REVIEW: Beyond Repair by Charlotte Stein
Dear Ms. Stein:
I had trouble getting into this at first, because it seemed too obviously a romantic fantasy. By around three fourths of the way in, I concluded it was actually a love letter to romantic fantasy, saying in novella form, “no matter who you are, yes, it’s okay to want all these things, to dream of all these things.”
Very much a “cabin romance,” although not set in the woods, the story is intensely focused on just two people from the moment the agoraphobic Alice finds movie star Holden Stark od’d on her living room floor. It’s an abrupt beginning, and the story is abrupt in other ways: Alice succeeds in saving Holden (though rather appallingly, she puts his “career and his image” ahead of his life by not calling for help) and then he just… stays. It’s not that it’s not believable that this suicidally unhappy person would stay with a stranger; as he touchingly tells her, ‘I know you saved my life. I know you trusted me when I shouldn’t be trusted. I know you hugged me when I didn’t know I wanted to be hugged.’ I just would have liked to see the process a little more.
Alice has been though something huge, and she’s self-conscious about her disabilities and scars, as well as her lack of romantic experience. But she easily wows Holden with her humor, adorkable geekiness, and ability to show him to himself as someone other than a movie star:
‘Bernard Horganblaster,’ she said, and watched as his eyes slowly drifted closed. It was in the good way though, this time. The way that reminded her of blissful things, like biting into a bar of chocolate after a long period of near starvation.
‘Oh yeah. I could be a Bernard.’
‘And your friends call you Bernie.’
He gave her two gleeful, triumphant fists.
‘Yes! Yes, exactly like that. I have friends just like you, and you call me Bernie.’
‘…you kind of sound like you’d rather I stayed over here?’
‘Just ignore my voice. There’s a frightened nun living in my throat.’
He went to answer and had to stop to make room for the most awesome laugh. It was all surprised and full of joy, and it followed through into his words.
‘Who are you? I must be dreaming you. Did I die, and this is my reward?”
The balance of this story felt different from other Stein books, where the erotic tends to carry the romance. There are certainly some intense sex scenes; I enjoyed Alice’s realization that people who are gentle and considerate can still let themselves go in bed. “Dear God, she could have died over him saying, Fuck yeah, suck me off. It was too crude for the kind of guy she’d come to know.” But the sexual side of the story is really an outgrowth of their feelings, which are beautifully tender:
‘You don’t seem like a crazed fan for fuck’s sake. I wish you seemed more like a crazed fan because good goddamn am I a crazed fan of yours. For once in my life I’m the one who wants to write someone’s name on my fucking pencil case and it’s killing me, it’s absolutely killing me.’
Dear Lord in heaven, had he really just said that? She had to double check, just to be sure.
‘You want to write my name on your pencil case?’
‘I do, I really do,’ he said, tone so wistful she could hardly stand to hear it.
But I was tripped up, not only by how idyllic the fantasy is — their tastes match so completely, they would be shoo-ins on “The Newlywed Game” — but how precise:
‘Here, take my hand. I’ll pull you through like Morten Harket from A-ha in that music video where he takes her out of the real world and into a drawing,’ he said, which made it both worse and better all at the same time. Now she was close to swooning, but at least her power to make normal words was back.
‘Good God, I don’t think you could have said anything more perfect if you’d lived to be a hundred.’
That level of studied detail took me out of the world of the book.
The story is told in a limited deep third point-of-view that’s very similar to typical Stein stream-of-consciousness first person. As always, there’s a hilarious way with imagery:
She hadn’t taken into account that he didn’t have any clean clothes to put on. She’d somehow imagined him coming down in a fabulous outfit live from the red carpet, as though his skin spontaneously grew tuxedos.
I’m not sure how to evaluate Alice as a portrayal of a disabled person. (In addition to agoraphobia, she has some physical limitations.) Themes of brokenness and healing through love can be really iffy when coupled with actual disabilities. Definitely a plus: Alice’s physical issues don’t magically disappear during sex, and they find ways to work with them.
There was so much that was good here, and so much that didn’t quite work. Although I was touched by the overall message about believing in happy endings, I didn’t feel the story was developed enough for me to completely buy into the situation. And even with the whole healing-power-of-love thing, I’m uncertain about a happy ever after for a hermit and a movie star, much though I hope for one. Weighing everything, my grade is a fond B-.
Oh my! This sounds…amazing. I love those stories when people unexpectedly find love.
@MrsJoseph: My husband walked in just as I was reading your comment and asked why I looked amused. I said that it really tickles me when a somewhat mixed review reaches exactly the right audience for the book. I hope you will love this!
I’m so, so tempted. AGAIN. But every time I try Charlotte Stein she doesn’t work for me. I *want* to love her, but I always end up not being able to make the connection. SIGH.
The price is extraordinarily high for a novella. Not saying it isn’t worth it, but, yikes.
@Kati: Which ones have you tried?
@Darlynne: Hmmm. Amazon describes it as 164 pages, and Ellora’s Cave lists it as a novel. It felt shorter than that to me, and several GoodReads reviewers also note it as a novella, but I may be wrong about classifying it that way. It can be hard to tell with an ARC.
I’m afraid this one didn’t work for me at all. I loved the banter between Alice and Holden.. but her not calling the police or ambulance after she finds him passed out on her carpet? Just because he’s famous? And she had no way of knowing what the hell he drank or took.. so that bit with the water made me CRINGE.
I’m not a big proponent of love making miracles out of depression and mental illness. So love accomplished what the years of therapy could not? I sure as hell wish shit was that simple. When you have someone that has struggled as much as Alice has, as much as you have others behind you and wishing good things, the desire to change/recover/move forward has to come from within. I wish the narrative( or honestly, any romance that deals with mental illness) really wouldn’t frame it as someone else (Holden) recognizing how good that person(Alice) is, and then having them (Alice) *want* to be better because HEY, He or She recognizes how awesome I am… or have the MC think that the person deserves someone better, and they *NOW* want to be that better someone. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR
The ending was just bonkers. I won’t spoil that for everyone, but it made me want to throw my kindle against the wall.
TL;DR – I want romance to feature a mentally ill person wanting to get better for themselves and have them work on that throughout the book. Not have the love interest be the reason for change.
While this wasn’t my favorite Charlotte Stein book, her worst book is still better than anything else. It was sweet, and the level of geekery was authentic. When I got the reference it gave me such a squishy feeling of being on inside of a joke. Like, “Ooh, I know that!” More Charlotte Stein!!
I enjoyed this book a lot. I really liked the way that they fit together mentally — I’ve had that experience, of discovering that someone “gets” your geeky side and has your same sense of humor, and that everything they say seems just right. I loved how they clicked, and how that got them through some difficulties.
Normally I agree that people with mental or emotional difficulties should want to get better for their own sake, not someone else. But in this specific case, I thought that Holden showing Alice how much he felt she was worth was appropriate motivation. I won’t go into spoilery details, but I thought her specific problem needed exactly that — a reason to believe that she was important to someone.
And three cheers for awkward, challenging sex!