I must confess that when I first start reading Painted Faces I was pretty convinced the book should have actually been about two lines long:
Fantastically hot drag artist: Hey, do you want have sex?
And then I realised I was being churlish because you can approach pretty much any book this reductively. It’s just the hero of Painted Faces is just so off-the-scale shagtastic I had trouble suspending disbelief that anyone would hesitate for two seconds, let alone half a book.
In terms of plot, there isn’t much going on here: our heroine, Freda, lives in Dublin with her best friend, Nora. A hot guy, Nicholas, moves in next door. He turns out to be a drag artist. They fall in love. The end. This is not, by the way, a criticism. It just happens to be a book about two people, take it or leave it, and I’m cool with that.
I had a very mixed response to Painted Faces. On principle, I liked that it was trying to do something different, although part of me did occasionally wonder whether there was a touch of smoke and mirrors going on here because, dude in a frock aside, it didn’t strike me as noticeably dissimilar to the other romances I’ve read so far. Career choice notwithstanding, the book goes out of its way to emphasise Nicholas’s masculinity – he’s alpha-levels of protective and Cullen-levels of obsessed – and his relationship with Freda basically boils down to a sexually aggressive, promiscuous male in pursuit of a resisting, semi-inexperienced female. So there was an extent to which I felt (perhaps uncharitably) that the book was ultimately saying ‘hey, things might look different on the outside but, don’t worry, they’re basically the same underneath’ rather than ‘hey, different is okay too’.
But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. The truth is, I’m so glutted on dickheads (oh, that sounds so wrong) at the moment that I’m rolling out the red carpet for even a hint of a non-traditional hero. So, even if I was a bit dubious about the execution, I was very happy to encounter Nicholas. I think I like drag artists even more than I like angels, and that is saying something. I also found that it was an unanticipated pleasure to read a book set somewhere I actually recognised. Dublin is very well realised, the city, its idiosyncrasies and its denizens evoked with what felt like real and deep affection. Equally, although I struggled with the narration and the dialogue (more on this later), the characters sounded, to an extent at least, a bit like me and the people I know. When you’re reading, a moment of true recognition can be very powerful and I did very much enjoy the feeling that Painted Faces was set in a world I knew and understood.
Even so, I found the first half of the book something of a slog.
I’ve realised I’ve got to be more careful when talking about heroines because I’m coming at them from a privileged perspective and I keep forgetting that what works, and what doesn’t work, for me has no bearing on what is valuable or meaningful to other people. A couple of columns back I blithely laid into Annwyl the Bloody from Dragon Actually for disappointing me, and quite a few people – entirely fairly because I was being a prick – picked me up on it. I don’t get to stand here like Mr Darcy being all “not cool enough to tempt me.” For a lot of the commenters, Annwyl was a really important heroine. She’s strong, she’s a warrior, she gets what she wants. She’s not there to live up to my completely irrelevant expectations, and it was utterly wrong of me to whinge about it.
But, equally, I’m a human being and I will have personal reactions to characters and Freda got on my nerves. I’m sorry, but there it is. This doesn’t mean I can’t see all the ways she might speak to someone else. She’s brash and loud, swears and drinks a lot, has bad hair, and she doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes of “feminine” behaviour. She is, in short, a very human sort of character, a woman who might actually exist, and I understand why this might be incredibly refreshing. But, as much as I valued the sense of reality to her as a character, she was, perhaps, real enough to annoy the heck out of me. It was like being trapped in conversation with a self-consciously edgy undergraduate – which would have been fine when I was younger (hell, I was a self-consciously edgy undergraduate) but I’ve kind of played that scene. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate a certain, shall we say, Rebelaisian humour but half the time it felt like Freda, and the book itself, were trying way too hard. For example, there’s a moment when they’re talking about charity shops and, err, soiled clothing:
“What comes in between white stains and yellow?” Nicholas asks with a smirk. “In my experience they both come out of the same… pipe. I’m not aware of any in between in that area.”
Oh, he’s trying to out shock factor me. Well, he’s met his match. “I’m not sure, possibly pre-cum.” (p. 58)
Well, yeah, it’s a fair point, I guess, but the set-up is too unwieldy and the exchange too laboured for this to be anything other than a ‘had to be there’ moment between two imaginary people. Nicholas, however, treats the whole thing like it’s pure comedy gold:
Nicholas almost falls off his stool he’s laughing so hard. “Fuck that was a good one, Fred.” (p. 59)
The joke, such as it is, is so inconsequential and Nicholas’s reaction is so exaggerated that it just left me feeling confused and faintly alienated. I mean, I was glad they were getting on so well, and I know reading is arguably a voyeuristic act anyway but I don’t get much out of playing fictional gooseberry.
Again, it’s difficult – and in my case, kind of inappropriate – to make moral judgements on characters because there’s always the danger of inadvertently reflecting socially conditioned ideas about what constitutes inherently correct behaviour for women, or men, or small furry creatures from alpha centauri. But, early on, I honestly found Freda pretty mean. And that sounds like I’m saying women aren’t supposed to be mean, or can’t be attractive if they are, but she just happened to be mean in ways that I personally react against.
She’s kind of horrid both to and about Nora, who is supposed to be her best friend. I know I should blame the author for this, rather than Freda, but, for the first half of the book, the sole purpose of Nora’s textual existence seems to be making Freda look good. Nora is conventionally beautiful and initially fancies Nicholas but she’s completely freaked out by his cross-dressing, thus allowing Freda to exposit how cool, tolerant and generally awesome she is compared to her more attractive friend:
I have a very open mind about most things … Nora has much more “traditional” values. She’s not some crazy religious freak, but let’s just say that her idea of a fetish wouldn’t go any further than a pair of furry pink toy hand cuffs. (p. 54)
Again, I might be reading too much into this but since Freda is constantly telling us all about how Nora is posh, neat-freaky, stupid, gossipy and generally rubbish it comes across as dismissal, not just a difference in values. Take this:
I hate this picture of her because it makes her look like a vacuous tramp, and despite how she sometimes comes across, Nora’s got a brain inside that head of hers. She just thinks it’s cooler to pretend to be shallow. (p. 222).
So, basically Freda, what you’re telling us is that you have no respect for Nora’s choices because she doesn’t subscribe to your notions of how she should dress and behave? Sweetie, with friends like you… There’s even an incident early on in which Nicholas flusters Freda by hitting on her with all the subtlety of a brick to the balls and Freda, get this, takes it out on Nora, who has just innocently come out of the bathroom:
Deciding to take the piss to cover up my embarrassment at Nicholas’ compliment, I say, “You might want to crack a window in there Nora, you were in for a while, number two was it?” (p. 24)
Again, I know we all take the piss out of our nearest and dearest but we don’t throw them to the wolves to cover our own social discomfort. Especially not in front of people we know they fancy. That’s just plain shitty. Isn’t there some kind of … chicks before dicks rule or something? And, don’t get me wrong, I find Nora kind of annoying too, but she’s not supposed to be my friend.
As well as dissing her best mate, Freda enjoys baking cupcakes and condemning other people for their sexual behaviour:
[Anny] really has no shame. I feel kind of bad that I’ve never had a deep enough conversation with her where she could have told me what caused her to become so slutty. (p. 317)
Well, I don’t know, Freda. Maybe what caused this woman to have a lot of sex is that she enjoys having a lot of sex. Just a suggestion.
It’s obvious Freda has had some pretty bad experiences and that these have left their marks on her. She has a stalker ex-boyfriend who made her life difficult in the past (and, needless to say, shows up later in the book in order to make her life difficult again). I thought this was pretty well done, actually, because he’s low key and only implicitly abusive, rather than explicitly cackling. People don’t have to be pantomime villains (with the handles of their riding crops fashioned into phalluses) to have genuinely harmful and long-lasting effects on the lives of others. Freda’s also overweight, in the romance heroine sense of being completely average. No, really, she’s a size 14, a small size 14 apparently. I’m sorry I keep making a fuss about this but it’s just so utterly ridiculous. I’ve already ranted about it at length on my review of Bet Me so I won’t re-tread the same ground.
My response to Nicholas was pretty similar to my response to Freda, mediated slightly by the fact drag artists are hot as all hell, which made me slightly less impatient with him. Like Freda, he’s obviously damaged by his past experiences and, like Freda, he was initially deeply annoying to me. His behaviour to her – to me, at least – bordered on sexual harassment. I respected him for cutting straight to the chase and inviting Freda to bang him about half a day after they meet, but when she turns him down he continues to flirt heavily with her, both verbally and physically. To the extent of randomly grabbing her nipple on one occasion. Dude, you just don’t do that. Like, ever.
Also, any sensible man recognises just how deeply creepy it is to keep hanging around a woman, trying to have sex with her, when she’s told you she doesn’t want to have sex with you. Yes, of course you can befriend her in good faith but Nicholas befriends Freda as a pretext for trying to get into her pants. And, cards on the table here, we’ve all done it. I don’t know why it seems like a good idea to play at being best mates with a woman you fancy in the hope that if you stick around long enough and someone else treats her badly enough, she’ll bonk you in a moment of weakness she’ll probably regret for the rest of her life. But sometimes it does, even though it’s deeply stupid and wrong. I know being a romantic hero doesn’t necessarily mean behaving better than the rest of us (to be honest, it usually seems to entail behaving much worse) but the ‘let’s be friends’ stunt is just so low-grade dubious that I found it hard to find anything romantic in it. But maybe I wasn’t supposed to. Most of Nicholas’s actions and responses are twisted by his abuse experiences, so there’s an extent to which everything he does is slightly broken (gaaaw), but I couldn’t get a read on this situation. I mean, pursuing your loved one (occasionally against her will) seems fairly standard practice, but I think this particular tangle of sex, friendship and deception made it all a bit borderline ick for me.
The other thing I found difficult about Nicholas was the way his feelings for Freda are often validated through his poor treatment of other people. Just like Freda is repeatedly shown to be better than her stupid friend Nora, the specialness of Nicholas’s relationship with Freda is repeatedly demonstrated by having him be a complete cockweasel to every other woman he encounters. It runs the full spectrum from acts of minor wtf (pointlessly pretending to be in an incestuous relationship with Freda when some other girl tries to hit on him at a club) all the way to wholesale arsedom. Again, I know Nicholas is messed up but sacrificing other people to your personal demons, although understandable, is so profoundly not okay that it’s genuinely difficult to know how to respond to it. Especially when it’s meant to be secretly a positive reflection of his respect for the heroine.
Since Freda won’t sleep with him, Nicholas shags a hot, older Italian woman called Dorotea, who seemed perfectly charming to me, although the text jumps on the opportunity to sneer a bit at the fading attractiveness of women over the age of thirty. Sorry, my friends, some of you may be past it. Anyway, Nicholas spends the rest of the book proving to Freda how little this encounter meant to him by treating Dorotea really, really badly. Dorotea finally freaks out, though at Freda, because Dorotea is pointlessly jealous of the heroine instead of spitting mad at the man who has been a complete dickweed to her, and I just found the whole thing more than slightly grotesque. I mean, either Dorotea is so mind-bogglingly deluded that she has no understanding of what casual sex means or Nicholas is so mind-bogglingly selfish that he didn’t bother to establish any boundaries or expectations before putting his cock in her mouth. Regardless, it just makes everybody look incredibly bad.
Adding insult to injury, we learn later that Dorotea wasn’t even permitted to fuck Nicholas in his bed, as that sanctum sanctorum is reserved solely for snuggling with Freda. I have no words. And when Freda runs into them the morning after, there’s a brief exchange in which it is made pretty damn clear that Dorotea went down on Nicholas and he failed to return the favour. She challenges him about this and he responds as follows:
Nicholas’ eyes are levelled on me when he replies to Dorotea, “My apologies, but I only visit the lady garden under very special circumstances.” (p. 126).
By this stage, I’m starting to feel this guy is demonstrating Brandon Birmingham levels of holy flaming monkey nuts. Is he seriously trying to seduce one woman into his bed by emphasising the exclusivity of his oral sex practices in front of a different woman he’s just banged? That’s up there with Richard III and his coffin-side wooing of Lady Anne, except way less classy. Also, there’s an issue of basic common decency here. Maybe it’s just because I’m English but, as far as I’m concerned, casual sex is as governed by kindness and courtesy as anything else. You put your baggage in storage and if you expect someone to go down on you, then you damn well go down on them. It’s Sexiquette 101. Of course, it’s entirely reasonable to have personal limits but you sort that stuff out pre-bonk, not post-bonk.
I know this is turning into a rampage of frustration but, weirdly enough, I did sort of come round by the halfway point of the book. It’s possible I just developed some kind of textual Stockholm syndrome but something had to give – and it turned out to be me. It was a case of stop reading or get over it, and I kind of got over it. Freda and Nicholas calm down a lot once they’re actually sort of with each other and, although I’m never going to be their greatest fan, the urge to bash their heads together gradually receded. There’s a scene in which Freda performs Combine Harvester as an ironic-seduction for Nicholas, which is just – frankly – totes adorbs (thank you, Twitter, for expanding my vocabulary). If somebody did that for me, I think I might fall in love with them too. By the same token, as Freda has pretty much accepted that she wants Nicholas, and communicated this to him, his sexual behaviour is way less iffy. And, since they’re largely absorbed with each other, they stop being arbitrarily horrid to anyone else who has the misfortune to cross their paths. It’s a bit like that line from Pride & Prejudice about general incivility being the very essence of love – except without the irony. But, to put it more kindly, it was almost as if, in reaching a place of equilibrium with each other, they both stopped performing. I’d like to give Painted Faces the benefit of the doubt and say this was a piece of tremendously subtle and sophisticated writing but I’m still not entirely happy about the 50% of a book I was obliged to spend sighing and rolling my eyes at a pair of complete numptys.
I ended Painted Faces more positively than I began it. Well, no, that’s not strictly speaking true, I started it incredibly positively because it has a stunningly beautiful cover and I’m incredibly shallow. So I finished the book more positively than I middled it. There were certainly aspects of the text that came across quite well to me. As I said earlier, I appreciated the non-melodramatic portrayal of Freda’s stalker ex, although he’s also – unnecessarily – a straw bigot, and he does seem to go away fairly unproblematically for someone who previously ruined her life. Harry the chubby gay is kind of endearing, and I liked the fact he wasn’t a generically chiselled twink. There’s a bit of discussion about the objectification of men (though this is somewhat framed around Freda being awesome enough to be aware that it exists), which doesn’t end up dismissing the reality of the institutionalised objectification of women. So that was nice. There’s also an engagement with queerbashing and the way it impacts on Nicholas’s life, even though he’s straight, which I thought was well handled, actually, since it’s a complicated intersectionality issue. And you can’t really tell people their hatred is misguided without implicitly justifying it: “no, no, dear friends, I’m normal like you, go and find a proper homosexual to beat up.” And, as much as Nicholas is, well, let’s go with difficult, I thought his juxtaposition of masculine-coded traits and behaviours and feminine ones was deftly portrayed. I mean, the book does keep having to stop every once in a while to remind us just how very very masculine he is really, in case we were starting to fancy him less, but he buys a totally girly car in the second half of the book and Freda is explicitly attracted to the whole package: Nicholas and Vivica Blue. She even fantasises about him in a bra. Frankly, it’s her most interesting sexual moment in the whole book, and I dug it.
But even though I ended in a moderately happy place of non-hate, I was still, in general, left somewhat troubled. I guess I feel that if you’re portraying something that’s already considered ‘alternative’, you have to be pretty careful. And, although there’s no doubt that Nicholas is hot and manly, despite his cross-dressing, it’s also very clear it comes from a deeply, deeply messed up place. Initially a reaction to the loss of his mother, it becomes his space of resistance against sexual abuse, which is wildly sad, but at the same time, Nicholas explains:
If it hadn’t been for [the man who abused me] then I probably would have outgrown my little obsession with the dresses and the make-up. (p. 288)
That just makes me slightly uncomfortable because essentially what Nicholas is saying, here, is that he does something “abnormal” because something “abnormal” was done to him, and if it hadn’t, he’d probably have been “normal.” And I just don’t think that’s a very nice take-home message. Yes, art can be a response to suffering, yes we can build something beautiful out of something terrible, but sometimes a fellow just wants to wear a frock. And that’s okay.
Everything about life and love I learned from reading Painted Faces: Kill your best friend now because she probably hates you. It’s totally okay to pinch a woman’s nipples for no readily apparent reason. I really don’t like first person present tense narration. Drag artists are hot (but I knew that already).