Monsters: A Love Story, by Liz Kay
I study monstrous women (exhibit A: my dissertation on Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance), so a book called Monsters: A Love Story shoots to the top of my must-read list. I had the initial impression that this would be an update of the Frankenstein story; such, at least, is the subject matter of Monsters in the Afterlife, the novel-in-verse that protagonist Stacey Lane is about to sell the film rights to. But when the buyer is Hollywood’s sexiest A-list actor Tommy Demarco, and she flies to his home on the Turks and Caicos Islands to get drunk on expensive scotch with him, I realized this story was going to be a fantasy. Specifically, the fantasy about the seemingly unassuming Midwest girl (Stacey lives in Omaha, Nebraska) capturing the heart of the World’s Sexiest Man, on the pattern of Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We, and of course the Julie Stiles film The Prince & Me. All my intentions about giving the book some serious feminist analysis got derailed as I stopped thinking about Mary Shelley’s wonderful postpartum I’ve-made-a-monster horror tale and started thinking about my (and our entire culture’s) enduring love of the Cinderella fable.
(For the record, my favorite of the unassuming-girl-snags-sexiest-man-alive genre is the movie Reality of Love, a made-for-TV movie originally called I Want to Marry Ryan Banks. She’s from Boston, not the Midwest, but her name is Charlie, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Emma Caulfield, and since Charlie is sassy and smart and does crosswords and stuff, the movie star of course immediately falls for her, but so does the movie star’s best friend, played by Bradley Cooper, and just shut up no Bradley Cooper is not my Hollywood crush. Though he might be an interesting casting choice for Tommy Demarco – I imagine he would have a lot of fun with the movie-star-playing-a-movie-star riff, like Julia Roberts did in Notting Hill, and now that I’ve revealed my taste in movies, we understand why I enjoyed Monsters so hugely.)
So, Cinderella. The outlines are familiar: girl, hopelessly stuck in her own life, gets chosen by powerful, charismatic man for her a) sweetness of heart, b) purity of mind, or c) naive sexual allure, and gets whisked away to a life of wealth, privilege, and comfort in which no one will oppress her ever again or make her sweep out the fireplace goddammit because now she has a powerful protector. There have been several interesting takes on Cinderella’s allure in recent incarnations that I quite like. In Ella Enchanted, the prince likes Ella for her intelligence and spirit, but instead of saving her, he merely helps her break the spell of obedience put upon her. In The Princess Diaries, Mia ascends to wealth and power through inheritance and gets to choose her own prince. Drew Barrymore’s character in Ever After teaches the prince about statecraft and humility, and in Disney’s latest Cinderella, as imagined by Kenneth Branagh, she teaches him to enjoy life.
But Monsters is perhaps the most interesting Cinderella remake I’ve read yet, for this heroine needs to do absolutely nothing that is winning, wise, or self-sacrificing. In fact she’s allowed to be an emotional wreck, prickly, cold, floundering, unable to take care of herself or her kids, blind to the feelings of others, promiscuous, desperate for male approval, craving nurturance and a male protector to shield her from all the bad stuff in life so she can just mill around and write poetry—and she still gets her prince.
YES! Take that, cultural stereotypes about women!
I’ve painted Stacey as if she’s unlikeable. She’s not a monster. You can see where she’s coming from. She’s mired in grief, for one thing. She tells us right away, first page, that her husband died and she’s still not doing okay. This is a story about a woman who is not doing okay. She is not a princess. She is attractive, definitely, but also acerbic, foul-mouthed, able to hold her liquor (for the most part), and cold, distant, and sometimes mean to the people who most love her (including, sometimes, her kids). But she still manages to get the guy to gallop in, take her away from her sad Midwestern town, sweep her off to a life of ease and wealth and privilege, where she has help to do the housekeeping and watch her kids and she need do nothing but write all day and have mutually satisfying, enthusiastic sex with her prince whenever he or she wants it.
SOLD. I will take that fantasy, thank you very much.
I was interested by so many qualities of this book. First and foremost, the very lean, minimalist prose. It sweeps you in and carries you along. I suspect that’s because Kay is trained as a poet. Poets make great novelists, when they want to write something that long. They make the line carry no more than it has to, and every once in a while they toss in the perfect metaphor. Kay’s prose has the kind of pull to it that keeps you turning pages—just what every author wants. But there’s also the question that keeps the reader tuned in: is Stacey ever going to realize what a basket case she is and pick herself up and pull herself together, or is she just going to keep wallowing, manipulating, lying, withholding, controlling every bit her kids eat (this was the weirdest thing for me) and blaming everyone else for her misery? (That last part wasn’t weird at all; I understand grief.)
Some books give the lie to the advice given aspiring writers that you have to have likeable characters. I hear it’s more the thing to have unlikeable, irredeemable characters; Gone Girl and Girl on a Train are frequently pointed out to me as examples. It’s a gamble for the rom-com format, and I admire how Monsters pulls it off. I was to page 220 before I realized, I don’t think Stacey is going to have a character arc. I think she is going to keep going on like this: drinking a lot, lying to men, communicating mostly through swear words, not knowing what she wants, feeling sorry for herself, and trying to find others to take care of her, which works first because she has a lovely family (I loved her sister, Jenny) and second because she is sexy to men.
That’s really the only thing in Stacey’s positive column for much of the book. We’re told she’s very smart, but we don’t see this wisdom applied to either herself or the people in her life, and it would probably drag down the plot if it were. Fortunately, being sexy works. The prince is obsessed with her because she wears sexy footwear and swears a lot and drinks with him and is good in bed and because she is emotionally closed off and unavailable, she’s not like all the other too-available women throwing themselves at him, so of course she is thereby interesting and he must have no one but her.
I like the breaking of the formula, that the girl doesn’t have to be good or special to get the guy; she can be completely screwed up and broken and grieving and lost and still find love and a happy ever after and a man to take care of her. It worked in Eliza Kennedy’s I Take You, but there our heroine, Lily has a kind of self-deprecating humor and a cheerful lack of self-knowledge that made her a lovable tramp. Stacey is more or less a prickly bitch, most of all to Tommy, but he just keeps coming back for more. I LOVE that wrench in the formula; she doesn’t have to be the good girl.
I think we’re supposed to see Tommy as a monster, too: promiscuous, drunk, arrogant, wicked temper, self-absorbed and expecting everyone to give him what he wants. But there’s some sense that Tommy is a coherent character. Stacey, as a character, feels oddly empty, perhaps because her motives are intentionally hidden from us. She’s always searching for things to pull her together (like boots) or hold her up (like wine); the images primarily associated with her are curling up tight, tucking in, seeking space, trying to breathe. She spends the whole novel suffocating, and she never does come to any self-knowledge or epiphany or awareness; she just, suddenly, gets handed an oxygen tank and a free ticket out of Omaha to an enchanted life on a tropical island (spoiler alert!) because she is a wealthy man’s sexual preference. Tommy is perhaps a more relatable character because he has very specific goals, motivations, and desires, and acts on them in direct ways. Stacey just spends most of the novel trying to find some air.
It’s a big gamble to do this with a character, to abandon the usual goals-motivation-desire formula, especially when Stacey is already broken and grieving to begin with. At least Sadie, the broken movie-star’s daughter, is honest that she’s needy and wants love (don’t we all?). Stacey can’t admit that she does, perhaps because it seems like weakness. One wonders what love feels like for her. It’s never clear that she actually loved her husband; most of what she remembers are the petty wounds and betrayals of marriage. I think Kay gets away with creating such a damaged character because the prose is so strong, the dialogue is whip-smart, and the other characters are hilarious, compelling, and just the right balance of sweet.
And, deep down at the core of it all where the archetypes rumble and the fairy tales speak, we crave the resolution we know is coming. We have to know that Stacey will get her prince—the doctor or the movie star, whichever she decides she wants—because otherwise there is the danger that if she shuts herself off entirely, her sad fate will await all of us and we, the reader, will be trapped forever in our own monstrous skin, with our desperation and our brokenness, mired in grief, unable to see part our own misery to take the simplest care of another person, crushed with the weight of our denied dreams, hemmed in and gasping for air.
So, prince. As opposed to the hard road to self-realization and pulling yourself together for real. Because that is a lot less fun, though I see more and more of it in the rom-com/chick-lit genre lately, and I’m all in favor of that. (Lily of I Take You, on the other hand, gets slapped with a dose of her own medicine, and has to figure out if she really wants to embrace the sexual double standard, or the old tried-and-true hetero monogamy, or what.) I’m all for the prince (I have one in my own life), but I do have a soft spot for the women who fix themselves and their own lives and then allow the prince in as a gift, rather than standing at the side of the road, feet aching in the come-do-me shoes, waiting for the white horse.
Meanwhile, somewhere on the Turks and Caicos Islands . . .