This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
I wanted to like this novel and I began by doing so, for about forty percent of it, but then things changed and I really began to dislike it. By seventy-five percent the main character had become so profoundly stupid that I could not bear to read any more about her, so this review is of the first seventy-five percent.
The first problem was first person, or worst person voice as I call it because it's almost never the best choice. Some plots can support it. This one did not because the only thing it achieves here is to trivialize what is a serious problem: rape (aka, in this novel, the red word).
All that the choice of first person did here was to subjugate rape to the personal and often trivial and asinine peccadilloes of what turned out to be a clueless and ineffectual protagonist. Some writers can carry-off first person, but this writer did not. This failure cheapened the topic and did more far more harm than good. I can't forgive that when it's a topic as important as this.
The main character is a college student named Karen Huls. Karen is given certain attributes, but many of them seemed inappropriate and counter-productive to the story. First of all, she's a sophomore. The first part of that word comes (unsurprisingly) from the Greek and refers to wisdom. Karen displayed precious little of that, but on the other hand, the second part of that word comes from the Greek moros which pretty much means moron. That part I could see in her.
I don't mind a main character who starts out dumb and grows, but in this novel Karen showed no sign of ever wanting to leave dumb behind her, at least not up to the point where I quit reading in disgust. Dumb seemed to be her security blanket and she clung to it avidly. Middle-grade girls are more clued in than Karen was.
Karen is a photographer, but her photography played very little part in the story, so I'm not sure why she was tagged with this interest except that, once again, it played into the artsy pretension that was so heavy-handed in this novel that that it effectively trivialized the purported topic, rape. Rape is one of many symptoms of a privileged, patriarchal mindset, and the author did nothing to change this or to even fight against it. On the contrary. The Greek system was shown to be a jolly little institution notwithstanding the fatal flaws depicted here.
I thought there was a great potential to juxtapose the lofty ideals of the ancient Greeks (at least as far as academics goes) with the base culture of the rather more Spartan-like collegiate fraternity system, but there was none of this to be found. The academic discourses on mythology had little or nothing to do with events on campus and felt more like the author was just showing-off.
The problem was that, because of the way it was written, the story seemed designed to whitewash and even exonerate the Greek system and frat boy mentality at the expense of those who have been raped and those who would advocate for them, and I found that quite frankly as nauseating as it was inexcusable.
One oddity about this novel, and this comes from the academic pretension with which it's larded, is the use of Greek words to head each chapter. Given that we start from this ostensibly elevated perch, I found it incomprehensible that the boy's fraternity depicted here is repeatedly referred to as GBC, since that fails to represent the actual Greek. Perhaps had the author been a professor of Greek instead of a professor of English, she would have understood that the Greek is Gamma Beta Chi: ΓΒΧ so TBX would be closer to the name for pure appearance. GBK would be closer to the sound as long as we keep in mind that the K is produced at the back of the tongue, a little bit like clearing the throat. 'GBC' is therefore completely inaccurate, so I didn't get the point of this representation at all, except that it conveniently lends itself as an acronym for taking a cheap shot at the fraternity initials.
The novel deals with the so-called 'rape culture' in society, or in this case on campus at a college which supports fraternities and sororities. The story, for some reason, is set in the nineties rather than in the present day, and worse than this, it's all a flashback. I didn't get this either. And I shall skip over the fact that a college professor doesn't know that it's 'biceps' and not 'bicep' as so many YA writers like to have it. Yes, the biceps brachii does split into two at the top, each a bicep, but the part that we typically refer to: the bulge that it seems, so fascinates YA writers, is the conjoining of the two, and is, therefore the biceps.
Normally the choice of first person seems to be made by authors in an effort to provide immediacy for those writers who are unable to evoke that in third person, but to choose first person and then remove it from any semblance of immediacy by not only setting this in the past, but also by throwing it under the bus of a book-long flashback was a startlingly ill-conceived approach. This method was a failure because it reduced what is a current and ongoing crisis to essentially nothing more than an historical footnote. That's entirely the wrong approach to take when it comes to the university (read universal) sexual assault crisis.
The story begins with Karen, who is pretty much an alcoholic. She wakes up lying on the ground after a night of binge-drinking, near a house occupied by some rather radical feminists, and Karen ends up rooming with them. Initially, these other students interested me far more than ever Karen did, but as the story went on, it became ever more clear that they were all really just placeholders - nothing more than 2-D cardboard stand-in characters, too shallow, caricatured and radical to be real.
I felt the portrayal of these students betrayed both feminism and those students in the real world who are struggling to expose the prevalence and casual attitude towards rape, sexual assault, and harassment across the country in colleges, universities and (particularly as we've seen lately) throughout society, in entertainment and in the very heart of Washington DC.
The whole hands-off tone of this novel is set right from the beginning in how it treats a girl (her name is Susannah) who has undergone a traumatic experience. It's not so much that this girl disappears from the story as it is that she was never really in it. She was just a name to be thrown out in conversation - another placeholder for something real, but which actually never materializes. For me, she was a metaphor for the whole novel.
Her dismissal sets the tone for the rest of this neglectful story's 'remote-viewing' of rape. Karen is supposed to be our proxy for exploring this, but the story is so obsessed with strutting its stuff regarding Greek mythology, and Karen is so very unmotivated, and tediously passive and clueless that the story goes nowhere near the raw exposed nerves of what it purports to address.
Karen is never an actor, she is the audience watching others act and failing to take home anything from their actions. If this had been written as a metaphor for the way many men all-too-often view women: as utilities and entertainment, then it might have made some sense, but that's not what happened here. What we got was indifferent writing which had the effect of rendering Karen into nothing more than a peeping tom, stealing glances at life's more seedy side-shows, and even then she does nothing with what she sees. She simply imbibes it mindlessly, and moves on, evidently not satiated, to the next spectacle.
Her placid acceptance of some quite horrific events which she witnesses, without making any effort to set things right or to report them to someone who can set things right, is shameful. Karen isn't part of the solution, she's part of the problem. Instead of despising the frat boys, she becomes an honorary member of fraternity, dating one of them, flirting foolishly with another whom she ogles and idolizes in ways which would be disgraceful had this same behavior been indulged in by a man towards a woman.
If Karen is anything, it's a hypocrite. She sees nothing wrong in any of the fraternity attitudes towards women, or with their drug abuse, since she indulges dangerously herself, or with their lackadaisical work ethic (or lack of any ethic), or with their endless drinking binges and demeaning, objectifying co-ed parties.
This is curious because when a woman is raped, Karen keeps nudging her to report it, but the woman feels she cannot since she was rufied, she remembers nothing of it. The hypocrisy comes in when Karen herself is assaulted twice, the second time badly, although much less than the other girl suffered, and yet despite her advocacy to the other girl, she does nothing about her own assault!
Instead, she just moves on once again, and thereby continues to be a part of the problem. The girl who was gang-raped was given the unfortunate name of Sheri Asselin. How the author could give a rape victim a name which incorporates 'ass' as in 'piece of ass' is a complete mystery. Was it supposed to be some sort of a joke? It wasn't funny.
One really bizarre thing is the author's blog. When I went there to take a look at it, I found it was protected - you cannot get into it unless you both register with Word Press and get the blog owner's permission to access it! I found this to be peculiar. Maybe she has good reasons for it, but if you're an author trying to promote your work, this seems like a completely ineffectual approach to take. That said, it is in keeping with the ineffectual tone of the novel.
So overall, I was really saddened by this novel, not because of what it depicted but because of where it kept failing. It could have been so much more than it was, and as it was, it wasn't anywhere near enough. Now you can argue, if you wish, that I didn't read it to the end and maybe everything turned around in that last 25%, but even if it did, for me it would have been far too little and far too late. Even if it had turned around, it still would not have made me like the main character, who never showed any sign of turning anything around, not even her head to look at what was actually going on right in her presence.
Both she and the novel were a big disappointment and I cannot recommend this as a worthy read. As a great alternative, I recommend viewing the documentary The Hunting Ground, which is available for free on Netflix, and probably in other locations. It's also available on disk. A good reference for help is End Rape on Campus.