Monday, August 22, 2016
Book Review: Monsters-A Love Story
The Cinderella story is as old as, well, Cinderella. (Some sources put the first Cinderella story as early as the first century, about a Greek slave girl who becomes an Egyptian queen.) Beyond the Disney tale of the mistreated stepdaughter whose fairy godmother helps her attract a prince, a Cinderella story encompasses any tale of an underdog who becomes a champion. The movie Working Girl is as much a Cinderella story for Melanie Griffith’s success in the boardroom as her winning the love of Harrison Ford. And of course, any time a small college goes far during basketball’s March Madness, it is dubbed “This season’s Cinderella story.”
The appeal of these stories isn’t just winning the prince, the championship, or the promotion. It’s that the Cinderella character is an appealing underdog. Would we root for Cinderella to win the heart of the prince if she’d been one of the evil stepsisters instead? Of course not.
And yet, that’s the tactic author Liz Kay – a poet making her fiction debut – uses in Monsters: A Love Story. Her protagonist, poet Stacey Lane, is a Cinderella twice over, in work and in love. Yet she’s a horrible person, both due to her personality and because some of Kay’s choices for the character’s situation. This is a very bold choice for a narrative that’s based on a trope almost always used for romance, romantic comedy, and inspirational stories. But it’s not like Kay doesn’t warn us – it’s right there in the title, and in the book’s promotional blurb. Will this negative take on a common structure work for readers of women’s fiction, to whom this book will undoubtedly be marketed? The jury is still out on that.
Stacey Lane’s husband Michael died eight months before the book starts, leaving her with two young sons in Omaha, Nebraska. Right away this is a set up for extreme sympathy from the reader, but Michael was such a careful planner, he left an estate so substantial that Stacey will never have to work a day in her life. And rather than being overwhelmed with single motherhood, Stacey’s sister Jenny literally moved down the street from her and is available at a moment’s notice to take her kids any time Stacey has a last-minute trip to LA. (As you’ll see, this happens a lot.) Rather than being grateful for these circumstances, Stacey takes them for granted.
Cinderella moment #1 happens when Stacey gets an email from a huge Hollywood producer that he’s interested in turning her poem/novella, “Monsters in the Afterlife” into a book. “Monsters” is a modern-day retelling of Frankenstein; in Lane’s version, the monster is a female built to the specifications of society’s demanding expectations for women. (This is not an original idea – see The Stepford Wives or even the Anthony Michael Hall 1980s masterpiece Weird Science.) Even though Stacey doesn’t have an agent (and strangely, not one calls her even after the news hits the trades), she manages to obtain a deal which not only garners her hundreds of thousands of dollars that she doesn’t need when she sells the rights, but producer/movie star Tommy DeMarco wants to keep her on the movie, even though he’s already hired a well-known screenwriter to turn her poem into a script. Again, rather than being grateful or awed or even momentarily stunned by this amazing turn her life has taken, Stacey immediately goes into full-fledged bitch mode, holding fast to her concept of the project and acting condescendingly toward Tommy. (In Kay’s defense, a lot of novelists who sell the screen rights to their books act this way. However, it would have been interesting to read a few pages from the fictional book to see if Stacey’s possessiveness is justified. All we have is Lane’s word that it is the most amazing, beautiful, forthright, inspiring, stunning poem/story ever written; Homer be damned.)
Naturally, in Cinderella moment #2, Tommy becomes completely enamored of Stacey, and she sleeps with him the first night they meet, relatively new widowhood notwithstanding. As the novel – and work on the movie – progresses, Tommy continues to pursue Stacey, although the reasons behind his attraction are never fully expounded. (Then again, the book is written solely from Stacey’s first-person point-of-view, so Kay is limited in this respect.) Tommy seems to be based on Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor/producer who has both blockbusters and serious work on his resume, and is just as well-known for his pursuit of pretty young women as his acting roles. Stacey has no trouble sleeping with him, but she’s careful to keep a wall around her emotions; after all, she is well aware of Tommy’s promiscuous reputation. This secrecy extends to Jenny as well as Tommy’s sullen 15-year-old daughter Sadie, a cutter/anorexic who for some unfathomable reason becomes strongly attached to Stacey from practically the moment they meet.
The book unfolds over a couple of years, as the movie goes from concept to script to shooting to premiere and afterward. And Stacey, rather than becoming more sympathetic, becomes even more insufferable. She appears to be developing a serious drinking problem. She’s dismissive to the point of cruelty to Michael’s mother, a woman who has lost her child and therefore should be cut some slack – especially as Stacey is a mother herself. She lies to Jenny and to the star of the movie, Sarah -- Kate Winslet to Tommy’s Leo -- who inexplicably wants to be Stacey’s best friend. She’s condescending toward the other parents on her son’s baseball team. And she strings along a nice man while she continues to answer Tommy’s booty calls, lying to him about the true nature of their relationship. As for Tommy, even though the book is titled Monsters, not Monster, he never appears any worse than one would expect from a Hollywood superstar.
I’ve written before about the preoccupation in fiction over the likable female protagonist, and this book seems like a giant middle finger from author Liz Kay to the publishing Powers that Be who insist that female characters be everyone’s best friend or little sister. For this alone, I applaud her. It’s an even bigger feat that she was able to attract a traditional publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, to this vision. (Strangely enough, though, their pre-release reviews are calling the book a comedy. I didn’t find a single sentence funny.) However, I have to admit, I need a reason to root for a protagonist. I don’t need to like her, but the fact that Stacey was never an underdog, that she’s a snob who rarely mourns her dead husband nor appreciates the amazing opportunity she’s been given, made me want to see her fall on her face rather than succeed. A reader should root for the protagonist to either achieve her goals or learn a lesson through trying; the antagonist is the one we want to fail.
Does this mean I wouldn’t recommend the book? Absolutely not. Women’s fiction fans should definitely take the time to read it and weigh in on the whole “likable protagonist” debate. Monsters: A Love Story, which combines a structurally perfect Cinderella story with a truly horrible Cinderella, is the perfect novel to jump start this debate. As for me, though, I’m starting to think that these “likeability” evangelists in publishing may have a point.
Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.