True by Erin McCarthy

A young woman with long hair and wearing jeans and a fashionable sweater leans back towards a young man in well worn jeans and a sweatshirtI will start by saying that I only read this because I got it for free and I wanted to be able to offer a counterpoint to what I saw as a determination to sweep the book’s problematic elements under the rug and dismiss its critics as oversensitive. I didn’t start it with an open mind: based on the first chapter posted at Dear Author, I fully expected to not only dislike the book, but to hate it. In the end, the book proved so unenjoyable for me that I couldn’t finish it.

What made it so unenjoyable for me ended up not being all the problematic stereotypes – although there were plenty of those, believe you me – it was the awkward writing. McCarthy wrote some of the weirdest dialog and prose I’ve read in a while. She had questionable metaphors (“Fear flooded my mouth.”), not-quite-similes (“She made those fuzzy circle scarves that were like an acrylic barrier between your skin and the wind.”) and really mangled the whole first-person narration thing. For example, there’s this line shared in the middle of an account of her being sexually assaulted: “I had long, dark-red hair, which made it easy for him to entwine his fingers to control my head and my neck, holding me so I couldn’t move.” Unless red hair has extra grip than other colored hair – and my heart goes out to gingers everywhere if it does – the middle of a traumatic event is the wrong time to info dump about her hair color.

If you can hang with her writing, your reward is a steaming pile of stereotypes about race and poverty. The first chapter is lousy with it.

“It was too far to walk back to the dorms, and it was the kind of off-campus neighborhood that had my dad raising his eyebrows and suggesting I go to college in some cow town like Bowling Green, where there were no dirty couches on sagging front porches and no residents’ smoking crack in full view of the street.

So walking back was not happening, because I didn’t smoke crack and I was no risk-taker. At all.

Yet sitting there alone with Grant while my roommates were off having a good time almost seemed riskier than strolling through the ghetto. Because it was sort of like perching over a public toilet seat without actually touching anything. It was difficult. Awkward.”

I’m not totally sure what my favorite comparison was, to be honest. Using a racially charged word like “ghetto” along with the also fraught crack-smoking was some primo shit, but parallelling a poor neighborhood and a gross toilet seat was also pretty amazing. Just in case you missed the POOR NEIGHBORHOOD IS FULL OF BLACK PEOPLE vibe, the chapter closes out with a throwaway fried chicken reference (“… I followed Tyler down the metal stairs, the smell of fried foods strong in the hallway…”) I don’t think any of this was necessary to establish 1. that the heroine can’t leave the apartment on her own or 2. that she’s fairly sheltered and unaware of her privilege. Seeing as how all the protagonists are white, I don’t see how any of the racial imagery was relevant.

And I’m gonna go ahead and say this in all caps: SEXUAL ASSAULT ISN’T A MEET CUTE. Seriously. While she’s in this apartment she can’t leave on her own, a friend of the hero’s roommate tries to force fellatio on the heroine. He’s stopped by the hero swooping as her white knight. It serves no purpose but to introduce the hero and heroine and make the hero look like a champion. No one calls the cops, (although I get that, as cops are almost useless with SA) and the heroine doesn’t seem to react to it much. Directly after it, she accepts a ride home, alone, from the hero, who she doesn’t know. Makes perfect sense in Romance Logic, since we know he’s the hero, but I found her willingness to trust her own character judgement so quickly just bizarre. The would-be-rapist shows up again halfway through the book to sow some drama, and that’s about it. It’s a pretty superficial plot device.

I didn’t finish it, so I can’t say from personal experience, but I’m pretty sure there’s a generous helping of ableism as well in the form of the hero’s younger brother, who has Down Syndrome. I did notice everyone spoke to him like they would to a puppy, but all the dialog was so forced that I’m wary of attributing to malice what can be explained by incompetence. And don’t even get me going on the portrayal of poverty. The hero is trying to work his way out of poverty caused by his mother’s drug addiction. Because this is Romancelandia, OF COURSE they’re poor because their parents were lazy, bad people who had the weak character to fall prey to addiction. This one gets an F, for fuck you.

~60,000 words
Published May 7th, 2013 by Penguin