YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Low
You’re a woman in touch with her folksy roots, so you’ve probably heard the term “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” I hadn’t until I started reading this book; my Northerner grandma isn’t the type to use idioms, and my Southerner grandma isn’t the type to use idioms involving the devil.
I immediately thought of you when I saw this book. It’s said to have a Southern Gothic tone, and takes place in a small seaside community. Sounds like something you’d like, right?
Well. Maybe. Maybe not.
Nothing much exciting rolls through Violet White’s sleepy, seaside town…until River West comes along. River rents the guest house behind Violet’s crumbling estate, and as eerie, grim things start to happen, Violet begins to wonder about the boy living in her backyard.
Is River just a crooked-smiling liar with pretty eyes and a mysterious past? Or could he be something more?
Violet’s grandmother always warned her about the Devil, but she never said he could be a dark-haired boy who takes naps in the sun, who likes coffee, who kisses you in a cemetery…who makes you want to kiss back.
Violet’s already so knee-deep in love, she can’t see straight. And that’s just how River likes it.
The Writing Style
The book is written from Violet’s point of view, and her voice is disconcertingly choppy and lingering by turns, characterized by very short sentences and unnecessary/oddly-placed ellipses. It’s driving me slowly up a wall. Take, for instance, when Violet and River first see each other. He gets out of his car and looks towards her as if she’d called his name.
It does have its good moments, though! Take this bit, just after Violet’s told her neighbor/sort-of friend Sunshine that River’s moved in, and Sunshine’s made some sexual suggestions about River:
That’s pretty cute, if you ask me.
Despite being our narrator, Violet is very flat, in large part due to the writing style. There’s a lot of dialogue, and the occasional random action (such as Violet removing a shoe to tap her toes on a stair step), but almost no indication of what Violet (or anyone else) is feeling. You know, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.
This is a pretty big flaw in a love story.
Sure, Violet tells the reader she feels the urge to kiss River, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Romance is all about emotions (especially the fluttery-and-tingly ones!), and I need to see those emotions if I’m going to believe the romance.
The dialogue is generally odd, too. Violet embarrasses herself by using the word “hence,” and thinks:
But Violet’s bookishness isn’t the problem here.
The characters all sound the same, have awkward conversations that move erratically from subject to subject, and sometimes address the reader rather than each other. Pretend we’re talking on the phone I say, “Hold on; my cat Sophie just spilled my coffee.” Seems innocent enough, right? Except you already know who/what Sophie is. I’d only say “my cat Sophie” if I wanted eavesdroppers to know that Sophie is a cat rather than a toddler or ferret or a particularly clumsy coworker.
Sunshine and Luke
(Freddie is Violet’s grandmother, by the way.)
Besides Violet and River, the characters we see most often are Violet’s brother Luke and their neighbor Sunshine. I have no idea why Luke and Sunshine are in the story, because they don’t actually do anything. I mean, sure. Sunshine’s curvy body and shameless flirting are constantly brought up to contrast Violet’s chaste ways and Hepburn-esque attire, but I don’t know why that contrast is necessary. It just reads as judgmental: how dare Sunshine have a curvy body and flirt with the guy she has a crush on?
Even when she’s eating brunch alone with River, Violet has to establish that she’s nothing like that harlot Sunshine:
I’m not a fan of this.
If it had a point, sure. If it was a well-crafted use of the virgin/whore theme in Christianity (to go along with the devil in the book’s title), sure. If it displayed some significant growth or change in Violet’s character, sure. But as it stands, Sunshine’s just an empty head with a pair of breasts while Violet is annoyingly self-righteous with a dash of insecure, and the story isn’t affected at all.
Oh, and here’s a sample of Luke for you, trying to impress River with his manliness:
Yeah. Laughing is always my first response when someone says something this horrifyingly misogynistic!
Luke later performs an about-face from jerk to caring brother, but I’m not sure why. I don’t believe his change any more than I do the attraction between Violet and River.
River is not a charmer. He’s a liar, a murderer, an inconsiderate jerk who makes Violet feel stupid, and he’s using his powers (which he calls “the glow,” and which he’s addicted to) to numb her fears and inhibitions about him so she’ll sleep in the same bed with him.
River responds by shrugging and saying he did it to calm her down. It was to help her, see?
(She was upset because she’d watched him kill someone, just so you know.)
Violet, of course, thinks this over and replies, “Well, I guess I have to believe you. You’re a liar. And yet I have to believe you. If I don’t believe you, then I have to do something about it. Like get you drunk and then drown you in the ocean before you get Jack killed.”
Oh, heaven forbid she actually have to listen to her gut and put as much distance between them as possible. Why do the reasonable thing when she has an excuse to keep smooching him?
And why does she choose the unreasonable/completely stupid route, every single time? Because she is attracted to him, yes, but also because he appears to be using his power to make her choose the latter.
Excuse me while I plant my head on my desk.
Oh, and then there’s this lovely bit, where River explains why he loves his brother Neely (FYI, River can “see” how people feel about him by the color the person associates with him):
Does he love his devoted brother because of who his brother is as a person? No, of course not. He loves Neely because Neely is so devoted to him. That sounds healthy! Just the kind of guy I want to be in a relationship with!
The Villain and Climax
Obviously, the book and I had a rocky start. And a rocky middle. And a rocky end. I never believed the attraction between Violet and River, which is a bit of a problem for a romance story. But, hey, it didn’t have the “You’re a jerk and a murderer? I shall love you unto eternity. Smooch me now” ending I was afraid it would!
As first books go, it sticks to the traditional YA paranormal romance formula fairly well:
And, oh, the villain. (Who, admittedly, wasn’t exactly last minute; he was hinted at so obviously throughout the book that I was genuinely frustrated with the other characters for not realizing, hey, there’s a villain in town. But he only makes an actual appearance in the final couple chapters, which makes him feel last-minute.)
Anyway, he’s a fourteen-year-old Texan wearing, naturally, black cowboy boots, tight black jeans, a plain white T-shirt, and a black cowboy hat. He introduces himself by saying, “The name’s Brodie,” and he consistently refers to Violet (who’s seventeen) as “ma’am.”
Maybe I’m just sensitive to overdrawn Texan stereotypes because I’m a sub/urban Texan living in New England, and I’ve had to deal with people’s disappointed expectations about Texas and me as a Texan. (This novel takes place in Maine, by the way.) Do you, as a rural Texan, get bothered by rural-Texan caricatures?
I was too distracted by my annoyance to determine if the threat he posed was genuinely scary. Holding a knife certainly wasn’t enough for me:
Yes, the use of rural vernacular is in keeping with the drippings of Southern Gothic elements used in the story–but because the story is set in New England, Brodie comes off as not only a caricature of a Texan, but an exoticized one as well. And despite being both insane and Super Texan, Brodie’s sentence structure and use of language manage to make him sound like everyone else in the book.
As for the whole virgin/whore thing I mentioned earlier, well, here’s Brodie’s description of meeting Sunshine:
Oh, the horror of a low-cut neckline!
Brodie has Sunshine’s parents beat her with a baseball bat, after which he asks Violet, “Is the little slut dead yet?” (The answer is no.)
Once Brodie’s been dealt with and order has been restored to the world, we’re told that Sunshine abandons her life of tight tops and insincere lip-licking in favor of physical fitness and wilderness survival. This is a change that Violet’s pleased about, of course, because moral reform is great, I guess? (Luke is also pleased about Sunshine’s change, but I don’t know why. He’d made it very clear–physically and verbally–that he was a big fan of Sunshine’s revealing clothes and ready kisses.)
I guess the moral here is if you have a curvy body and like to show it off, you’re going to be judged and beaten until you change your ways? Not quite sure.
As for the ending:
Violet and River don’t get their sappy, romantic “Smooch me now and forever” conclusion in this book, but there is a sequel; I suspect they’ll get that smoochy ending eventually.
But hope I’m wrong. I really, really hope that Violet recognizes that River is a Very Bad Idea and decides to live her life without him. Hey, this book does contain hints of Southern Gothic, and if there’s a genre that excels at leaving its protagonists unhappy in the face of brutal-but-necessary realizations, that’s the one! My fingers are crossed
Will I be reading the sequel? Yep, mainly because my hope for a suitably Southern Gothic ending is so strong. And debut novels are usually iffy, so perhaps the stylistic and issues I had with this one will start smoothing out in Between the Spark and the Burn.
I think I’ll conclude with one last Texas-related gem for you. Our sweet heroine Violet has just discovered a corpse, which shocked her greatly; this is her first encounter with Evil Texan Brodie, who’s playing the southern gentleman/innocent bystander. When Violet turns tail to leave the scene, Brodie makes this glorious comment:
Oh, yes. All those dead bodies we Texans step over whilst going about our daily business.
Lizzy, I nearly hurt myself snickering.