. Maybe it was too tall an order, to begin with? Were my expectations too great? At every beating, at every abusive word, I want to scream at Adam “get out”, “leave”, but he doesn’t, finding ever new explanations why it is all his fault. It’s infuriating, frustrating, simply because I don’t understand why. It just makes no sense. I read the words, and I understand that Adam actually believes them, but why?
I know Avy’s done her research, and I know her descriptions are spot on, and I realize that many of the victims of abuse who have read the story love it, because it is such an amazing representation of how a victim of abuse thinks, feels. Maybe most people don’t need to understand why maybe they don’t even want to. I do. And this story didn’t help me learn more. I didn’t connect with the story emotionally. Usually, my tear-meter is a very good indication of how well I connect emotionally with a character. I never once shed a tear for Adam, throughout the entire book. It wasn’t until the epilog and a moment of catharsis that my eyes watered up, the storytelling was burning. It was then, at the very end of the story that I finally felt Adam. Great writing, right there in his childhood room.
It’s been a few days since I’ve put down this book and I still think about it. I try to understand why I didn’t connect with it. This is a romance novel, maybe knowing how it would end (the writing is clearly in the sky from one of the first chapters) ruined it for me? Maybe knowing that the whole abuse business was just a precursor to the inevitable happy ending? Maybe the tight corset of romance, with all the “rules” and rigid expectations ruins great storytelling? I don’t know, but just putting the words “romance” and “domestic abuse” next to each other, the way I’ve done in the heading, chafe in a way, don’t they? A square peg and the proverbial round hole?
Would I recommend you to read the book, despite the above? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes! And if you long for a happy ending even more so. Most romances do not deal with such taboo subjects, and I think Avylinn has done a great job fleshing out the monstrosity that is domestic violence. Adam is a believable character, so is his roommate Chris, his boyfriend Dante, and Cameron, the teacher. The only person we never really get to know is Gabriel, the monster, the abuser. He remains a sketch, a shadow, lurking behind the door of his dorm room, purposely so. If you’re a romance reader looking for something darker, this is for you. I’ll update my rating from 3 stars to 4, now that I’ve had time to think about it for a while.
The writing is impeccable, the language comprehensive and fluid. Avylinn has an amazing grasp of the English language (not her first), and the story is tight and there are no dull passages. So no qualms with the editing or the proofing (I only found one typo if that’s a factor). Toxic is published by Pride Publishing and available from Amazon et al. If you wish to follow Avylinn on her Wattpad journey, you can find her here.
Have you read Toxic? What am I missing? Let’s discuss. I’m eager to learn because I do feel that I’m missing something. I just can’t put my fingers on it. Your input is greatly valued, as always. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a good weekend.