There was the one photograph of him, kept in the middle drawer of the heavy dark sideboard. When I was alone I used to take it out and hold it in front of me, staring so hard that I could vivify the image and believe that he lived and breathed for me. I felt that he understood me. I do not recall that there was ever a time when I looked upon my father's face with anything but adoration.
Fifteen-year old Susanna grew up with a sister who was ready to embrace her sexuality the minute she crossed that threshold and a mother who couldn't care less about what her daughters wanted or did. Her mother didn't have a great opinion of her daughters' father either, who she claimed was a womanizer and who wasn't around much. But Susanna was fascinated with the idea of her absent father. Having grown up on tough or no love, under a mother who is only focused on her own love life with a married man and with a sister who moves from one bed to another, Susanna mostly visualizes her life with a father who is always there for her. And then one day, she does find him. Using the flirting strategies she learned and concealing her identity, she seduces and then begins an illicit affair with her father.
When I first read the synopsis of this book, I thought this was a weird and unconventional premise for an award-nominated book. Repeat it Today with Tears was longlisted for the Orange Prize and I badly wanted to read it. Incest is such a taboo, discomfiting and disturbing topic, but it's also an oddly fascinating one - one which leaves the two sides of your minds warring with each other. On one side, you don't want to understand a character like Susanna - if I understood her, does it mean that I approve of her actions? On the other hand, you do want to know why she did it, and to know that, you have to let go of all the inhibitions, prejudices and biases that you bring to the reading experience. I say prejudices, because even though I don't see any legal, moral, ethical or biological good in incest, there is usually more to a picture than meets the eye. And while, during the first half of the book, I was railing against Susanna to not do something like that, and use her common sense instead, halfway into the book I began to empathize with her and really understand her. Eventually, I was able to close the book without judging her, and for me that was very important, because it meant that the author didn't use incest as a plot device or to manipulate a reader but to create a fascinating character who was simply lost.
I had to say the above, because I am not a fan of books that take controversial matters or true tragedies and weave them into fiction. My instinctive reaction is usually to feel exploited or taken advantage of. I didn't feel that here. There's also the fact that incest is a very hard topic to read about. Most of us have fathers, mothers and siblings we love, which is what makes empathizing hard. How do you empathize when you cannot put yourself in the other person's shoes? This book didn't glorify, sensationalize or sully the concept of incest. Interestingly, it felt like reading about any other affair. In addition, the author didn't cast her judgments into the story or the character, or make it appear a right thing to do or a wrong thing.
Repeat it Today with Tears was actually pretty fascinating and intriguing, despite its subject. Most of the time, I was curious about how this will unfold, because there's definitely not going to be a happy ending. Susanna's father had no idea that she was his daughter. He had given up his womanizing ways for years and was surprised to find a young beautiful girl want to even be with him. Since Susanna's mother had all but neglected her daughters completely, there was no one to stop her from doing whatever it was that she wished. I loved how the author constructed the novel - as I mentioned above, I was all anti-Susanna initially. But over time, you could see why Susanna did what she did. I felt sorry for her - any girl who makes sordid life choices at 15 and doesn't think so, didn't have a proper home or guidance. At some point in, I began to see The Bell Jar's Esther Greenwood and Audrey Tautou's Angelique from He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not in Susanna. You could see her erroneous reasoning, her descent into the madness of love and life, her attempts to obsessively protect everything that she considers hers, her jealous-woman reactions to her father/lover's conversations with his wife, her easy willingness to give up on her life even before it has begun. You could see that although just 15/16, she was behaving mostly as someone much older than that, and yet still trapped within the vulnerability of a 15/16-year old mind.
In the end, I thought this book was wonderfully written. Mostly, it's a character-driven novel - a very powerful one - as the author builds the background of the characters and establishes the relationships between them. Occasionally, I felt the writing slip up - as if the author was trying too hard but instead falling flat. The second half of the book felt more intriguing to me, because we learn of the consequences of Susanna's actions - on others and on herself. Here was a chance for a girl to get over the affair, but... I'm not going to spoil it for you. I would strongly recommend this read, which at 186 pages, packs a lot of emotion, intrigue and a wonderful story arc.
I receive this book for free for review from the publicist, Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.