The Book of You
- By Claire Kendal
- 373 pp.
- Reviewed by Nicole Schultheis
- September 26, 2014
Is the protagonist of this novel living in a dark fairy tale?
Clarissa works at the university in Bath. She has parted from Henry, a professor who had left his wife for her. Women scorn Clarissa, and her history as the “other woman” persists as a mark against her character.
Meanwhile, Henry is rewarded with a coveted professorship at Cambridge. Clarissa had tried to conceive with Henry, but the unsuccessful fertility treatments left her sobbing. Heartless Henry has moved on. When the reader meets Clarissa, she is nearly 40, childless, unmarried, and bereft of friends.
Rafe, a university lecturer, has since taken an uncanny interest in Clarissa. Whenever she utters Henry’s name, Rafe’s eyelid flitters because he is chafed by Henry’s success. Rafe holds forth on the meaning of gory fairy tales, and Clarissa feigns interest in his work. Henry loved fairy tales, too, and, as we will learn, Clarissa still lives in a fairy-tale world.
Clarissa has attended Rafe’s book launch and said nice things to him out of politeness, but since then, he has been stalking her. Worried the police would find the evidence equivocal, and prompted by self-help literature, Clarissa begins to document Rafe’s behavior in an odd, second-person, present-tense retelling. Seven pages into the novel, Clarissa pens a journal entry recounting a pivotal incident from three months earlier: “It is the night that I make the very big mistake of sleeping with you.”
From the very first retelling, the reader knows that our narrator was drugged and raped. Rafe gives her a glass of wine. Although it tastes like “salty sweet medicine,” she drinks it. He takes her home and wrangles his way into her apartment. She is disoriented and weak.
Without invitation, he manhandles her, disrobes her, and puts her on the bed. Clarissa can’t remember what happens next, but when she wakes up, she is naked, bruised, and sore. Rafe is still there, draped around her. She immediately retreats to the shower to wash away all evidence. Of course, she doesn’t go to the ER. No blood is drawn, no DNA sought or tested. Though cognizant of sufficient facts, she persists too long in the belief that it was “just sex” and that it was her fault.
Why is Clarissa — a modern, educated woman who works at a university — so clueless? Is she oblivious to information schools promulgate about date-rape drugs? Does she think that inviting a coworker into your apartment for coffee constitutes consent for a violent sexual assault?
Three months on, she is still characterizing this event as “sleeping with you.” She knows the police will eventually see her journal. That’s why she is writing it. Yet in it, she characterizes this crime as her own “very big mistake.”
Who is Clarissa, apart from being a rape victim who writes in her journal? She reads poetry and, oh yes, serves on a jury in a criminal case in which, coincidentally, a woman has been kidnapped, beaten, and raped. This helpful subplot enables Clarissa to escape Rafe for a while and make friends with fellow jurors, including Robert, an affable firefighter to whom she is attracted. Though ultimately he disappoints (don’t they all?), she casts him as her rescuer.
Rafe’s past emerges as his behavior escalates. He gaslights Clarissa; he appears everywhere; he sends beautiful but menacing gifts — and he has struck before. Meanwhile, we cannot learn who Clarissa might have been or might have become (except in relation to him) the time before him, and who she becomes afterward because of him.
It’s not her fault. Author Claire Kendal has conformed this text to the Oprah-esque narrative of suffering and survivorhood. Kendal makes Clarissa treasure the dark fairy-tale retellings of a suicidal victim of sexual abuse. Clarissa buys and cherishes Anne Sexton’s Transformations, poems that re-tell Grimm’s fairy tales.
Clarissa sews her own clothes and longs for motherhood. Having abandoned her own graduate education, she cannot be an academic, so she serves one. Throughout, she remains the coddled child-woman of elderly parents, with her mother’s unfiltered advice and ideals ever-present in Clarissa’s mind and ears.
Remaining unable to define her own place in the world, she can’t see herself except in relation to Henry or Rafe or Robert. Her female associates are, at best, ignorant. Motherhood set against spinsterhood serves as another measuring tool. These roles, and the fairy-tale archetypes they mimic, tell Clarissa what she can be, and then she must either abide or oppose them.
So, yes, we are happy Clarissa prevails, and that Rafe gets his own comeuppance, but the novel remains bound by stereotype. In a phrase coined earlier by Bonnie Costello, Kendal’s novel is “predicated by the patriarchy it seeks to upset.” Though Clarissa defeats Rafe, she not only remains the victim of a fairy-tale narrative, but also wholeheartedly embraces it.
Advance publicity proclaimed this first novel to be a “page turner,” “addictive,” and “chilling.” It is all of these things. Kendal’s capacious knowledge of traditional fairy tales and their persistence in our culture and literature is apparent. Yet her story merely promulgates the meme of woman as a binary creature: victim and survivor. Readers in 2014 deserve fare more nourishing than this gingerbread house.
Nicole Schultheis is a lawyer and writer/editor who serves as a writing coach to candidates for the federal Senior Executive Service.