A Review-ish Rant, aka what happens when an author breaks the fourth wall
As you know, the ‘dear author’ address here is a fiction — a shtick and a distinctive stylistic characteristic of the blog. Before writing this post, I don’t remember ever feeling that I was truly addressing the author in a review. Of course, I don’t remember feeling that the author was intruding so powerfully into my reading experience of a fictional work as I did with Lori Foster’s When You Dare. And frankly, that experience creeped me out too much to use the author’s name in the salutation, even as a fiction.
I purchased When You Dare based on a number of conversations about its possible backstory. Having read a few Foster books in the past, I wasn’t really a fan, but I certainly didn’t hate or feel offended by her books, either. The controversy over her time travel fighter book, My Man Michael, was pretty widespread, though, and then to hear of a book in which the hallowed fourth wall was allegedly not just broken but blasted through at top speed? I was deeply curious. After all, we talk a lot in the blogging community about judging a book on its own terms and maintaining a separation between a book and its author, a separation authors are at least as ideally invested in as readers and reviewers. So would an author – especially one who has gone on record saying that she never takes reviews personally – really dare to close that gap and break the fourth wall?
If When You Dare constitutes the answer to that question, I read it as a definite HELL YES — KICK THAT SUCKER DOWN!!!
Obligatory Disclaimer: When I refer to the “author,” I’m not referring to the person who goes grocery shopping and takes care of her kids, etc. That is, I don’t mean the person who stands behind the author’s name. I’m referring the disembodied voice of the author, the persona represented by the name printed on the book’s cover. It’s like saying, “Mrs. Fields doesn’t know a cookie from a hubcap.” I’ve never met the real Mrs. Fields, and she’s probably a lovely woman with great taste in cookies, but because her name is associated with her product, I’m invoking it when I discuss her company’s products.
Okay, on to the book. A quick summary:
Dare Macintosh is in Tijuana to rescue his friend’s sister from the “human traffickers” who kidnapped her outside her hotel and held her in a dark and dirty trailer for two days. One of two white women in the trailer, the other was in much worse shape physically – dirty, beaten, emaciated, drugged, dehydrated – which apparently intrigues Dare enough to rescue her, as well (the other four women were “local” and “scattered” when Dare stormed the trailer – more on that later). Alani tells Dare how brave the girl was with her jailers, how she fought back whenever they touched her, and, indeed, when the drugged woman briefly awakes, she manages to kick Dare in the nose before he can tell her he’s one of the good guys.
Molly Alexander is an author of “genre fiction,” which, when she describes it, is pretty easily identifiable as Romantic Suspense. Kidnapped outside her apartment building in southern Ohio, Molly has been held for nine days, during which her kidnappers beat and groped her and threatened her with eventual death. She had no idea why she had been taken, but Dare realizes quickly that she is not out of danger, because they are clearly being followed. So Dare must find a way to keep Molly safe until she is physically recovered enough to return home. However, once they get her home, it becomes clear that Molly is still very much in danger.
Molly’s apartment has been ransacked and a cryptic note has been left in her absence: “Still feel so forgiving?” Molly explains to Dare that after a previous book was published, she got a lot of negative reader feedback over a character she redeemed during the course of the book. One reader sent her many anonymous emails and letters insisting that she would never be as forgiving as the woman in the book. Dare, however, initially suspects Molly’s father, who has withheld his wealth and influence from Molly and her sister, heaping scorn and disapproval on Molly for her career choice. Molly is not close to her stepmother, either (her mom committed suicide), who seems more interested in Molly’s father’s money and power than in anything substantive. The only family member Molly is very close to is her sister, a teacher who is also the heroine of the novella featured in the The Guy Next Door anthology. Which makes the list of kidnapping suspects pretty short, leaving a lot of time for Dare and Molly to get to know each other and fall in love on their way to solving the mystery.
So what was it about this book that made me so mad?
Let me count the ways this book frustrated, insulted, irritated, and concerned me. And be warned: I make no attempt to hide or otherwise soften book spoilers.
1. The martyred Mary Sue heroine
Molly/Mary Sue /Lori, whatever. After a while, I had many names for her. Anyway, Molly seemed a collection of contradictory clichés to me. She enjoys a level of success to the point where she can pay Dare for his private protection services without blinking an eye. She can even afford a posh chartered flight without financial discomfort. Yet she lives in a modest apartment with absolutely no security, and doesn’t seem to have very expensive tastes (although she did buy herself a red Miata in celebration of her last contract). One of her books has been sold to Hollywood, with Ryan Reynolds mentioned as the potential star, and yet no one seems to know or recognize her name. I could never figure out what her status was. If she was rich and successful enough to pay for private protection, chartered flights, sports cars, and the like, her father and step-mother’s status conscious judgments about her occupation made absolutely no sense to me, let alone her seemingly ubiquitous anonymity. But if she was only moderately successful in her profession, how could she afford to pay for all that stuff without breaking a sweat?
Then there is the issue of Molly’s appearance and demeanor following her abduction. She’s convinced she’s “plain,” although it doesn’t take Dare long to notice Molly “had one hell of a rack.” Thank God she hadn’t been starved long enough to deflate those puppies! And fortunately, her “small body” had still preserved the “firm, plump flesh” of her ass, since Dare is definitely a rack and
ass man. Because nothing is more appealing than a woman who has been beaten, starved, dehydrated, and drugged for nine days. Although to give Molly credit, from almost the first she declares herself “fine” (which becomes her standard declaration throughout the book) and requires only a meal or two and a few bottles of water to recover substantially from her trauma.
Now I don’t know a lot about starved humans, but shouldn’t it take more than a few pancakes and a quart or so of water to fully revive Molly? Or perhaps it’s the malnutrition that makes Molly think so little about letting her sister know she’s okay or so much about abandoning her whole life in Ohio to relocate to Kentucky to live with Dare, a man she’s known for less than a week and who doesn’t exactly seem like the stealth machine he wants Molly to think he is. I’d say that last decision is a result of PTSD, except Molly doesn’t seem to experience any lingering effects of her trauma. At one point, her stepmother wonders aloud why Molly’s captors didn’t bother to rape her. I don’t think the irony of the question is intended, because the reader knows full well that Molly wasn’t raped so that she could remain uncomplicatedly “untainted” for Dare.
2. A good woman is a small, demure, feminine woman
I do realize that one of the difficulties in books like this is that the heroine needs to be traumatized enough for the hero and the reader to actively desire her protection but not so traumatized that she can’t be primed for mid-book boinking, since imminent danger and a surplus of testosterone necessitate lots and lots of on the run sex. But things don’t stop there. Molly is one of those heroines who has had nothing but awful relationships with terrible men who could not see her inner value and outer beauty. Dare not only sees that value, but he sees it in a nice, small but lush feminine package. At one point he even notices Molly’s hands, observing that “[s]he had feminine hands, despite the short nails.” I’m not sure when short nails became a masculine trait, but the book is full of moments that like, little reminders of how sweet and demure and feminine and fine Molly is, which is pretty ironic, given the explicit critique of her father and stepmother’s investment in precisely that combination of superficial characteristics.
3. Race, culture, language, and casual vigilante violence alerts
Very soon after starting this book I was complaining on Twitter about the identification of Americans by their supposed lack of accent. I don’t really need to explain why this annoyed me, right? Good. Then there is Dare’s comment that in addition to Alani and Molly he notes the remaining “four [captive women] . . . were apparently local, because as soon as I freed them and told them it was clear, they took off.” And how did he identify them as local? Well, it could have been the fact that they had accents. Later, though, the whole trailer incident was described as “white slavery,” and Dare initially identifies Molly as different from the other women, because “she didn’t look foreign.” The captors speak mostly Spanish, so I think we’re supposed to assume they are not American, setting up the standard American = good: foreign (and especially brown) = bad. Which may account for the extreme casualness with which Dare kills a number of the men guarding the trailer (especially since Dare insists that he “detest[s] bullies and needless violence”). Because we all know it’s okay to kill the bad guys, especially when they’re not Americans. And we all know that human trafficking only takes place in Other Countries, not the good old U S of A, so it makes perfect sense for someone to grab Molly in Ohio and transport her to Mexico for her captivity.
4. Embarrassing plot contradictions
I am not the kind of reader who easily unravels every twist and turn in a book before it happens, so when I notice stuff that’s wrong, it’s got to be, well, really, obviously wrong. Like the way Dare takes Molly to his house in Kentucky and tells her not to check her email from his computer because people can track her when she enters her passwords or other personal information. However, he has no problem with her using her credit card to purchase clothes online and have them sent to a PO Box in his town. Because anyone who had access to her passwords wouldn’t be able to track her credit card numbers, especially since she had left her purse and wallet in her apartment when she was taken. Dude. Seriously? Then there’s Dare’s expertise regarding police investigations: “…the police have an uncanny knack for forewarning every real suspect. It’s the way they investigate.” Now, if you need a minute to ponder that, check this out: what’s the first thing Dare does in investigating Molly’s kidnapping? Why he confronts and threatens his own prime suspect, Molly’s father.
If all that weren’t enough, there’s the actual guilty party. For most of the book we’re led to suspect one of Molly’s angry readers. There is quite a bit of page time dedicated to the ways in which her readers were angry and how they threatened her, and even those anonymous emails and letters that mirror the note placed in her apartment. For reasons inexplicable to me, Molly never seemed to notice that those letters – the ones with no return address (which, as far as I know, are now impossible to actually mail) – indicate they were mailed from her own town. Not that Molly ever took them seriously enough to call the cops or anything. Nor did she ever suspect the real kidnapper – her stepmother – of harboring such disdain for her books. In fact, Molly brags at one point about how her stepmother is a great fan of her work and reads all her books. So why her stepmother? I still have no clue despite the ridiculous reason offered: her books are “depraved” and her characters “without moral standards.” All I could think was that someone with that level of craziness in her would not have been able to hide it so successfully and for so long. Although given the aforementioned lack of attention to the letters, maybe it’s not so far-fetched, after all. Still, there were just so many moments like the ones I detailed here that I felt really insulted as a reader. In fact, I felt that the book was little more than a vehicle for the authorial persona to make a point about angry readers, sort of, perhaps like those readers who were angry about My Man, Michael.
5. Demolition of the fourth wall and the dangers of setting that kind of precedent
If When You Dare had been a really tightly plotted, strongly suspenseful, challenging and thoughtful book, I might have given the authorial intrusion more of a pass. But because the book was, for me, so weak in other ways, feeling like the authorial hand was reaching through the text made this book an aggravating, troubling experience for me. I was troubled by the unself-conscious use of the ‘crazy reader’ plotline and aggravated by the parallels to off-page connections to the author.
Molly is an author of Romantic Suspense who lives in Ohio. Totally coincidentally, Lori Foster is an author of Romantic Suspense who lives in Ohio. Molly wrote a book that caused a lot of reader controversy. Totally coincidentally, so did Lori Foster.
Then there are Molly’s persistent comments about the primacy of her muse:
“Truth is, if I had to do it over again, I’d do it exactly the same way, because I have to write a story the way it wants to be written, not the way readers want me to. That’s how my muse works. If I fought the natural process, I’d probably never get a book done, and I probably wouldn’t be as successful.”
To me that voice sounds an awful lot like Foster’s:
“Good or bad, readers react out of interest. If they read a book and was horribly disappointed, I’m sorry for that. If they read one and loved it, I’m glad. But I don’t veer away from my muse based on feedback. If my muse says, “We’re writing this,” then, well, we’re writing it. :-)”
The blog post in which that appeared, by the way, is titled “Follow My Muse.”
Another element of that comment is the “readers react out of interest” statement, which follows a statement about how the author isn’t “insulted” by criticism of her books. Which sounds a lot like this comment of Molly’s:
“There were threats, with people wanting to beat me up, people wishing terrible things would happen to me. But most of it was posted online for all the world to see, so I can’t imagine that anyone was serious. They were just letting off steam. In a way, it’s really a compliment.”
Okay. It’s a “compliment” when readers threaten you and wish terrible things would happen to you? To me, this reads as either the most disingenuous statement on the face of the earth or a barely veiled insult directed at the disappointed reader. But either way I read that statement, it’s contextualized by this whole fantasy subtext in the book about how a reader might be so put out by a book that they would pay to have someone kidnap and torture the author. I’m sorry, but that is not reader investment in an author’s book. That is criminal behavior likely fueled by some kind of mental imbalance. I don’t know how many readers are more invested than the author in a book or series, although I’d dare to wager that it’s not the vast majority of readers who criticize/dislike/are disappointed in/feel let down. But When You Dare seems to want us to entertain this vision of the crazy, stalkery reader going to such extremes, all the while the fictional author prattles on good-naturedly about how flattering it is to be the object of that kind of obsessive criminality. Sure.
And it made me angry. Not only because it just seemed so ridiculous, but also because I could not believe the that the fourth wall was being demolished for that. In a reading and reviewing environment where we emphatically insist that the book and the author are two different things, why risk narrowing that distance for this book? Why risk setting a precedent for this particular bully pulpit? It didn’t read to me as funny or darkly humorous or self-aware in the way that, say, Misery was. In fact, I have absolutely no idea what the point of the book was, unless it’s the same point this review of Transformers 3 is making, namely that the movie is a way for the director to “lectur[e] the audience.”
I’m still not completely sure what the point of the lecture is, but by the end of the book I definitely didn’t buy into the logic of the kidnapping plot, the validity of the romance, or the notion that either Molly or Lori Foster is flattered or unmoved by reader criticism.
I don’t really need to assign a grade to this book, do I?
Edited to Add: Commenter SN posted a link to a May 2011 interview with Lori Foster in which she talks about her personal connections to her fiction, in particular Dare and Molly’s book. Given the discussion in the comments around whether Foster broke the fourth wall or not, and whether she intended a connection between Molly and her previous book controversy, I think this interview is extremely relevant, especially the following question and answer:
What attributes do you share with Dare and Molly? Of course, Molly is a successful writer, so you have that in common. Anything else?
Molly actually came about because of some reader mail I’d gotten—threatening me. I know readers get very invested in stories, and I’m thrilled that they care so much. Occasionally they write me with their frustrations over something that didn’t go quite how they wanted it to, or because they want a character to have a book, but I don’t have a book for that character. That’s fine—I enjoy hearing from them. But threats? Well, I’ve had a few that crossed the line. That’s not the typical reader, and it can be worrisome.
After one particular threat, the idea for Molly and the elements of the storyline dealing with one of her readers as a suspect took shape in my mind.
I love hearing from readers, whether they liked a book or not. But, just like Molly, I think my privacy is important, too.