1. In this review, I discuss sexual assault, gang rape, and the events in Maryville, Steubenville, and elsewhere. If discussions of assault and rape culture are upsetting or traumatic for you, please be warned before reading more.
2. I read this book through the lens of my own experience and my own awareness. Which seems like an obvious thing — of course I read through the lens of my own experience. In this case, I need to point that out, because my point of view as an American reader may have (by which I mean probably did) inform my reaction to the hero of this book. The author of this book is Australian, I believe, and I do not believe there was intention on her part to create a hero who is heavily influenced and emblematic of what I see as rape culture.
I was doing just fine with this book until one specific moment. The heroine, Polly, is an Australian tourist traveling alone, though booked at a hostel with other people, and she goes out to the market. After complimenting and showing a lot of interest in a merchant's jade, the merchant demands she buy some, and because she doesn't have enough money to do so or the language skills to extricate herself from the situation, she runs into a nearby bar and sits down with a young man wearing a “Berkeley” sweatshirt and asks him to pretend to be her husband for a moment.
Ok. Pseudo-pretend marriage. I'm on board so far.
The hero, Josh, is of course taken aback by the woman requesting his assistance, but he talks in Spanish to the merchant, who has chased her down with spittle-flecked ire, and calms the man down. Before he merchant leaves, he calls her a puta (whore) and spits at her feet.
Polly and Josh are momentarily surprised by that, but carry on after the dude leaves. I was thinking, well, if a dude were actually (a) married and (b) demonstrably fluent in Spanish, he would most likely (c ) take exception to some dude calling his wife a whore and spitting at her feet.
But, oh, well, time for more meet cute.
Polly is aware of her vulnerability – she's a woman traveling alone, having just ended a tour through Guatemala where she volunteered in villages in exchange for room and board with the families there. She mentions that she misses en suite bathrooms and hot running water, but is also cognizant of the privilege inherent in her preferences. One of things I found most fascinating about Polly is that as she and Josh get to know each other, she tells him that she embarked on this journey from Australia to find herself, but hasn't really much liked the self she's found – leaving her a bit sad. I found that a realistic and very interesting internal conflict, especially with the possibility that Polly would like to be a better person who likes herself more than she does at the present.
Josh is also internally conflicted. He's searching for something (I can't reveal what) and because one of his parents was Guatemalan, he spent a considerable amount of time in the town as a child. Josh has fluency and familiarity with the town, but doesn't feel at ease. He feels that he doesn't quite fit, but he knows most everyone, and his family is everywhere, welcoming him with love and effusive kisses and greetings.
After Polly and Josh meet, they end up having drinks together at different bars. Polly notices that when Josh tastes wine, he does so with the habits of a wine aficionado, holding the wine in his mouth and closing his eyes to focus on the taste and bouquet. She accompanies him on a tour of some of the wines, but she hasn't eaten since the day before, and after a few bottles, realizes she is really intoxicated.
Josh recognizes this, and after she sprains her ankle on the cobblestones, helps her up and asks her where her hostel is. Polly is aware enough to know she's done a dumb thing: she got drunk alone with a man she doesn't know in a town where no one is looking for her (she's told Josh she has “friends” who are “waiting for her,” but they both know she's lying) and can't remember the address of her hostel, only its proximity to a church and a building.
Josh takes her back to his hotel room, and again, Polly knows she is again in a vulnerable and stupid position, but the temptation of the en suite bathroom, the clean and luxurious hotel room (compared to the hot, smelly and bedbug infested — ew ew ew ew — bedrooms at the hostel) convince her to stay.
Plus, she is pretty sure Josh is not a bad person. (And, given that he's the hero, I was thinking similarly, to be honest.) He tells her that she's not safe so long as she's intoxicated and unaware of the address of her hostel, and that his room seemed like the safest option for her at the present. He figures she's about two minutes from passing out anyway.
Polly crawls into the bed, and one minute later, passes out.
Here's the actual text of that scene – this becomes important later in the review because shit will be lost by me.
“Look, it's been fun drinking with you,” Polly explained as Josh took her arm and helped her up the step toward the bed. “And you're really hot. But I never agreed to have sex.” Better to get these things out in the open so there could be no confusion.
He arched one eyebrow. “Honey, when I have sex, I like it to be with someone who can participate.”
Polly tore away from his steadying grip and put her hands on her hips in indignation. “Are you insulting me? I have mad skills! In fact, I've been told on occasion that I'm very good….”
He pulled back the sheets on the bed. “I'm sure you are. But you'll be unconscious in about two minutes.”
“I will not!” Then she looked down at the bed. “Clean sheets!”
“Oh, God, this is fantastic.” She rubbed her cheek against the pillowcase, and closed her eyes. It was wonderful. Everything was right with the world. It was…
“Make that one minute.” Josh shook his head and sighed heavily. He should have known better.
So she's intoxicated and passed out in the room of a dude she just met (that I as the reader know is the hero) and despite the fact that way too many stories in the news follow a similar path, I was still ok with the story, and accepting both characters – and curious about more because their internal conflict was very intriguing to me.
Later, Polly wakes up.
Clearly he was the gentleman she'd taken him to be, because here she was, lying in his bed, fully clothed, un-raped and un-murdered, and he was sitting somewhere reading a book.
Josh has been reading for the past few hours while she slept, and she goes into the much-desired en suite bath to clean up (noticing that she looks like she passed out, with pillow creases on her face, and sweaty hair all over the place). Josh has ordered dinner, so they eat.
Then Josh suggests they go dancing. His aunt runs a dance studio he is very familiar with, and though Polly is fearful of the idea of people making fun of her because she's not a good dancer, she agrees to go with him after he promises they can just watch.
This is the scene where my estimation of Josh took a giant plummeting dive of the edge of a 50 miles cliff, and caused me to sit in angry contemplation of hero behavior for awhile.
OK. Mouth guard is in, because I know I'm going to clench my jaw as I write this.
So Josh and Polly are at the dance studio, Josh's tia (aunt) has greeted him most effusively, and Polly's a little curious about it. They watch for a minute or two, and Polly asks him about his familiarity with the studio:
“I was mostly brought up in California, but I spent some time here as a kid.”
Polly nodded. “Who are Maria-Teresa's students?”
Josh was both grateful and weirdly disappointed that Polly didn't push further. “Mostly locals, but she does lessons for tourists, too. Walk-ins off the street, or people sent to her by the concierges at some of the hotels.”
Polly leaned in closer, the side of her breast brushing his arm. It sent a shockwave through his body and sent the primitive part of his brain into overdrive. The same primitive part of his brain that had watched Polly climb into his bed that afternoon and yelled vicious insults at the more sophisticated part of his brain that had stopped him from joining her right between those sheets.” (emphasis mine)
And that's where I lost my shit.
He has a primitive part of his brain that wanted to have sex with a woman who was passed out in his bed? SHE WAS UNCONSCIOUS. AFTER A MINUTE.
THAT IS NOT HEROIC. THAT IS NOT OK.
Even if he was attracted to her (which he was), am I to believe that this person, and possibly many other males, are individuals with “primitive” parts of their brains that think sex with an unconscious woman is a permissible thing?
I mean, clearly judging by Steubenville, Maryville, and all the other Rapevilles that have become international news at this point, that might actually be true. We might be in fact culturally deficient in instructing men that having sex with women who are drunk and don't consent or cannot consent because they are unconscious is unacceptable and is rape.
That one line in this story is at odds with all the respect and sensitivity he's shown to Polly since they met. Like all his kindness and awareness of her and his attempts to make sure she's ok, despite her lack of fluency in Spanish and her forgetting that she hadn't eaten in 24 hours, is just a veneer, an application of “sophistication” that for the time being overrides his “primitive” brain's demanding impulses that he go have sex with an unconscious woman.
I have read and re-read these scenes, trying to write this review, and asking myself over and over if maybe I read it wrong. But I don't think I did. There's a primitive part of this “hero's” brain that really wanted to jump into bed with the woman who just passed out from drinking too much.
Holy fucking shit.
And only his “sophistication” prevented him from taking advantage of her. There was a part of him that wanted to have sex with an unconscious person.
So that's why my estimation of this hero plummeted to negative territory.
The more I thought about it, the more angry I got.
I've heard so much about how our culture, especially sports culture, allows this argument to flourish. I've heard too many people make excuses for young men who rape and assault drunk or unconscious women, saying it was her fault for being drunk, not his fault for choosing to rape. The attempts to defend the rapist and demean the victim on the part of parents, teachers, school systems, sports teams and even law enforcement make me sick with rage and anger, especially with the increased knowledge that as more stores of Rapeville emerge, more women are speaking up to say, “That happened to me, too.”
I do not want to believe or encourage the argument that men have “primitive” brains that don't find anything wrong with fucking an unconscious or intoxicated woman who can't consent, and throw mental tantrums when they don't get their way.
I don't want to see it in romance, not in a hero, not in any part of his brain. This “primitive male brain” may be accepted as “normal” in too many places, but it's unacceptable to me.
He's not a hero. He's a walking primitive hard-on who is only held back by his more “sophisticated” side.
After that, despite the heroine's ruminations that it felt like she'd known Josh forever even though it had only been a day, I didn't trust him. I kept waiting for the primitive side to show up again.
For the rest of the book, every time he said something sketchy, something about how he was trying to suppress some impulse that looked like assault, I lost any interest in this hero redeeming himself. Everything he did was colored by that initial comment about the primitive side of his brain, and I was wary of him being anywhere near the heroine.
He'd noticed she was attractive, of course, he was a guy after all. Blonde hair, blue eyes, great breasts: that had been his instant appraisal. It had just been a while since he'd considered an assessment like that beyond a first impression.
And now that his brain had caught up with the situation, his body was along for the ride. Female hips clasped to his? Check. Cue boner. Not even vaguely appropriate. Polly was so close she'd notice for sure.
Dick as divining rod? Check.
Giving me the creeps? Also check.
Then Polly twists her ankle at the dance studio:
The khaki cargo pants she was wearing rode up, revealing a delicate ankle and smooth, pale skin. He had a sudden urge to hitch her leg up high, really high so he could feel it pressed… yeah, real smart.
He dismissed the juvenile thought and met her eyes.
It's not interesting or sexual. His constant struggle for control is creepy for me.
He looked down at her foot again, disgusted with himself. He was thirty-five years old for Christ's sake. He could be attracted to a woman without turning into a brainless, slobbering idiot.
Or so he'd thought.
Every impulse he has reads to me like, “The rapist is in there.” His lack of self control isn't erotic. It's revolting.
Then, later, they're discussing how intoxicated she got, and that Josh should have been able to recognize that she was drinking too much:
“Sorry, blame it on years of dealing with drunk women who insist they've only had one or two.”
“I definitely had more than one or two.”
“And I'm okay with paying the price for that. I understand my actions have consequences. I don't need to be told that.”
He nodded, a little taken aback. Something in the set of her shoulders told him they were talking about more than just overindulging in wine.
When Josh doesn't clarify what it was they were actually talking about, I'm left wondering if Polly was excusing that primitive side of his by taking responsibility for what might have happened to her when she was drunk. The subtext is that women who get drunk are responsible for any bad things that happen to them. The people who DO the bad things, well, they have primitive parts of their brains, and are not responsible for what those primitive parts urge them to do. They can't help themselves if that “sophisticated” part is busy or distracted or unable to stop the “primitive” part.
Then Polly recognizes her hostel, and Josh has a sad:
He'd been leading them back to his hotel, without much intentional thought, although now it seemed Polly wasn't going to be in his room again tonight, he was disappointed. His still half-hard erection pouted in his pants, too.
They say their goodbyes, and Josh says:
He shrugged, a little embarrassed by her words. “I've enjoyed your company, too.”
“You were an excellent fake husband.”
He wanted to make a quip about her being an excellent fake wife, even withholding sex just as married women apparently did, but he managed to stop himself before the words left his mouth.
SHE DIDN'T WITHHOLD SEX. SHE WAS UNCONSCIOUS, YOU SHITBAG.
There's a sexist in there with the rapist apparently. Wonder which one makes his penis pout?
“Do you want to come back to my room?” he found himself saying. Clearly his cock had more power over his mouth than his brain did.
Their eyes met and held. Lots of meaning passed between them. Are you asking what I think you're asking? Polly's eyes said. Yes, pretty much, he hoped his eyes replied.
Run, Polly. Run.
There are some interesting moments before they parted ways in Guatemala, and I wished the hero's “primitive” impulses hadn't turned my opinion of him to permanently negative.
For example, Polly is described as very curvy, and at one point Josh mentions that her “round little belly would fit his cupped hand” — which made me stare at my own cupped hand and wonder about that, though I was happy to be reading about a heroine who was not thin and firm and flat in all the required places.
Then, they have sex, sober and conscious, and Polly makes it clear that she doesn't orgasm from penetration, and that Josh shouldn't feel like he's the one who will change all that:
Polly shook her head. “Don't worry about that. I don't come that way, anyway.”
“Huh?” Josh twisted and lay on his side so he could see her face.
“Sex. It doesn't make me come.”
Josh frowned. “Then what's the point?”
Polly tsked and rolled her eyes. “Such a guy thing to say.” She snuggled closer to him. “i like it. It feels great to be so close with someone. I guess, for me it's almost like part of the foreplay. It gets me all warmed up; then I just need a little help afterwards to get there.”
“Right.” Clearly she just hadn't had the right lover. Josh immediately set himself the challenge of making Polly orgasms the next time he was inside her. A challenge he could start work on right now.
Before he could move, Polly put a hand on his chest. “And please don't make us both suffer through the indignity of trying to prove me wrong. I've had this body for thirty years now and I know how it works.”
Josh shrugged. “if you insist.” He trailed a hand over her stomach and she shivered. “Want to tell me how it works, or should I just figure it out for myself?”
“You seemed to be doing a pretty good job of figuring it out….”
There's like a layer cake of WTFery in all the things I dislike about Josh's reaction here. Polly is so forthright and honest about her sexual expectations and the way her body works – awesome. But from 'What's the point?' to setting that challenge, I really, really, REALLY do not trust or like this character.
(Also, later Polly looks at his giant not-pouting-any-more schlong and wonders how it will fit.) (Of course she does.)
Their relationship progresses a small bit, then Josh heads home to San Francisco, and Polly continues on her travels, with a goal of seeing all of North America.
The meet up again accidentally when Polly winds up in San Francisco, wondering if she'll see Josh again. She goes out with a new friend, gets drunk, and is weaving her way down the street when Josh sees her. He sweeps in to rescue her, and brings her to his home, stopping the car once so she can vomit. At home, he hands her some pills, and Polly thinks:
Josh had rescued her tonight and in payment he'd had to deal with vomit and bird's nest hair. If he'd decided she was too much trouble and was handing her suicide pills, then she guessed she deserved it.
I get that this is a joke at Polly's own expense, but the idea that her intoxication (which occurs only twice in major form in this story, not every other chapter) and his taking care of her gives him leave to dispose of her because she's a pain in the ass…. oh, it didn't come across as funny. It came across to me as more of the creepy.
Then Polly gets really sick, and has to have emergency surgery. Plus she picked up giardia in Guatemala so there's discussion about that.
And I'm still reading at this point. I'm still highlighting lines and asking myself if I trust the hero yet, but reading chapter after chapter. Maybe he can be redeemed! I mean, I'm pretty curious about Polly, so maybe this will turn around for me.
Josh finds Polly's passport in the mess of the guest room where she 'unpacked' in an explosion of clothes, and without telling her, puts it in his safe where he keeps his important documents. He's right, it's not necessarily safe to leave a passport on the floor in a messy room. But he doesn't tell her. Then he forgets to tell her (despite this being something he thought about while he did it, and wondered if he was doing the right thing). And he keeps on forgetting to tell her until one of Polly's friends gets very ill at home in Australia, and she's panicking, trying to find her passport so she can come home to be with her friend, and does Josh tell her that he knows where it is?
He convinces her to stay in the US for a few more days and gets her to stop worrying about her passport. He doesn't tell her, 'Oh, I found it on the floor and put it in my safe, here it is, sorry.' He convinces her not to fly home to help her friend so she'll stop looking for it. And he feels GUILTY about it, but still lies to her anyway. Because he knows best.
And that's what I was done.
I was struggling with the primitive parts and the pouting dick and the attitude that his impulses and urges were her responsibility and her fault, and I was struggling with the fact that this “nice guy” hero was really, really not nice at all and was more of a sexist shitbag. But when he starts manipulating Polly by preventing her from exercising the choice to leave the country (and him), I was done.
Entertaining the idea that sex with Polly while she was unconscious was enough to make me angry, but the degree to which Josh's inner monologue normalized and portrayed his urges toward assault and continued manipulation gave me rage. The compounded and continued sexism of the hero and heroine's attitudes toward their own behavior ended any interest I had in the book, or any hope that I'd change my opinion of the hero. By the time he concealed that he'd taken her passport, I didn't have much hope that he'd be redeemed, and more importantly, I didn't care if he was. There was no redeeming him in my perspective, and therefore no reason to finish the book. He could have rescued an entire tractor trailer full of kittens from a smoky tunnel filled with burning cheese, and I wouldn't have liked him any better. No matter what he did, it wouldn't have been nearly enough to make up for his earlier behavior, nor for me to believe he'd changed and learned and wasn't a sexist manipulative shitbag.