Book Review: <i>The Sweet Edge</i> and <i>King</i>
Why review two books at once? Well, I read them both one right after the other, and the same thing struck me in both - these intelligent, interesting, conflicted female protagonists sure have crap boyfriends.
Alison Pick's The Sweet Edge is about Ellen and her bf Adam - summer's coming up and they hit a strange place in their relationship, Adam is freaking and wants space, Ellen's assuming they'll continue on the monogamy route to marriage.
The book switches between their points of view as they spend the summer apart - Ellen working in a gallery and getting roped into a social life, and Adam on a solitary canoe trip through the unforgiving wilds of Northern Ontario.
Tanya Chapman's King stays with our girl Hazel, who lives in a trailer park with the titular King - a legend in his own mind, and hers - and works in the local thrift shop.
Hazel's story is about her relationship with King, and how that changes as she learns more about his past, and as they progress (if that's what you can call it).
In both books, the men (boys, dudes, jerks, whatever) have a good thing going, they like Ellen and Hazel, acknowledge that they're better because of them, but for one reason or another are afraid of the limitations they think this kind of love represents.
The girls, conversely, think that these relationships give their lives more meaning. Ellen is a mess once Adam leaves (though she thankfully gets over that), and Hazel sees a kind of strength in her faith in someone so mercurial.
Both Adam and King up and leave; Adam heads off for a longer stretch of time and King just doesn't come home sometimes.
Neither of these books are formula "chick lit". Well, The Sweet Edge is a little, but there's more going on, because the pov shifts between Adam and Ellen it skips the "boy and girl are together, fight, make up and live happily ever after" bull.
What kept bothering me as a reader was that I couldn't understand why these women wanted to tie themselves to people who didn't appreciate them. No, they aren't presented as modern martyrs of love or anything melodramatic like that, but I just didn't get why they would put up with it. I didn't see that behind the drama and flaws that these boys were actually loveable.
In the end, of course, the books are about Hazel and Ellen - in trying to figure out King, and what they mean to each other, and why he does what he does, Hazel comes to a greater understanding of who and what she is, and what motivates her.
Ellen, in being left behind by the self-centered Adam, is given a greater scope - her job at the art gallery, the new friends she ends up making - although she still maintains a focus on their relationship, there's more going on and she's provided with a kind of perspective (as is Adam - he faces the void and realizes he really just wants hot running water).
It's a testament to Pick and Chapman that I want to sit Ellen and Hazel down and tell them the guys aren't worth it, that they deserve something better - because that's what I'd do if my friends were in the same situation.
These women feel real, in their irrationality and generousity and pain. There's more to them than the relationships that drive their narratives. I suppose it is realistic for women to be with unhappy guys - it happens all the time, right? But in characters so realistic, it's odd that I can't see the appeal.
King is at least shown to be charismatic, if unpleasantly volatile. Adam is just kind of lame in his arrogance. I think I would have appreciated both books more if I felt the women took more control in the relationships.
Both Ellen and Hazel eventually make some decisions, some small moves asserting their agency, (each to different ends), which is the point of their stories, really - the women gain the confidence and knowledge necessary to act.
These books won't change your life, but they're insightful modern portraits of relationships without the rules.
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