Roxane's Reviews > My Absolute Darling

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
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** spoiler alert ** Given all the glowing reviews and buzz surrounding My Absolute Darling, I really wanted to like this book. But from the first chapter, this book did not grab me. And I guess I am the anomaly, given how much people are rhapsodizing about this novel, which is fine, not every book is for every reader. So, if you think you might like this book, please do check it out!

For certain, this book is readable in that I read it in a few hours. I kept hoping that the amazingness would suddenly appear to me and all the pieces would fall into place. Alas. Nothing I say here is meant to be disrespectful to the writer. Writing books takes time and effort and this writer has put in the work and so none of this rises out of ill will. I am actually not at all familiar with the writer. I also don’t write on Goodreads for the writer. Writers should not read Goodreads reviews of their own work. Goodreads is for readers and it is as a reader I offer these thoughts.

Given how this book is about trauma and violence, I wanted to love it (for lack of a better word). The overall premise is well in my writing AND reading wheelhouse and the kind of story I tend to gravitate to. But… there was a lot of darkness and grittiness and I didn’t feel especially moved by any of it. It was all so clinically brutal. I should have wanted to cry but I just felt… not much of anything. I did not believe the violence. And I surely did not believe Turtle as a young woman dealing with such a horrifying circumstance. With respect, it felt like a man guessing at how a young woman in her situation would feel. It was unbelievable and not in a good way.

The sexual violence was written, all too often, with an uncomfortable amount of romance which is to say if you forgot who the characters were, you’d think this was just a fucked up love story between two un-related grown folks and not, you know, a horrifying tale of incest.

I DO understand what the writer was going for, trying to convey the conflict Turtle felt, the push and pull of a girl who is living in an untenable situation she has no choice in, being drawn to her father and repulsed by his abuse, being human and having physical reactions to things she is resistant to and not actively consenting to. But… the approach here doesn’t work at all. Though Martin sees his daughter as a lover, there should be… more clarity that Turtle, however conflicted and fraught she finds the situation, does not see herself as her father’s lover. I’m not articulating my thought well here. There’s just a way to go about this and I did not like the way it was handled here.

I wanted more interiority from Turtle. The third person narration was a curious choice and I felt so much distance from Turtle and not in a way that felt organic to what I see as the novel’s ambitions. And Turtle SHOULD be the kind of narrator that becomes canon—tough, interesting, smart, fucked up. But because we don’t have the interiority she deserves, the potential of her character is never realized.

Several scenes were displays of unbridled sadism and again, I get why, and I am not judging the content. Lord knows, I am not afraid of violence in fiction. I simply question the lack of genuine purpose for that content.

The excess of description was really off putting. Like, we get it—it’s water, it’s the woods, it’s a sparsely decorated house. Calm! Down! With! The! Adjectives! And I am fine with descriptive writing but more often than not the prose offered an excess of description that really compromised the pacing. And despite all the description, it was challenging to get a real sense of place. I just started to dread turning the page for fear there would be more description, more “look what I can do with words!” which is not… ideal. And just… so much of the description did not make sense. It was just word soup.

There is a baffling moment where Turtle’s pussy is described as, “trim and compact as an anemone bunkered down" but in the most bizarre way. WHY IS THIS HERE? Also, every time the word “pussy” appears it just… it’s weird. And then toward the end, Tallent switches it to cunt. But it’s just as jarring.

And when we first meet Turtle she is “coltish” and also her hips are “wide but slender.” Like… dude, pick one. And of course, you know the next line is going to be that she is beautiful but in a surprising way right? Sure enough, she is described as “an ugly face she knows, but an unusual one.” Sigh. Of course.

Here is the whole description:

"She is tall for fourteen, coltishly built, with long legs and arms, wide but slender hips and shoulders, her neck long and corded. Her eyes are her most striking feature, blue, almond-shaped in a face that is too lean, with wide, sharp cheekbones, and her crooked, toothy mouth—an ugly face, she knows, and an unusual one."

The description makes her sound like a Star Trek alien.

She gets her period and just dips her fingers in her pussy to feel her “menarche” and then gives it a lil taste and fine, maybe this would happen, but… sigh. Why? And like, these are the things that kept jumping out, not like the actually important stuff.

The obsession with guns was disproportionate to the role of guns in the overall narrative. There were guns everywhere all the time, just out in the open. I live in an an open carry state and I was still like… what is happening???? And several times, I thought, if Turtle cleans that gun one more time, I’m going to flip my coffee table.

There were so many plot threads that felt abandoned and incomplete. All that energy spent on description might have been better spent on character development and backstory. We know Martin is a sadistic nutcase but that’s it. He says he hates his father but his father comes across as a reasonably decent guy. How does he make money? How does he own such valuable land? What really happened to Turtle’s mother? How on EARTH has he not lost custody of Turtle yet? This one character, Brett’s mother shows up, and turns out, she was best friends with Turtle’s mom, and nothing comes of this. Like, she stops by the house once and that’s that. WHY SWAY?

The teenagers were so very precocious and hyper verbal and mostly free to roam the world with few discernible problems. It was like Dawson’s Creek but in Mendocino.

The one part that works is the epilogue, of sorts, where we see Turtle in the after of everything that transpires. This part is, of course, like only ten pages.

I don’t know. It’s me, I guess, not the book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 6, 2017 – Shelved
September 6, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 166 (166 new)

message 1: by Melanie (new)

Melanie That anemone-pussy line is enough to put this one back on the shelves for me. Thanks for the warning!

Melissa Stacy Thank you so much for reading this novel, and for writing this review. Truly, from all that is me: Thank you, Roxane Gay; THANK YOU. The recent NYT write-up hyping this book to the ends of all hype gave me such bad, bad vibes. I'm so tired of men writing raped women who use an abundance of guns to reclaim their sense of self and their self-empowerment. I'm so over this story.

I think the publishing industry likes to follow Hollywood storylines way too much, in which the rape victim can only reclaim herself by American hardware and violence. It's so far from the reality of most rape victims, and yet this is the storyline, over and over: that guns bring power, that self-empowerment can only be reclaimed with guns and bullets. It's so tiring.

I strongly believe that if this author really wanted to write something groundbreaking and new, then his main character, Turtle, would've been a teenage boy. A boy being brutally raped by his father, in detail, with penises and anuses described on the page in debasing ways, coupled with growing up with all those guns in the house.

But we don't get that story; oh no, of course not. It is the female body, the female body is the broken one, over and over again, the broken female body as imagined through the eyes of an unbroken male. Hollywood loves the spectacle of the broken female re-empowered by bullets.

I refuse to touch this book. I reject all the hype around this book. And I so appreciate that you wrote a thorough review as a reader for this novel. I've been hoping and hoping you would, ever since that NYT write-up came out -- and you did -- and I thank you. I know you do not like stranger-hugs but I wish I could hug you for this. Good thing you are three million miles away. ^.^


message 3: by Faith (new)

Faith Thanks for the review. You just confirmed my decision not to read this.

message 4: by Susie (new)

Susie Wang I couldn't even get past the first chapter. Luckily, I was evaluating it for a Chinese translation, and the graphic sex scenes would have a hard time getting published in China. So I didn't have to read the rest of the book.

Heather It's not just you. You've put into words everything I felt as I read this book, but lacked the words/perspective/interest to lay it all out. Thank you for writing this review, seriously.

Scare Bear I thought it was just me. I choose to read this based on the Stephen King quote calling it a masterpiece. I forced myself through it waiting until the 'masterpiece' bit kicked in but it never did for me.

message 7: by Bethwyn (new)

Bethwyn (Butterfly Elephant Books) I absolutely agree. I got to the first sex scene and kind of... just no. No. Like others, I kept waiting for the bit where I 'got' everything, where I saw all the brilliancy. I can see that the writing style could appeal, but to me it just didn't work, and it made me feel too awful to continue reading.
Thanks for writing this review.

Jessica Well put--you voiced the problems/concerns I had with this book perfectly.

Micah Brunty Same. The reviews were so good that I spent half of the time wondering if I was missing something. I had to force myself to finish this book.

message 10: by Billie (new) - added it

Billie I've been listening to this on audio on my commute because it's such a "thing" right now and I knew I'd never get around to words-on-a-page reading it. I'm currently at the part where Turtle/Kibble (That nickname—WTF?)/Julia runs away into the woods and I was hoping that this was the real start of the story and she would stay run-away. From this review, I'm guessing not and so I'm done. Nothing so far has made me want to read further and this review and the comments have just confirmed that stopping now is the right choice for me. Thank you Ms. Gay and all here for saving my time and my emotional health.

Ariadne Morgena I just fucking cannot stand that there is another white guy writing about a woman's abuse. Incest in particular is such a terribly sexist action that has afflicted a disgusting amount of girls over the years. Trying to turn that into some kind of loving act or anything remotely ambivalent does every survivor in the entire world a disservice. I hate this man.

message 12: by Michael Swanson (new)

Michael Swanson Your review was dead on and can't agree more though I wish it wasn't the case. Art truly is subjective but for me this missed the mark and turns the reader off. Thanks for articulating what I was thinking so well.

Craig Thank you for articulating my feelings about this novel so precisely. I read your review halfway through reading, and it actually helped me keep reading to the end, if just to experience the end chapters and to have endured the full scope of the narrative. As a therapist who treats traumatized patients, I have heard all manner of horrific stories, but there is a tonal issue in this book I could never get past--one that seems to capture the dilemma of a woman who can't leave her abusive partner, not that of a girl caught in the confusion of sexual abuse by her father. And, as you observed, there is a sadism not just in what's happening, but in how it's told. An unnecessary brutality that at times serves very questionable aims. Likewise, it is true that the adolescents here talk like the most precocious teenagers an author can dream up--ones who just don't exist outside of fiction.

message 14: by Christina (new)

Christina Thank you for the honest review. I don't think I'll pick this one up, as I'm sure it would bother me for the same reasons it did you. You've saved me some time and money.

Canadian Reader Craig wrote: "Thank you for articulating my feelings about this novel so precisely. I read your review halfway through reading, and it actually helped me keep reading to the end, if just to experience the end ch..."

Craig, thank you for bringing your experience working with trauma patients to the discussion. Your comment about there being sadism in how the story was told and "the unnecessary brutality that at times serves very questionable aims" was particularly resonant. I admit to being very concerned about the hype surrounding this book.

message 16: by Marilyn (new) - added it

Marilyn I did read the entire book and was repulsed by it. Your review is oh so accurate.

Jason pretty much nailed it.

Jenny Brammer Could not have said it better myself! Review is absolutely spot on from my perspective!

message 19: by Michelle (new) - added it

Michelle Hoover BRAVO!!

message 20: by Monica (new)

Monica Thanks for the review. Just read another review (in Bitch Magazine, which links to yours here, by the way). I'm thinking I can live without this read in my life.

message 21: by Monica (new)

Monica P.S. Here is the Bitch Mag review for anyone interested:

Canadian Reader Monica wrote: "P.S. Here is the Bitch Mag review for anyone interested:"
Monica, thank you. This articulates so much that many of us have felt reading this book.

Melissa Stacy Monica wrote: "P.S. Here is the Bitch Mag review for anyone interested:"

Monica, I'd like to second Canadian Reader -- thank you so much for sharing that review! I'm breathing a sigh of relief that not everyone is drinking the kool-aid here.

message 24: by Marilyn (new) - added it

Marilyn Monica, thanks for your comments and link to the review in Bitch Media by S.E. Smith. My favorite quotes of hers are: "The notion that men like Tallent are doing women a favor by telling their stories for them ignores the fact that they usually tell these stories badly, and that their voices suck all the oxygen from the room, making it impossible for victims and survivors to be heard" and "Even as responsible adults in Turtle’s life start to identify a problem, readers are still supposed to admire Martin—sure he’s a rapist, a kidnapper, and a child molester, but gosh, he sure is loving" and finally “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Thank you S.E. Smith.

message 25: by Polli (new)

Polli Thank you, Roxane. I saw the author speak at BookExpo and he was a very earnest and engaging guy - I think that tinted the way I worked to process the book when I finally read it. Your review articulated some things that I thought but couldn't put a finger on. Because I came at it with the author having told some backstory, I think I was much more willing to go along for the ride and try to see things as he hoped we'd see them. I didn't mind all the details of the settings - that's kind of his jam. But I struggled hard to decide if he did a good job portraying a kid who'd been brought up forever almost AS a wife/lover, and that's why it reads so uncomfortably that way. And the father's instability and isolation are so extreme that Turtle's reaction is hard to compare to another child in that circumstance, making me willing to follow Turtle to the end. (I did almost throw the book because of the anemone comparison. Yarg.) The 15-year old boy banter was not like any I've heard in real life. And I would have traded more backstory for him to have cut the whole "trapped on an island" section. Perhaps if the reader understands more about Mendicino in general, things make more sense? I feel like that was shorthand that I didn't catch. The more I go back and revisit scenes, there were many places I think the author slipped on his "edge" and cut himself. I'm marking myself conflicted over this one. I'd recommend it for folks who are into setting or language, with a huge trigger warning wrapped around it.

Nicole "clinically brutal" - Yesss. I think that sums up the book very well - from the barest outline of characters to the base sex scenes. You nailed it.

message 27: by Ale (new)

Ale kick Terrific...!!

Sharon Half way thru and feeling exactly the same...hoping something is going to make me care or feel anything for the characters.

Julinka Thank you for beating me to it and writing that review! You were able to articulate almost every issue I had with it! I only read this book due to the crazed hype surrounding it, and have learned my lesson (again).

The strange descriptions of female genitalia really boggled my mind. The author can write well, but at times I felt like I was reading a gun magazine describing a manufacturer's latest release or a high school biology book with the most minute plant descriptions.

While I was reading it, I found the "voice" of the narration slightly "off." I only learned the author is a man once I finished the book, and I believe that might have something to do with it.

message 30: by Cheryl (last edited Sep 18, 2017 05:27PM) (new)

Cheryl This review is so spot on, it's exactly everything I'm thinking and feeling. Thank you for writing it.

message 31: by Cathy (last edited Sep 20, 2017 05:50AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Cathy Branciforte Thank you for your review! I read ( and could not finish) an advance copy of this book based on all of the hype surrounding it long before it was released and the exposure it was getting at BEA, etc. I was really starting to think I was losing it because of the glowing reviews at that time and thought I was missing something. Your review says it the way I could never have articulated it- thank you! I wish yours was the default review on Goodreads for anyone debating whether or not to read this. I was surprised ( but not really) to see this on the NYT bestseller list this week.

message 32: by DD (new) - added it

DD Yesssssss. Yes. Thank you.

message 33: by Georgina (new)

Georgina Ata Excellent review. I seldom find nothing to be positive about in a book with great reviews. I found nothing in this one. It was so tough to get through it that I stopped trying.

message 34: by Penny (new)

Penny Saunders Great review for an over written uninspiring book. The detail killed it for me from the beginning, then reading the 15 year old boys philosophical conversation ended the read.

message 35: by Beth (new) - rated it 2 stars

Beth Fries Thank you for this review, I’m so glad to find out I’m not the only one who felt this way about the book. Brutal is the exact word I would use to describe it. The best I can say about the book is it did a good job depicting how abuse victims internalize verbal abuse and rationalize the physical abuse, but the endless long-winded descriptions exhausted me and felt like the author was trying to prove how well he can describe guns and violent injuries. I felt ripped off at the end because of so many loose plot threads that left me scratching my head as to why they had been left in the story at all. Cut out all the superfluous descriptions and needless plot lines and it would have been one heck of a short story.

Holly I think this review is spot on.

message 37: by Kable (new) - rated it 1 star

Kable Its not you. The writer comes off as a bonkers creeper half the time. I swear to God Indiebound has the worst curated list I've ever read, and I'm never going to take another recommendation from them again.

Fusun Konyali I've just finished the book and read your spot on review. This is exactly what I thought while reading it (and skipping some parts that went on and on about guns).

message 39: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Yes, yes and yes. Couldn't finish it.

message 40: by Drew (new) - rated it 2 stars

Drew Rusnak Really great and in-depth review. Everything you said was spot on. I couldn't make myself like this book no matter how much I felt I was supposed to.

message 41: by Darren (new) - added it

Darren Brilliant review. I had to laugh at your complaints about the "anemone" comparison, which is also one of my (many) complaints. It appears Tallent joins that select group of male writers (Mailer, Updike) who describe that part of the female anatomy most ineptly. Further, the endless flora/fauna description reminded me of a writing teacher's dictum: ?save the flora and fauna for the poets." And finally, you're right: teenage boys don't talk the way the ones in this novel do.

message 42: by Hollie (new)

Hollie Thank you for writing something about this book that finally makes sense to me. I forced myself through the first chapter and felt so creeped out and sad that I don’t think I’m going to give it any more of my attention. I have a bunch of books in my queue that aren’t going to depress/anger/upset me. There’s enough of that in the real world right now. ...Book, bye.

Susannah It's not you. It felt like Tallent was writing gruesome violence to shock and botanical description to impress. And like you said, there was no interior life revealed in any of the characters.

message 44: by Eilene (new) - added it

Eilene I wholeheartedly agree with your excellent review!

Allison Susannah wrote: "It's not you. It felt like Tallent was writing gruesome violence to shock and botanical description to impress. And like you said, there was no interior life revealed in any of the characters."

On the contrary, the entire book was about Turtle's interior life, written from the perspective of what's going on inside her head. I think it's for this very reason that I found the book difficult to follow; trying to makes sense of what goes on inside someone else's head would be crazy-making, and on this level the author succeeds.

As other readers have mentioned, it was the hype that drew me into this book. I don't regret having read it and might read it again more carefully to see if I can find some redeeming qualities that I missed the first time through, but it's not one that I particularly enjoyed.

Susannah Valid point, Allison. I think that, like Roxane, I felt that the author's choice of third person narration created a distance between me and Turtle that made it difficult for me to get fully inside head.

message 47: by Angie (new) - rated it 1 star

Angie Just finished and your review is spot on. Thank you for taking the time to write and share.

message 48: by Nina (new) - rated it 1 star

Nina Totally agree. Great review.

message 49: by Nikky (new)

Nikky Eminzade This review encompasses everything I thought while reading through this book. The characters were so unbelievable and pretentious... has the author ever heard a ninth grader speak? They're certainly not having deep philosophical conversations.

message 50: by Nicole (new)

Nicole Couldn't agree more. I wanted this to be as good as All The Ugly and Wonderful Things, but it didn't even come close.

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