Swoon, by Nina Malkin; Simon Pulse (the teen imprint of Simon & Schuster)
When my buddy space coyote suggested I take a look at this regrettable creation, I remembered that I actually had an ARC of it lying around in my car. Now, as I’m sure all you savvy folks know, an ARC is an Advanced Reader Copy, i.e., an often uncorrected proof that is nonetheless bound and looks pretty much like how the book will appear in stores (except, I’ve noticed, the back of an ARC tends to include details about the company’s promotion plans for the book. This one apparently had quite a blitz when it was released last May, including a book trailer that I need to track down because those are always hilariously awful). I’m telling you this because it’s possible that some of what I discuss here has improved in the final copy.
But I really doubt it.
Swoon starts off with a scene between the protagonist, Candice–called Dice–and her cousin, Penelope–called Pen–messing around near a tree where a hot, dangerous guy just happened to have been executed a couple hundred years earlier. Yes, everybody in this book has ridiculous nicknames. Even the town itself, for which the book is titled, goes by a nickname; Swoon is short for Swonowa, which only a keen-eyed falcon or someone who sadly read it multiple times (like me) would catch, since almost no one calls it that except, like, the local news station. I have a feeling that Malkin only imposed the snappy nickname rule onto this town and its people because it lets her get away with calling the love interest/murderous asshole ‘Sin’ instead of ‘Sinclair’, which then allows for many wink-wink nudge-nudge references about what the protagonist and everyone else ever would like to do to him (sadly, beating the shit out of him and leaving him for dead is not on the list). Malkin characterizes the town as a tightly-laced, whitebread, upper-crust Protestant community, squarely at odds with hip, edgy, Jewish New York transplant Candice. I don’t have a problem with the fish-out-of-water angle here, though, and in fact the story of why Candice ever even came to this town is one of the only semi-interesting parts of the story, mostly because it’s only hinted at until the very last chapters.
Until then, the reader only knows that Candice’s parents left her in a well-appointed house and mostly to her own devices in the ‘burbs because Some Bad Shit went down back in NY and they want her to ‘recover’. Of course (of course), Candice’s mother works for a high-powered magazine and her dad is an actor, so they’re largely absentee, except for a disturbing scene in which Candice’s mother and her friends try to go all cougar on Sin while bubbly-ing it up.
That doesn’t happen ’til Sin gets a body of his own, though, and for the first half of the book he’s contained within the body of Dice’s cousin, Pen. Pen’s possession by Sin is the climax of the very first scene, and it’s something that semi-psychic Candice suspects, but doesn’t immediately confirm. I can forgive this. I can absolutely forgive not knowing what the fuck is going on and having no idea how to handle it. Dice’s vision offers her a glimpse of what happened at that tree so long ago, but she doesn’t yet have enough information to reasonably assume that this dead guy’s spirit has leaped into her cousin’s body.
Thing is, when the truth of the matter becomes abundantly clear, Candice hems and haws and pretty much takes for fucking ever to do something to actually help Pen. In fact, her choices work against Pen, because Candice’s vague psychic skills allow her to bring out Sin’s personality simply by touching her cousin. In other words, she consciously and continually enables Sin’s possession of Pen for a significant part of the book, simply because she’s attracted to the way Pen behaves when Sin’s in control: lusty, carefree, elegant and cruel.
Let me just restate that very plainly so we all know what’s happening here. Getting her rocks off by way of mysterious colonial boy is more important to Candice than the fact that said mysterious boy is literally mind-raping her cousin, controlling her cousin’s body, and having her cousin engage in acts that the narrative tells us she would never otherwise do. For instance, an early scene depicts a group of characters hanging out in a lake. Pen is flirting chastely with her crush, when all of a sudden Sin’s personality takes over and she takes it to the next level, diving under the waves for some watery oral. But, you see, Sin’s special power is that his charisma affects everyone in his immediate vicinity, so pretty soon the whole lake is a writhing teen orgy. Writhing orgies are a theme in this book. They are, in fact, the main theme.
Candice feels the pull of Sin’s power, too, and so here you might say–well, Dice is under the influence. That’s why she’s making the totally dickish and slightly sociopathic choice to aid and abet this creepy motherfucker instead of kicking him to the spiritual curb right away. Because Sin’s not merely inciting harmless, sexy fun–Possessed-Pen comes up for air and keeps the boy’s head down, between her legs, and she almost fucking drowns him.
You see, folks, Sin is out for revenge. He hates this whole town and everyone in it (it’s conveniently still entirely populated by the families that settled the area back in the day) because they wrongly convicted him for murdering his fiancee. His brilliant revenge scheme, as the aforementioned scene suggests, is to whip up everyone into a Bacchanalian death-frenzy at any opportunity. And here’s the kicker: even after Sin works his death-sex magic during a dance at the old folks’ home that results in a terrible fire which injures many and kills two, Dice is still in love with him.
The narrative spares very little sympathy for Pen. Dice makes a few noises about how she feels badly for what’s going on and she does eventually realize that maybe she should probably exorcise Sin’s spirit from Pen’s body, but she doesn’t get to stepping on that until we’re almost 200 pages into this mess. The whole character and situation of Pen depresses me more than anything, honestly; she hardly gets a chance to be whoever she’s supposed to be, as she’s possessed by page 10 and then continues to be Sin’s victim even after Candice does a ritual that makes him into a golem. Sin sleeps with Pen right away, taking her virginity and then ignoring all her calls. What was his purpose in this? Why, to make her into a nymphomaniac by giving her the greatest orgasms of her life, ensuring that she would constantly chase even the DREAM of a Sin-given orgasm, thus making her an agent of both her own and the town’s destruction. I wish I were writing with hyperbole here, but I’m not; there’s a passage where Pen explicitly states to Candice that her reckless sexual behavior is directly correlated to her experience, never to be repeated, with Sin. How does Candice feel about the way Sin victimizes Pen, a girl who is described by the (first-person, mind you) narrative as ordinarily sweet, easy-going, demure and gentle?
Eh, she feels a little bad. But not bad enough that she puts a rush on the whole spirit banishing thing. Late in the story, matters are grave enough that Sin’s lust-and-craze-ifying powers indirectly induce Lainie, Pen’s mother, to literally go off the rails–she drives her car off of a bridge, on the way, we’re told, to the man with whom she’s having an affair. The news prompts this from Dice:
“Lainie was a human being, someone I loved; she was tight-roping between life and death because of the boy who was my blunder. This was Sin’s fault, and by extension mine, yet desperate as I was to put things right, it didn’t seem as though I was up to the challenge.” (294)
Nice words, bro (okay, actually, the words are extremely grating, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but where’s the action? The truth is that Candice never makes a choice that isn’t completely self-interested. She waited to exorcise Sin because his presence and personality, even as a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT, thrilled her. She made him a golem’s body rather than banishing him outright because she wanted to keep him around, even though he is a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT. She lets him use Pen as a plaything and she never honestly takes action against Sin until the time is personally right for her and her feelings. Because it’s so hard. Because she’s ~*so in love with him*~, for no legitimate reasons that I can discern. He’s described as attractive, but other than that, there’s nothing going for this kid. Malkin imbues his dialogue with formalized, old-fashioned charm (he refers to Dice as his ‘drowsy thrush’), but it’s clear from the reader’s perspective that this charm is sociopathic. He turns it on to butter people up before tearing them down, and to keep Dice in particular in his thrall.
And you know what? Honestly, if Dice were depicted as a girl of weak will, as a person who through events in her life or just genetics happened to be susceptible to insane-yet-attractive ghost men, I … okay, I’d still be pissed off that she lets him get away with essentially torturing and raping her cousin for the entire book, but at least it would make a shred of sense. But she’s not. Malkin attempts to portray Dice as savvy, wise, even, and certainly far more aware of her surroundings than anyone else in Swoon. Dice is not a fool. She’s Seen Things, man.
But she is; she is completely a fool. She lets Sin wreak havoc on the town, lets him pursue justice for a crime committed in literally another time period, and the narrative justifies this because apparently all of these characters are exactly like their ancestors. The real culprit, for instance, is the ancestor of one of the fathers in the town, the white-trash, sleazy guy who bullies his wife into leaving him and treats his grown daughter (one of Dice and Pen’s friends, called Marsh) like a slave. There are implications of worse abuse, as well, which is not surprising, given that Sin’s fiancee was raped and then murdered. But that’s something else contradictory about this book: the real antagonist here is this father, both his past and present versions, but he’s a complete outsider to this town! Marsh’s family is the poorest of the cast; her home is broken, her life is not cushy and soft. She’s the real oddity, because even though Dice is all sassy New York up in your fussy New England ways, she’s still filthy fucking rich.
And yet, despite being just as spoiled and entitled as anyone in Swoon, Dice (and the text itself) drips with condescension for them. After Lainie’s accident, Pen loses it, as one might expect. She rails against her mother for betraying their family and then she rails against Sin, rightly blaming him for the current state of affairs. She says that she loved him, and that she thought he loved her. Sin coldly responds that she’s nothing more than a tool, that she is ‘insignificant’. Pen slaps him, which is just about the SOLE REDEEMING MOMENT IN THE BOOK, except not really, because Dice should be up there wailing on him for talking like that to someone who is supposed to be her best goddamn friend! In the lines that follow, Dice expresses yet more weak remorse over the state of things, saying that she ‘tried to do right by [Pen], keep her from harm’ (300). Really? REALLY. And what part of letting Sin occupy Pen’s body at all once you knew what was happening falls into the category of ‘keeping her from harm’? In what fucking universe is that okay? Oh, right, NONE OF THEM, except the fucked-up YA lit universe in which ALL THINGS ARE PERMISSIBLE IN PURSUIT OF A HOT BOY.
Ugh, just. Fuck this book, seriously. As if all the horrible themes and messages weren’t enough, Malkin’s writing ranks up there on the list of Most Annoying on the Goddamn Planet. She tries to create an authentic ‘voice’ for Dice with lines about denuding sumptuous rides of genetic material (i.e., ‘getting out of the car’) and thudding prose that’s obsessed with alliteration to the point that reading the book for too long actually gave me a headache. I do appreciate the effort to write lively prose–certainly there’s a lot of tactile description and a focus on the sensuality of a given scene (kind of necessary when half the book is about people boning each other), but the style is so fucking grating that it ultimately feels disingenuous and artificial.
So finally, finally, Candice decides she’s had enough. She gives Sin a big speech about she’s let him ‘go over on this town because on a certain level [she’s] enjoyed it’ (378), how nice. How nice that you think you’re so much better than the people who are currently looking after you, i.e. Pen’s family. Look, I’m all about sticking it to The Man and Suburban America and everything, but I don’t think inducing death-orgies and ruining a perfectly nice girl’s life for revenge/entertainment is exactly the way to go.
Sin calls Dice out on her privilege in a counterpoint that feels hollow when it should be cutting, because his main argument is that she can’t win against him because she hasn’t ever lost anything. But, ah, dear reader, this is not true, and so we are finally told why Dice was forced to come to this comfortable, safe and infuriatingly edge-free community–she and her best friend cooked up an ill-advised love potion full of rose petals, perfume and prescription drugs and at the end of the night only one of them woke up alive (hint: it wasn’t the best friend).
So, you see, Dice DOES have what it takes to banish Sin, despite the fact that she is, in fact, every bit as coddled and cared for as the average Swoon resident. And she does, finally, banish him, though between Sin’s cutting take-down and the last ten pages, it’s revealed that he also loves her and that through his association with her he’s re-grown his soul or something. Despite doing nothing but manipulating her and destroying the lives of everyone around her, I mean.
Dice sends him away and the ending is supposed to be melancholy and bittersweet, but, readers, all I felt was supreme relief that this offensively gooey pile of words masquerading as a legitimate novel was over.
One final thing: this book is really graphic. There’s a scene of Sin spanking Dice into orgasm (in a corn maze, of all romantic places) and many other descriptions of gettin’ it on and doin’ drugs like cool kids do. I’m not trying to pearl-clutch here, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens. Well, I wouldn’t recommend it for ANYONE, ever, but you know what I mean.
Next time, a book that’s actually worth the paper it was printed on, YAY!
Rating: One coke can. Malkin skates around addressing the seriously problematic events of this book in her narrative and she does occasionally achieve a decent turn of phrase. In the end, though, this book simply reinforces the common YA trope that hotness of a boy trumps whatever crimes he commits, and the protagonist’s willingness to let him do as he will–combined with her nails-on-chalkboard ‘voice’–make her shallow and unlikeable.