I recently assigned my 9th grade students to start Goodreads accounts and study reviews so they could write their own reviews of the novels they read in my class. When students friended me, they noticed that almost all my reviews are somewhere between positive and glowing. That’s not because I only read great books or love everything that I read, I explained. As an author, I sometimes run into my fellow authors, even some big name celebs, at various conferences and tradeshows, and I would feel awkward if I thought the person had read, or someday would read, a review where I trashed his/her work. Not all authors make this choice. I respect my fellow authors who have decided that their brutal honesty is a part of the way they build trust with their readers. I think that’s a reasonable calculation to make and an honorable position to take. I’m just too much of a people-pleaser for that, so I mostly limit my criticisms to writers who are dead. I kick them when they’re down. Way down.
I’m making an exception for Lauren Kate’s Fallen. If I ran into her at some writers’ event, I wouldn’t feel badly about this critique. In fact, I’d love to get to talk with her about it and hear her thoughts. My criticism isn’t going to hurt her sales at all. She’s done just fine, thank you very much. But as a co-publisher of an indie press, if someone presented this book to me with an absolute guarantee that it would have Ms. Kate’s sales, I would still turn it down. I found this book profoundly, disturbingly anti-feminist. Anyone considering reading this book should view it through that lens and pay close attention to the messages this novel is sending to the young women and young men who read it. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from checking it out, but please keep that framing in mind if you choose to do so.
The book is not badly written. There are some truly beautiful turns of phrase, and Lauren Kate has a great ability to give each character a unique voice. I liked most of the characters and was able to endure the obligatory extended descriptions of the love interests’ bodies. That’s not my thing, but I try not to yuck on anybody’s yum. That’s not the problem with this book.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that this is about a young woman who has been living multiple lifetimes, always coming back to the angel who loves her. That’s in the book’s description. Romance isn’t my bailiwick, but I picked this up because my students are reading it. And that’s precisely why I feel compelled to write about it. As a teacher and a father and a feminist, and I don't think this book is good for my students or my own son. I'm not a prude. I'm not offended by the hints of sexuality. I'm bothered by the way the romance plays out. Although it's justified by the plot, the whole conceit seems designed from the first chapter to be forcing together the female protagonist, Lucinda, and one of the male love interests, Daniel, who keeps negging her. Though we later learn why, the fact that she is drawn to this young man who treats her so horribly is a terrible lesson for both young women and young men. None of my female students should be told that they should tolerate this kind of disdainful treatment, and none of my male students should be told that women should find it appealing. At one point Lucinda even admiringly quotes a line from Roman Holiday: "There was a man. He was so mean to me. It was wonderful." No, it’s not. This is not attractive or mysterious or alluring behavior, and it shouldn’t be framed as acceptable. Even when we learn why he’s been trying to push her away, there’s no recognition that women shouldn’t put up with crappy treatment from men. We’re told that he feels agony because he has to try to push her away. We're supposed to feel sorry for him because of his negging. What we are not told is that he feels any guilt about his treatment of her. Because his motivation is to save her by driving her away, we’re supposed to believe this absolves him of guilt for his generally cold, sometimes rude, and sometimes downright cruel treatment of her. The plot may tell us that she overcomes this because of the supernatural nature of the relationship, but we're also explicitly told that it’s because she just loves him so much. Stop and think about that. This is a romanticization of a domestic abuse victim’s mentality, that she just loves him so much that she’s drawn to him regardless of his horrible treatment of her.
I know this phenomenon is far from unique to Kate’s Fallen. It’s a variation on Pride and Prejudice and exists in a lot of other romance literature. But at least in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth has the dignity to be offended by Mr. Darcy’s cold indifference and doesn’t come around until she learns about his truly admirable qualities. In Fallen, Lucinda loves Daniel in spite of his treatment of her long before she realizes there’s anything more to him than a pretty boy who is mean to her.
I know this is believable because it happens in the real world. I also know that part of the reason it happens in the real world is that our culture is in constant conversation with our art. Let’s stop romanticizing this behavior in our art to justify it in our world. Guys who treat girls the way Daniel treats Lucinda are not angels trying to save their eternal loves from damnation. They’re just jerks who will get more abusive with time and cultural permission. If we’ve learned anything in 2017, it’s that we need to stop making jerks into heroes and start acknowledging that too many of our heroes are just jerks.