Janine and Jennie discuss Alisa Sheckley’s urban fantasy novel, The Better to Hold You:
Janine: The Better to Hold You was one of my most anticipated books of 2009. I’m a big fan of Alisa Sheckley’s wry, satirical chick lit novels which were published under the name Alisa Kwitney. I remember picking up The Dominant Blonde back in 2002 and being so delighted to discover a new-to-me-author who had written such an intelligent, funny and touching book. Sex as a Second Language is also a big favorite of mine.
Jennie: Yes, Kwitney has probably been my favorite contemporary/chick lit novelist for a while now, ever since I read The Dominant Blonde (at your urging, I believe, Janine!). I’ve enjoyed all of the books I’ve read by her since then, particularly Sex as a Second Language and On the Couch.
Janine: In discussing her books with a friend, I once said that this author never flinches from showing her characters in embarrassing situations or portraying them making unwise choices, but their witty observations and wobbly egos always save them from appearing less than bright. Instead, they come across as intelligent, insightful people with flaws, foibles and insecurities of which they are acutely aware. Like soft boiled eggs, Kwitney’s characters have outer shells that crack when they are hit, revealing a shaky layer that protects an even more vulnerable core.
All of this is true of Abra Barrow, the heroine and narrator of The Better to Hold You. A 29-year-old veterinarian interning at New York City’s Animal Medical Institute, Abra is also the daughter of a washed up B-movie actress and a Spanish director. Abra’s husband Hunter is a writer who recently visited Transylvania to investigate werewolf myths. Since his return to Manhattan, Hunter has been writing obsessively, craving meat, and playing dominance games both in and out of bed. Abra also begins to suspect that Hunter may be cheating on her.
Meanwhile, at the Animal Medical Institute, Abra’s instructor Malachy Knox, a brilliant researcher whom the interns have dubbed “Mad Mai,” lectures about the lycanthrope virus, which he believes can change some people on the cellular level. Malachy thinks Hunter may have learned something important about the virus during his visit to Transylvania.
When a dog named Pia, who appears to be part wolf, is brought to the institute for medical treatment, Abra and her friend Lilliana suspect that Malachy might experiment on Pia unless they prevent it. Abra is presented with the opportunity to do so when a scruffy man she previously saw on the subway comes to the institute and introduces himself as Red Mallin, a wildlife removal operator from out of town, and a friend of Pia’s owner. Abra decides to take the chance that Red is really who he says he is, and entrusts Pia to his safe-keeping.
The meeting is brief, but Abra is struck and flattered by Red’s obvious attraction to her, since she has never felt entirely secure in her marriage to Hunter. Though Hunter is much more her type — urban, handsome and well-educated — he has always seemed to Abra to be a little bit out of her reach. Going back as far as college, when their relationship began, Abra has never been certain that what Hunter saw in her — “a little nun, perfectly at peace with herself” — is really there.
Disagreements begin to crop up more and more in Hunter and Abra’s marriage, but Abra is afraid to stand up for herself, because she doesn’t want to lose Hunter. She begins to dream strange, vivid dreams. When Abra visits her eccentric mother, her mom does a tarot reading which reveals that magic is coming into Abra’s life, that the universe will be playing a trick on her, and that Abra may be in danger.
The tension between Abra and Hunter escalates, leading to an ugly discovery. Eventually, Hunter decides to relocate to the country, and Abra follows him to the town of Northside, where she encounters Red Mallin, and things that go bump in the night…
The Better to Hold You is a tough book to review because, although there are paranormal goings on throughout the book, Abra, the narrator, doesn’t see them for what they are until more than halfway through the book. So without getting into spoiler terrain, it is difficult to describe these.
Jennie: I think you’ve done quite a good job without giving too much away. I really like your comparison of Kwitney’s character’s to soft-boiled eggs. Very apt! And it encapsulates why I like her heroes and heroines so much: Kwitney manages to create heroines that are relatably neurotic without being pathetic or weak. She creates heroes that manage to retain an appealing masculinity while showing quite a bit more vulnerability than your average romance hero ever shows (a few of Kwitney’s heroes could fairly be described as “bumbling”, but it doesn’t take away from their charm or lessen their masculine appeal).
Janine: I so agree with you about her heroes! Before going into the many things I enjoyed in The Better to Hold You, I’ll admit that because the novel is classified as urban fantasy, I was expecting a different book — one where the fantastical elements were more pronounced throughout. I got impatient waiting for Abra to realize what was going on around her, though in hindsight, I think it was very realistic that she wouldn’t. How many of us would believe in werewolves and other monsters? For Abra to deny what was going on was actually pretty sensible on one level.
Jennie: I sort of had the opposite reaction, in that I think I expected what I got – a Kwitney book with paranormal overtones. But I actually got more annoyed by Abra’s denseness as the book wore on – to the point where it seemed that it wasn’t so much sensible behavior from a character’s perspective but perhaps necessitated by the plot. I also felt the lack of a big “aha!” moment – it was more like: denial, denial, denial, and then, “oh, okay, all this stuff is real”, without as much dramatic tension as I would have expected from such a revelation.
Janine: I didn’t feel that Abra’s denial was out of character, but I do agree with you about the lack of a dramatic revelation. One thing that was really interesting was the way Abra’s denial about the supernatural happenings around her mirrored her denial of the problems in her marriage to Hunter. Even though Abra didn’t see the signs as clearly as she could have, they came across to me as a reader.
Jennie: Yes, and I think that’s what created some frustration for me as a reader. Particularly in first person narration, to have events presented to the reader by the narrator and interpreted by the reader through the narrator, and to have the narrator come to very different conclusions…well, I think it creates a slight sense of dissonance. There is just something different about first person narration (which I am a fan of, by the way) – being inside a character’s head creates an association that, at least for me, makes the character’s blind spots harder to take.
Janine: That is interesting, because I actually have the opposite feeling. I expect blind spots from a first person narrator (what is termed “the unreliable narrator” in English classes). I enjoy the tension these blind spots create, the feeling that I realize something that the narrator does not. It is actually when blind spots are absent, and the narrator’s perception is matched or validated by that of all the other characters, that I become frustrated, because that never happens to anyone in real life. So I was glad that wasn’t the case here. My only problem with Abra’s denial was that it made the fantasy elements of the book less visible, and I wanted a full blown urban fantasy book.
To get back to the storyline, Abra’s fear of being dumped by her husband prevented her from taking a stand and asking for what she wanted and needed from him, and my feeling was that this in turn was one of the things that made Hunter more aloof.
This book really made me think about something that romances don’t always address — the fact that so often in romantic relationships, there is one who wants or needs the other more than he or she is wanted or needed in return.
In Abra’s relationship with Hunter, it was Abra who was in the less secure position. In her interactions with Red, though, she was in the more secure postion. Sheckley showed both the appeal of both Hunter and Red: the appeal of the unattainable man, and the appeal of the man who makes you feel like a queen.
Jennie: Yes, I think Scheckley did do a good job portraying this realistically – and even tying in some of the fantastical elements (the idea of the alpha male being depicted in a rather literal way, here).
Janine: Yes. I wish I could say I loved either Red or Hunter, the way I loved Liam from The Dominant Blonde. But just as she showed the attractive sides of both men, Sheckley also showed their unattractive aspects. Red was a little too country for Abra in many ways, while Hunter, who on paper was more her type, didn’t show her the same level of devotion.
Jennie: See, I found Hunter just insufferable. He was realistically insufferable – I’ve seen relationships that are slightly less exaggerated versions of Hunter and Abra’s in real life. But I don’t find it appealing to read about, and the more appalling Hunter’s behavior got, the more I wanted him to get his comeuppance.
I think Red looked good in comparison to Hunter. He was such a contrast, in almost every way. He worshipped Abra, and I liked her enough to want her to be worshipped. No, I didn’t love him for himself as much as I loved Liam or some of the other heroes from the author’s Alisa Kwitney books. Perhaps I didn’t identify with him quite as much because we never got Red’s POV. But I did like him, quite a lot.
Janine:I liked him as a person, but he was not exactly romantic hero material to me. Hunter had more of the romantic glamour that I look for, but with a big downside. I did like Abra very much though. She was an insightful, witty and caring woman, and I felt she deserved someone who could fulfill her needs.
Jennie: Yes, exactly. And as with the best romances, I think there was some recognition that Abra herself needed to change in order to get her happy ending.
Janine: Good point. Let’s talk a bit about Sheckley’s prose style. I feel that in terms of sheer craftsmanship, she is one of the most skilled authors of contemporary romantic fiction and that she deserves to be much better known than she is. Here are some of the reasons why:
1) Her dialogue is spot on, as in this conversation between Abra and her mother:
My mother sighed and lit a cigarette, watching me get myself back under control. “Here. Do you want a cigarette? Don’t look at me like that, sometimes it helps.” She shook out the match. “Why you want to keep him with you, I’ll never understand. He’s a bastard.”
I gave a little hiccup of a laugh. “You just think all men are bastards, Mom.”
“It’s a safe assumption.”
“God.” I folded the tissue and blew my nose again. “How my father stayed married with you for ten years, I’ll never know.”
“You talk like he’s such an angel. Remember who left!”
“Mom, you were having affairs right and left. And you hounded him all the time. I remember when I was ten you actually had a fight where you said he was personally responsible for the subjugation of women in the Spain.”
“He was a filmmaker. There’s a responsibility there. Besides, he said a lot of shit about me.”
2) She also has a great way with narration and metaphors:
The problem with Manhattan is, everyone comes here eventually -all your old friends, enemies, lovers, demons. People you met on vacation in Nepal will wind up beating you out for a taxi. The bully who called you dog breath all through first grade will turn up at your local diner, and will remember you didn’t come to his sixth birthday party, which is where the whole trouble began. Don’t come to the big city to become anonymous. New York is like Oz: The Wicked Witch of the West turns out to be the lady who didn’t like your dog back in Kansas.
3) Another thing I love is her wry social satire. For example, there is this great spoof of self-help books when Abra picks up a book called Understanding the Alpha Male:
Is your mate an Alpha Male? Take this test.
1. Would your mate describe himself as:
A) A team player
B) One of the guys
C) A highly autonomous individual with leadership capabilities
D) Your lapdog
2. When confronted with a major life choice, does your man
A) Ask your advice
B) Ask an expert’s opinion
C) Tell you and the expert what’s wrong with both of you
D) Pant and whine
3. When driving, if cut off by another car, does your mate
A) Curse and yell
B) Pursue the offending vehicle very closely and then swerve off at the last possible moment before impact
C) Physically assault the small dog sitting in the other driver’s lap
D) Shake uncontrollably, often losing control of his bladder.
Jennie: Yes, I love this author’s voice. I was happy that the change in genres didn’t change her prose. I also really liked the clever weaving of fairy tale elements into the story. Even when Scheckley went a bit over the top with them, late in the story, I appreciated that here was a paranormal that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Janine: I think I actually wanted the book to take itself a bit more seriously. I feel a little torn on what to grade The Better to Hold You because, though the charms of Sheckley’s writing are many, this particular book was somewhat slow to get off the ground, and I wish that I’d fallen in love with one of the male characters. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and am glad I read it. I look forward to the next book in the series, Moonburn, which comes out May 19th. My grade for The Better to Hold You is a B.
Jennie: My grade is also a B (though a high B; it was almost a B+), and I will definitely read the next book in the series. I think ultimately my issues were mostly centered on the power imbalance between Hunter and Abra; if the villains had been punished more thoroughly for their misdeeds, I would have found the book as a whole more satisfying.
Janine: My take on that was that the villains weren’t punished more thoroughly because we’ll be seeing more of them in future books. I agree with you about the book being a high B — not quite a B+ but better than many other books I’d rate a B. I hope readers give it a try.