Monday, April 26, 2010

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (Warning: Long)

Over at Smart Bitches a few months back, Sarah wrote about re-reading Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten and how much she loved it. It started a lively and, as always, intelligent and thought-provoking discussion. Some people loved Bitten, others threw it against the wall. People in the second group tend to hate the book because of either the heroine, or the hero, or both.

That’s what – or whom – I’ve been thinking about. Bitten isn’t a complex story, but it features two complex characters, and I think Armstrong was very brave in writing such characters her first time out. It’s easy to write characters that all readers will love, but such characters run the risk of being boring. Armstrong didn’t do that with her first novel. She took a lot of chances, challenging the reader to try to understand a hero who sometimes comes across as reflexively brutal and a heroine whose behavior ranges from baffling to really fucking annoying.

A lot of readers don’t like Elena because she’s an emotional pinball, going from passive, to passive aggressive, to petulant, to ass-kicking aggressive, back to passive – and then doing it all over, again and again. I find her exasperating, but I think her flaws make her an exceptionally believable character (aside from the turning into a wolf thing).

Ten years ago, Elena was bitten by her then-fiancĂ©, Clay. She didn’t know Clay was a werewolf; she didn’t know werewolves existed. Clay, a brilliant guy with a U-Haul’s worth of emotional baggage and very poor impulse control, loved Elena so much he wanted to turn her into a werewolf so they could stay together – even though no woman had ever survived a werewolf bite and even though he didn’t give Elena any choice in the matter. He’s sworn ever since he didn’t mean to do it and, given his self-control issues, that might be true.

Elena, defying all odds, survived. Now she’s the world’s only female werewolf, and she’s never fully accepted it.

The orphaned Elena grew up in a series of foster homes. All she ever wanted was to get married and have a family of her own. When he bit her, Clay destroyed her dreams of a normal, human family life. But even if marriage and kids is now out of the question, Elena still longs to settle down (somehow – she never quite explains how she thinks it will work) with Philip, her sweet, patient, oblivious human boyfriend. Even as she returns to the Pack’s home base to help deal with a crisis, starts sleeping with Clay again, and goes days without phoning home, Elena insists her future is in Toronto with Philip.

But in Toronto, Elena is perpetually hungry and claustrophobic. She’s starving with Philip, both physically and emotionally. She can’t ever eat enough to satisfy her werewolf’s metabolism, because she can’t let Philip know she’s not normal, and she never has enough room or enough time to give her werewolf side the freedom she needs. She has to sneak out in the dead of night to Change and run, trying not to disturb Philip and lying to him when she does. Still, she insists, this is the life she wants.


She’s lying. She’s lying to herself, so she’s lying to us. Once we realize Elena’s an unreliable narrator, her annoying behavior (if she loves Philip, why’s she jumping Clay’s bones? if she’s still so pissed off at Clay, why doesn’t she do something like, you know, yell at him a little? how bad does she miss Philip if she never bothers to call?) makes sense. Elena may love Philip, but she’s in love with Clay. She wants to want a normal human life with Philip, but what she really wants is to stay in Bear Valley with Clay and the Pack, the family she never dreamed of.

She can’t let herself want that, though, because she hasn’t forgiven Clay for destroying her chance at a normal life. If she lets herself have what she really wants, then Clay gets what he wants – i.e., her. Which means he’ll be rewarded for his unforgiveable act of betrayal. In short, making herself happy means making Clay happy, and she doesn’t want to do that. Nose, face, spite. Given what she’s been through, I don’t really blame her.

Then there’s Clay. Oh, Clay. I love me some damaged alphas, and Clay is very damaged and very alpha.

Like Elena, Clay is a bitten – as opposed to born – werewolf, and he’s even more of a mess than she is. If he were human, we’d call him a sociopath.

It took me a while to figure out, but I finally realized who Clay reminds me of – Carol O’Connell’s New York City detective, Kathy Mallory. Like Clay, Mallory is brilliant and like Clay, she suffered childhood trauma of a type and severity that can’t ever be truly healed. While they can function – they feel, and love, and (mostly) refrain from preying on people weaker than they are, which is everyone – they’re not ever going to be anything close to normal. Expecting a Clayton Danvers or a Kathy Mallory to understand the normal rules of human behavior and human morality, much less adhere to them, is simply unrealistic.

Clay (like Mallory) has to use someone else as a moral compass because he never had a chance to develop one of his own. His moral compass is Jeremy, his Alpha and adopted father. Clay doesn’t think in terms of good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong. He thinks in terms of what Jeremy would approve or disapprove of. While he knows that what he did to Elena was wrong, it’s pretty obvious he only knows it’s wrong because Jeremy said so and because it made Elena leave him. He doesn’t truly understand what a violation it was. He still thinks of Elena as his wife, and he always will.

For people who don’t like Bitten – or who absolutely loathe it – the wall-throwing moment comes when Clay chases Elena through the woods, ties her up and rips her clothes off. She demands he release her, and he replies, “Since you can’t fight me, you can’t be expected to stop me. It’s out of your control.”

Now, that’s all kinds of fucked up. But Clay’s the survivor of a childhood werewolf attack who spent his formative years living alone in a swamp, subsisting on small animals and other children. He thinks he’s being chivalrous. Clay’s not evil. He’s not even malicious – he’s broken.

I understand why some readers don’t read past this scene, why some – especially those who’ve experienced actual sexual assault – find it offensive and infuriating. This type of sex scene was quite normal thirty and forty years ago, in what the Smart Bitches call Old Skool romances, but nowadays I think a lot of editors would tell an author they have to take it out.

Then it gets worse.

Clay proceeds to…what? He thinks he’s making love to Elena, but we can’t call it that because she’s freaking tied up. Still, it’s not rape, and we can’t be sure exactly how nonconsensual it really is.

“I won’t force you, Elena. You like to pretend I would, but you know I won’t. All you have to do is tell me no. Tell me to stop. Tell me to untie you. I will.” And then he repeats it, just for good measure: "Tell me to stop. . .Just tell me.”

Elena doesn’t say a word. She refuses to let herself come – that’ll show him, Elena! – but she doesn’t tell him to stop. This isn’t rape. I’m not even sure it falls under “forced seduction.” Despite her physical powerlessness, Elena could stop Clay at any moment, and she doesn’t.

No matter what she says, or thinks, Elena’s ambivalent about this episode even as it’s happening. The reader is left with the impression that at least part of her welcomes the loss of control Clay offered, just as he thought she would. That’s a risky way for an author to write a scene nowadays, and I think Armstrong had a lot of guts to do it.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m near the end. Elena still hasn’t admitted that it’s Bear Valley she belongs in and Clay she belongs with. I know they end up together, both because it’s a romance novel and because I’ve read about the later books in the series. But even though I know they’re gonna get their HEA – or, since this is Clay and Elena we’re talking about, their Happily For The Most Part – I’m still enjoying reading two characters who aren’t entirely likeable right at first.

And I’m wondering if I have the nerve to write characters like that.

1 comment:

PG Forte said...

LMAO! This was fucking brilliant. If I wasn't afraid it would stop you from writing more important things--like your own books--I'd be on my knees right now begging you to write more reviews.

Okay, this probably contained a few too many spoilers for an actual review, but damn, woman, why don't you have your own review site???