This Gorgeous Game, by Donna Freitas; Frances Foster Books
HEY WOW HI AGAIN. In a perfect world I would write at least one review a week, but in a world full of holiday obligations and D&D and teaching and World of Warcraft, sometimes that’s just not possible. Of course, the other hindrance here is that most of these books ARE just items I’ve checked out from the library, which means that if time runs out and I haven’t sat down with them yet, they have to go back–and then I procrastinate more, because it’s much easier to discuss a work when you have the thing on hand. I have a lot of silly-ass books to write about for you, but I really wanted to take a minute to discuss this book that I read earlier in the fall. On the surface, it shares a lot of traits with the kinds of teen lit that’s currently popular: the protagonist is an ordinary, sweet-natured young girl who attracts the intense attention of a handsome, older, more powerful male figure. The man, much like his fellow teen lit men, never lets the protagonist have a moment of peace. He texts her; he writes her letters; he asks for constant meetings; he is jealous and possessive. The plot, like the plot of many books that surround this one on the shelf, mainly deals with the relationship between these two figures: unsure female and aggressive male.
Here’s the difference, though, and it’s key: this book does not for one second imply that what’s happening in its pages is anything close to romantic or normal.
The main character, Olivia, is 17 years old and an aspiring writer. The story begins when she wins a short story contest judged by a man she idolizes, a Catholic priest and best-selling novelist named Father Mark. Father Mark is young (but, given that she’s a teenage girl, he’s still twice her age), charismatic and popular. He wields almost unassailable power over Olivia and her town (where everyone is Catholic) as both a clergyman and a celebrity; he’s even a professor, teaching at the local Catholic-affiliated university. Father Mark is both an archetypal villain and hauntingly reminiscent of paranormal romance heroes; he exists in a bastion of unquestionable authority built by his multiple privileged offices. Like the ‘heroes’ in teen lit romance, he doesn’t like to take no for an answer and fighting back against him is so difficult that it’s easier just to give in, or to resist passively and hope that he eventually goes away. But neither Father Mark nor those heroes ever get bored of their target.
Olivia is initially ecstatic, which adds another layer of difficulty in questioning Father Mark’s motives: she loves this guy. She’s read his novels, she idolizes him, and, at the outset, he is quite pleasant and charming. He compliments her writing and offers to work personally with her on improving her winning entry. She’s excited about this prospect and about the fact that, as a 17-year-old, she’ll be enrolled in his exclusive workshop next semester at the university (that being the contest prize).
However, excitement soon turns to unease, as Father Mark hounds her for more and more face time, demanding that she honor his requests above those of everyone else in her otherwise very normal and pleasant life–she has two best friends and a budding relationship with a guy who’s written as being truly nice. While all of these people wonder a little bit at the time spent with Father Mark, it’s largely in a bemused and accepting way; again, he’s a celebrity, he’s a priest. He’s helping her. They don’t question it, and for a while neither does Olivia.
It’s important to note that this is a very short book–barely over 200 pages. The first-person narration is taut and grows more tense with Olivia’s burgeoning anxiety as she realizes what kind of person Father Mark is and his true intentions towards her. The scenes are mostly centered around either their direct interaction or, later on, her efforts to avoid that interaction, with a few scenes of her family and friends mixed in. A particular scene in the later half of the book underscores her feelings of helplessness: Father Mark invites himself over to her house for dinner, and all of the other secondary characters are there, including her best bros and several nuns from her (surprise: Catholic) school. Father Mark charms everyone at the dinner table while Olivia sits there, sick with dread and wanting him to leave. The only person who notices her discomfort is one of the nuns, a character who was noted as not being too impressed with Father Mark from the get-go. It’s this character that eventually encourages Olivia to speak the truth, but at this point in the story she’s just not ready yet. The scene includes a discussion of the scandals that have plagued the Catholic church and everyone’s indignant agreement that their religion and its practitioners are unfairly maligned.
Several reviewers of this book wrote that they felt frustrated by Olivia’s perpetual inaction; by the fact that, until the end, she does basically nothing to preserve herself from Father Mark’s psychological abuse. I admit I felt frustrated, too, but I also think this was the narrative’s intent: imagine sitting at a dinner table with your abuser while everyone you love praises him AND decries those who question his primary office of authority. I don’t know about y’all, but I would feel pretty goddamned silenced, and I think that was the effect Freitas wanted to achieve. She wanted the reader to feel Olivia’s helplessness and despair, and trust me, you do. The prose is unsparing about Olivia’s mounting fear and disgust, all of which culminates with a scene in which she reads a story he’s written for her.
The book is interspersed with quotes from and allusions to letters written by Thomas Merton, an actual priest who lived in the 1960s and fell in love with a young girl that he was meant to be looking after. A phrase from those letters is where the book got its title, and Father Mark uses the historical account as the basis for the story he asks Olivia to read. Keep in mind that Olivia’s had this manuscript on her for a good number of pages and has been steadfastly ignoring Father Mark’s increasingly frenzied demands for feedback. When she finally does work up the courage to pick up the thing, every horrible worry she’s had about Father Mark is confirmed–he’s cast her as a girl who loves a priest, and himself as the priest who loves her back, and the story functions as an implicit demand for her to acknowledge and reciprocate his feelings in real life.
Reading it is Olivia’s breaking point. She calls together her best friends and the boy with whom she actually WANTS a relationship and shows them everything: not just the story, but also the mountains of letters he’s sent her over the relatively short course of their association.
Her friends are shocked, but the proof is undeniable, and their shock quickly turns to supportive anger on her behalf. It’s not stated what actual consequences Father Mark suffers–the book’s last few pages focus on the start of Olivia’s regrouping, on her efforts to heal from this and move on, which I think is appropriate. Father Mark’s punishment isn’t the point; the point is that he did something deserving of punishment and everyone needs to be aware of it.
I should note that this is most definitely not a book all about the corruption and evil of Catholicism. It’s very obvious that the author is Catholic herself and that she doesn’t hold the faith responsible for the sins of its followers. I think the discussion in the dinner scene was simply meant to further underscore the immense agency that Father Mark wielded over Olivia and over everyone else in that room. If there’s a criticism there, it’s not to suggest that the Church is full of evil pedophiles, but rather to remind Catholics that vigilance rather than indignation is a better response to these accusations. Furthermore, although this book is positively harrowing to read, it’s not explicit in any way. Father Mark’s abuse is mental, which is, again, one of the hardest types of abuse to prove, even though it’s just as damaging, and it did make me think of the mind games that the male leads in stories like Twilight & Swoon & Wings and so forth play with the female protagonists. Father Mark’s obsessive focus on Olivia–and his maudlin anger when she puts forth even a shade of resistance–has a very Edwardian quality, and I’m not talking about British history.
I feel like this is a book that teen girls, especially Twilight fans, need to read. They need to read this and see the parallels. Father Mark isn’t a supernaturally strong, murderous vampire; his power comes from perfectly earthly sources, which honestly makes the plot much more frightening than the average paranormal book.
That said, This Gorgeous Game isn’t perfect. Any character who’s not Olivia is thinly realized, and that includes Father Mark, who functions more as an ominous, overbearing presence rather than a real person. But, to me, this is another flaw common to teen lit, in that the male protagonists are often shallowly drawn–they do these creepy things, but there’s no substance as to why, there’s no psychology for their motivations, no explanation for their choices. I didn’t have an understanding of why Father Mark was such a predator, either, but at least this book definitely cast him in the predatory role rather than trying to sell his behavior as the actions of a lovelorn prince. I found myself forgiving the less developed aspects of the story due to its tight, breathless writing and the sincerity and strength of its message, which was ultimately this:
It is neither okay for a man to stalk a woman to distraction nor, MOST IMPORTANTLY, is it her fault.
Next on the docket: We return to the land of ridiculousness with Elixir, Hilary Duff’s depressingly soulless attempt at YA supernatural romance.
Rating: 3 coke cans. It’s a quick, unsettling read, and one I NEVER WANT TO EXPERIENCE AGAIN.