by Nikki Gemmell
So, you've read that Fifty Shades of something or other book (and the next one, and the next one). And you liked it enough, and now you're thinking you wouldn't mind some more bow chicka wow wow to while away your time beside the beach or pool this summer.
You know, IF said book would just happen to fall into your e-reader or beach tote or something.
Well, you're in luck because that's just the kind of book With My Body by Nikki Gemmell is. It's also disturbing as all hell, but we'll get to that in a minute. It's like That Other Book (which I admit, I haven't read but feel like I have). It's that sort of book that you WANT to read but you don't want people to KNOW you are reading and that while you ARE reading you're thinking, WTF is going on here and he/she/they did not just do that and if my mother/grandmother/neighbor saw me reading this I would die and by then, you're done the book. (Yes, even though this is 462 pages. These are the wham-bam-thankya-ma'am equivalent of 462 pages.)
Not like anything's wrong with wanting to read this sort of book. We are, presumably, all grown ups here ... all of us, that is, except for the teenage girl narrating the majority of With My Body, which is where the Creep-O-Meter factor with this novel comes into play.
She's a pretty young thing who is curious about All Things Grown Up. And I mean All The Things. She's lacking a mother, due to the death of her own mother from breast cancer and her father marrying the Wicked Biatch as All Get Out Stepmother, Anne. The father naturally favors the new stepmother over the young girl, who reminds him of the deceased wife. So, precocious and curious Narrator/Young Girl goes off in search of a father figure who will teach her the ways of the sexual world. (Cue up the George Michael: That's all I wanted, something special/ Something sacred in your eyes/ For just one moment, to be bold and naked/ At your side/ Sometimes I think that you'll never understand me/Maybe this time is forever, say it can be ....")
Nikki Gemmell doesn't give her Narrator/Young Girl a name in her novel, which is done for the purpose (I believe) of symbolizing to her reader that the narrator is truly Everywoman. For that's how we meet her in the first 43 pages of the novel: as a married woman who is extremely dissatisfied with her lot in life of taking care of her three kids, waiting for her physician husband to come home (or not), cooking dinner, running errands, doing laundry, and dealing with other snobby and competitive moms while picking up one's kids from school.
(None of us can relate to this, amiright?)
While our Narrator is lamenting how her life turned out and the lack of passion in it (she hasn't had sex with her husband in more than two years, hello!), she reflects inward to a time when she was happier and more connected with herself. That's when we flashback to The Narrator as the Pretty Young Thing, as described previously, who stumbles Goldilocks-like into a mysterious, artsy, and somewhat creepy (if I do say so myself) guy's McMansion. This guy - who has a name (it's Tolly) - is all too willing to teach her everything she doesn't know.
And by everything, I mean evvv-reee-thaaang. No detail is spared for you, dear reader. Nothing left to the imagination here.
This is where I started to lose my way with this novel. At this point (we're talking maybe page 227 or thereabouts), I was ready for this book to end. I had a difficult time with the relationship between The Narrator and Tolly. I was angry with him for clearly taking advantage of her, of mindfucking her while repeatedly reassuring her that their "lessons" were consensual, and I was annoyed with him when he spoke like this (which was all too often):
"'A fabulous kiss can be as evocative as smell, I think,' he smiles afterwards, in appreciation. 'One whiff - or one kiss like it again - and whoosh, it can plunge you back to another time, another place. A brighter phase of love. There can be something so .... restoring ... about it.'
You wipe your lip and stop. He suddenly feels past tense whereas you - achingly, enormously - are present.
'A passionate kiss can arrest a relationship's slow, glacial slide towards indifference,' he's murmuring on, pottering about, forever thinking, teaching, musing. 'Can wake a couple up - remind them of what they were.' He turns back to you. 'Thank you for that.'" (pg. 227)Who in the hell talks like this?! Yeah, I know: my anger goes a bit deeper here and probably has to do with the fact that I'm a parent of a daughter not all that much far removed from the age of The Narrator and that I know there are weirdos, creepos, and sexos (to quote Archie Bunker) like Tol out there, uttering such banalities to impress the ladies.
I've also worked a bit in the domestic violence field, and as we go further into the novel and the relationship between The Narrator and Tol (she calls him Tol) deepens, there's no question that we're into heavy-duty emotional abuse. There are scenes where she is clearly hesitant and he is clearly being manipulative under the guise of "helping" her, of providing his warped tutorial sessions under the premise of giving her a foundation in what love really is (puh-leeze).
As an adult reader, this is downright painful and disturbing as hell to watch.
"'I must know. Everything. What's in that head of yours? Don't be afraid. I need to know. So I can help. With absolute, utter trust. Always that.' All his words, words, words, over the next few days of apart ....you don't know what's next, where it's meant to stop, who he's bringing in to this; you're a good girl really, you can't. You will not go back.
What happens if you've fallen in love with a person who will ultimately destroy you?
It is not the first time you've thought this.
Woondala [the name of Tol's mansion] has woven a spell around you; you are different there. You don't recognise yourself." (pg. 304)
"He comes right up close, his face tells you he is confident that no one, ever, can take his place, no matter who comes next; he is inked through your heart, through your blood, until the day you die he is there and he knows it. His smile tells you your pleasure is his, that he knows he will have succeeded if he sees you gaining ultimate pleasure, beyond him, beyond anything he can do; it will be his greatest gift. '
But how?' You furrow your eyebrows, frown, still don't get it. He tells you he is doing all this because he is a student of women and he needs to learn, as do you - it is the writer's curiosity - he is a student of life, of living to the limit in pursuit of of love, connection, soul-sharing, radiance. He loves you, never forget that. No matter what comes next." (pg. 310-311)Seriously, do you want to punch this asshole first or should I do the honors? I. HATE. THIS. GUY. (And there's still another 151 pages to go!)
But Tolly's not the subject of the book (as much as he probably would like to be). It's The Narrator, and this relationship is one that she revisits, as an adult, "in desperation" as salvation from her boring, dreadful adult life. This isn't a spoiler; the back jacket cover tells us as much, but it takes 300 pages to get there. (Could a bit of editing have been applied? Absolutely.)
While reading this, I felt a lot of sympathy for The Narrator (again, probably because of my domestic violence background; it's easy to say "why doesn't she just leave already?" but much, much harder to actually do, especially when you're a teenager, especially with no other means of emotional support) but most of the time I just wanted to be done with this part of the book. I rushed through it not because I wanted to see what happened, but because I wanted to get the pain of this over with. That's not the most pleasant of reading experiences. As such, this was almost a DNF (did not finish) book; I stuck with it because it was a review book. (Had this been one I picked up on my own, probably it would have been a DNF.)
At the same time, I could not put this novel down.
I will say this: the ending SURPRISED THE HELL out of me. It really did (I stayed up till nearly 2 a.m. to find out what happened) and as much as I was prepared to give this a negative review (this review has been almost completely rewritten), the ending redeemed it from such. If I haven't made it clear, I really hated several characters (Tol, the narrator's father) during much of the novel. Hated. Them. By the end of the book, though, I understood them much better. Even started to LIKE them. That's quite a feat for a writer, and I have to give Nikki Gemmell considerable credit for that.
With My Body is definitely not a novel for everyone. At times, I wasn't sure if it was for me - and even now, I'm not sure what to make of it. I can't remember ever having such a wide-ranging, love/hate reaction to a novel.
The question will be whether readers will stay with this provocative story long enough to find out for themselves.
TLC Book Tours (thank you so much, ladies!) in exchange for my honest review. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
Nikki Gemmell's website can be found here. (Yeah, I'll be reading more of her work.)
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