Tuesday, September 5, 2023

BOOKS! (Adèle + Sweet Vengeance)

Here I am! Back for a new book review, and a spicy one at that. To be honest, I'm slightly nervous about this one. A very small part of my nervousness is due to the explicit nature of today's selections. (I thought my review of Harbor was pushing it in terms of exposing my appreciation for raunchiness, but, well... the raunch keeps finding me.) And a very large part of my nervousness is due to finding out this summer that I wasn't selected for either of the arts writing fellowships I worked hard on applying for in the spring. (One of which I thought I'd be a shoe-in for since it's for rising book critics, and I've been writing about books for 10 years now.) It was a real and unexpected blow to my confidence; I took the rejection emails in stride at first, but they somehow weighed on me more as time passed. As a glutton for external validation who's terrible at not making every single rejection and failure my middle name, suffice it to say that I was not chomping at the bit to put out a new review because... Who wants or needs it, anyway? Apparently nobody. Right?
And yet. I can't neglect the fact that, for me, writing reviews on this blog is part of the payoff of reading. If I finish a book and write a review about it, then I feel doubly accomplished. And I feel more secure (and sometimes even invigorated) to move on to the next one, because I know I've given each work its due. So here I am, still showing up. Good enough or not, fellowship-worthy or not, sure, whatever. Y'all are still gon' get these reviews! First up today is a French novel about a 30-something Parisian journalist, wife, mom, and sex addict who blows her life up having countless affairs because cheating makes her life feel meaningful. And then, a romance novel about a Nigerian woman in her late 20s, the demon she summons to help kill her rapist, and the intimacy they develop while exacting her revenge. Buckle up!
Adèle by Leila Slimani
(translated from French by Sam Taylor)
I found a used copy of this novel at the same store where I found a used copy of Will to Love. I bought it because I enjoyed reading The Perfect Nanny (Slimani's other super famous novel) and had heard Adèle was similarly tortured and contemplative... but with lots of trysts. 
The French title, Dans le jardin de l'ogre (In the Ogre's Garden) is a brilliant allusion to Adèle's character, because she's a serial cheater who feigns innocence and normalcy but secretly enjoys feeling ravaged by men. Getting fisted in an alley by a dumpster, ravaged. Hiring two male sex workers to come to her apartment to have a violent coke-filled threesome with her, ravaged. And those are only two of her brief yet vivid dalliances. 
She's independent enough to have her own career as a journalist (all the more press trips and foreign places to boink random people), but her livelihood and social status in Paris still derive from her husband Richard, a doctor from a well-off Normandy family. So while on one hand Adèle is an average white wife and mother (half-Algerian mais peu importe!), who relishes not having to make it in the real world on her own, on the other hand she resents how ordinary she is, and tries to play against type with delusions of grandeur and rough sex with men whom she mostly doesn't bother remembering. And though Adèle does feel some guilt for forsaking all else when her sexual cravings hit, and she exhausts herself covering her tracks so as not to jeopardize her cushy Parisian life, she simply will not and cannot stop cheating because she's addicted to sex. She tries to quit or pause her activities, and yet always finds herself back on the prowl. (Until she gets outed for having an affair with one of Richard's richer colleagues, of course, and Richard moves their family of three to the countryside where he places her under his own version of house arrest and she becomes a shell of herself.) For Adèle, illicit sex is about more than just the thrill of assuaging her horniness without attachments, or getting away with the forbidden, or trying to feel or seem interesting. Hers is an example of how, for some people, the erotic gives life meaning and makes equilibrium possible. In the countryside, six months of being on housewife house arrest inevitably wears on her, and her father's funeral might be just the opportunity she needs to escape for good.

As a person, Adèle fascinates me to no end because she embodies the sentiment of, "But I'm not like the rest of them." She's consistently inconsistent. She sleeps around, a ton, but resents the possibility of being regarded as easy or a slut by her co-workers (who are also married yet sleeping around like she is). She yearns for a glamorous, idle life, but when she and Richard get invited to a dinner party at his richer colleague's mansion, she's disgusted by the vapidness of the colleague's wife and the other wives she's seated with, even though they are part of the echelon she supposedly aspires to join. She often hooks up with strange men at night, but is also sometimes perplexingly anxious and terrified of walking through Paris alone and being approached, by strange men, at night. And while the concept of women (especially women of certain means) staying with husbands they don't love for the status and financial security they provide is not new to me, Adèle has made me realize how much deeper it goes than that. Because for her, security and stability also enable her to be out of touch with reality. Even as scandalous as her doings and fantasies are, she still expects to be shielded from the harshest realities and most boring minutiae of daily life, and being married to Richard affords her that. And I guess it just hit me in a new way that maybe it's not so much that certain wealthy and/or white women are unaware of how out of touch they are. Maybe being out of touch with reality is exactly what they prefer. Maybe it's what they seek from marriage in the first place.
I'm not sure if Slimani meant to make a big deal out of it, but I was stunned to read the latter passages written from Richard's point of view and have it truly sink in that his and Adèle's marriage has always been doomed because they have always been sexually incompatible. Sure, Richard married Adèle because he wanted to take care of her and had the financial means to do so, and Adèle (who grew up poorer than him) has always wanted a life where she felt taken care of. However, Adèle has also felt drawn to the erotic, lewd, and lascivious from a young age, whereas Richard has been disinterested in sex his entire life aside from achieving his dream of fathering a son. (Slimani doesn't label him as asexual, but given his opinions on how unimportant sex is and how crude discussions of sex are, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him that.) I'm not arguing that Adèle is right to cheat, although I don't believe she deserves to be snatched away from her city life, surveilled like a criminal, and given the stingy allowance and limited privileges that Richard gives her. But even if Adèle had not cheated, their relationship would likely still have fallen apart because sex is of inestimable importance to her, Richard has never been capable of meeting her sexual needs, and she has a habit of getting destructively bored with normalcy despite craving the protection it provides. Which makes Richard's methods of curing (read: punishing and taming) her even more heinous, because he's desperately trying to force a relationship to continue in the same shape it started in, or in the same shape he has in his mind, and that's simply not going to happen. In short, it's not just Adèle. Both of these people are severely out of touch! 

It's been a while since I read The Perfect Nanny, but if my memory serves me correctly there are some noteworthy commonalities between it and Adèle, which was published in 2014 two years before The Perfect Nanny. In both, the main couple is a pair of 30-something Parisian professionals who aren't RICH rich but have done well for themselves. In both, the husband is white, the wife is of North African descent, and the wife is anywhere from apathetic to ashamed about her heritage. In both, the couple has a very young son (the couple in The Perfect Nanny actually has two young children). In both, the wife is educated, has her own career, and rejects any expectations of being a stay-at-home wife and mother. And in both, the husband and wife kind of hate each other even though they won't admit it. But that last point might be me projecting too much of Adèle's relationship onto the couple from The Perfect Nanny.
If you're interested in French literature, portrayals of sex addiction, self-absorbed women, women (particularly wives and mothers) who cheat, eroticism, funneled rage, love as obsession and possession, barely-concealed marital misery, and characters with both mommy and daddy issues (Adèle's mom has always hated and competed with her, while her dad was affectionate but basically a stranger), then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:
"Adèle felt for the first time that mix of fear and longing, disgust and arousal. That dirty desire to know what was happening behind the doors of those seedy hotels, in the dim depths of those back alleys, in the seats of the Atlas Cinema, in the back rooms of sex shops whose pink and blue signs pierced the twilight. Never since that eveningnot in the arms of men, nor during the walks she took years later on the same boulevardhas she ever rediscovered that magical feeling of actually touching the vile and the obscene, the heart of bourgeois perversion and human wretchedness" (61-62).
"Then she decides that it's not worth living while fighting against such a desperate desire, such an absolute need. That she would have to be insane or utterly stupid to inflict this deprivation on herself, to watch herself suffering and hope that it lasts as long as possible" (92).

"In the depths of her amnesia there exists the reassuring sensation of having existed a thousand times through the desires of others. And when, years later, she happens to bump into a man who tells her in a deep and slightly shaky voice: 'It took me quite a while to get over you,' she draws an immense satisfaction from this. As if all of it has not been in vain. As if, in spite of her best intentions, some sort of meaning is somehow mixed up in this eternal repetition... She wanted them to burn for her, wanted them to love her to the point of losing everything, even though she has never lost anything" (121-122).
"A wave of calm surges through her. She has the feeling that she is cut off from the world, that she is experiencing a moment of grace. She rediscovers the pleasure she used to feel as a teenager, when she would dance for hours, sometimes alone on the dance floor. Innocent and beautiful. She never felt any embarrassment then. Never worried about the danger. She gave herself over completely to what she was doing, on the cusp of a future that she imagined glorious, higher, greater, more exhilarating" (209-210).

Sweet Vengeance by Viano Oniomoh
Okay, so... I've been aware of "monsterf*cking" as a romance subgenre for a while, but I've always steered clear from it because it seemed weird and disgusting. And as someone who was raised in a Black Christian household, I just don't play with demons like that! But my reading of Sweet Vengeance was actually inspired by two recent influences that I now profoundly appreciate: a monster erotica anthology podcast called Monstica, and the "Demon 79" episode of 'Black Mirror' season 6, which just released in June. I gave Monstica a try last year while searching for erotic and/or queer audio dramas, and was surprised by how exquisitely well-written and produced it was. (Episodes 3 and 8 are my favorites.) Cut to June of this year, when I was BLOWN AWAY by "Demon 79", in which a British South Asian woman named Nida is required by a demon named Gaap to kill three people within three days in order to save the world. I searched Twitter to see if anyone else was obsessed with it too, and I happened to spot romance author Tati Richardson recommending Sweet Vengeance by Viano Oniomoh as having the "same vibes" as the episode. I've mentioned before how enthralling sci-fi morality tales like 'Black Mirror' are to me, and in an effort to make the magic of "Demon 79" last longer, and keeping in mind how much more I enjoyed Monstica than expected, and being swayed by how lush and gorgeous this book's cover is... I ordered Sweet Vengeance straight away.
When I think of our protagonist, a plus size bisexual graphic designer in Nigeria named Joy, I recall one of the Jade and X.D. podcast's old catchphrases: "Say No to Co-Workers!" It was a half-joking warning against socializing too much with co-workers and letting them know too much of your business. That catchphrase resonated with me as a "show up, do my work, go home" type of person who was vigilant about compartmentalizing work as separate from the real me and my real life. But now having read Sweet Vengeance, I can't think of anyone who has more of a right to take swearing off co-workers as gospel than Joy. After two years of grief and grinding due to the death of her parents in a plane crash and being screwed out of any available inheritance or keepsakes (except for her father's dagger), Joy was finally ready to have a social life again. So she went to hang out at a bar with her co-workers from her grocery store day job... only to be drugged, taken back to her apartment, and raped there by one of them. (The unnamed co-worker isn't the one who spiked Joy's drink at the bar, but he was still aware of what was happening to her and took advantage of her condition.) Being raped sent Joy into a lengthy depressive episode and frightened her into uprooting her whole life for safety's sake; she moved to an apartment in a different part of town that was tiny enough for her to see all of her surroundings at once, she changed jobs to work at a different grocery store, she deleted her social media, and she nearly eliminated all interactions with people. Anything to avoid crossing paths with her rapist and taking a chance on anyone, since she was more doubtful about who to trust than ever.

Now, Joy has emerged from her depressive episode raring for revenge. She's sick of bearing the weight of having been raped while her rapist lives free and unbothered, so she's decided one of them's gotta die, and it ain't gonna be her. After consulting her wealthy witchy Aunty Paloma, Joy plans to stab the rapist with her father's dagger and summons a demon in advance to make the rapist's death look like an accident. The demon who appears in her apartment is a 200-something-year-old (30 in human years), touch-starved, deep purple demon named Malachi. He's been living discretely in the mortal realm ever since escaping hell, where he was imprisoned from birth and used to reap human souls and emotions for his captors to feed on. Joy is prepared to offer herself sexually to Malachi as a sacrifice that would make him amenable to striking a deal with her, but Malachi declines at first, opting to drink a bit of blood from her finger instead. But over the next few days, as Malachi alternates between spending time with Joy in her apartment and using his powers to help her terrorize her rapist (in the rapist's waking and non-waking hours), these two death and cartoon-obsessed loners fall in (blood)lust, in like, and ultimately, in love. And Joy not only reclaims her power as an avenger of rape survivors, but also discovers unprecedented power in her plus size body and sexual prowess, as Malachi enthusiastically defers to her in the bedroom.

So about Joy becoming a dom. I love how BDSM is part of the natural progression of her and Malachi's already unconventional relationship. It's not something they ever outrightly negotiate, but rather a result of Malachi automatically prioritizing Joy's comfort, even before knowing that she's a rape survivor. And it just so happens that he prioritizes her comfort by making gentle requests, and by waiting for her to give him permission to act and instructions for exactly how she wants it. Hence, Joy becomes the dom and he becomes the sub. And it's genuine! Malachi's gentleness and willingness to follow directions aren't mere courtesy or patronization; he genuinely enjoys accommodating her and feeling owned/claimed/dominated by her when they're being physically intimate. Meanwhile, Joy never feels pressured to perform or do anything with him that she doesn't want to do. So it works out for them both.
I also love that Joy never changes her mind about murdering the man who raped her. There's no sense of anticipatory guilt about potentially stooping to her rapist's level by doing something evil to him like he did to her. And forgiveness is not even an option worth considering. Naw. Joy decides that that man needs to die, she recruits a demon to help her stalk him so that he will fear her properly, and then she she stabs him multiple times in his own bed, making sure her face is the last thing he sees as he dies. Not only that, but besides not feeling any remorse afterward, Joy goes a step further by later killing her best friend Iyore's pedophile rapist uncle in a similar way (with Malachi's assistance of course), so that Iyore no longer has to delay her wedding for fear of the uncle showing up. Joy is a self-described "proud murderer of rapists," and although I won't say I condone murder, I respect how committed she is to her vengeance even while still being traumatized.
As for whether the "Demon 79" comparison holds up, it actually does! I was skeptical, but then pleased to make my way through Sweet Vengeance and clock so many similarities. In both, the protagonist is a young woman of color who works a service job and is targeted by a co-worker (Joy is a supermarket cashier, whereas Nida sells shoes in a department store). In both, the protagonist summons a demon into her apartment by making a blood pact with it (except Nida does so accidentally). In both, the demon appears to the woman in a form she finds attractive, and he can only be seen and heard by her. In both, the demon can communicate with the woman non-verbally (Malachi can smell human emotions and sense Joy's intentions through the invisible bond formed by their contract; Gaap shows Nida visions of the peril that awaits if she doesn't kill enough people in time). In both, the demon is low-ranking and must abide by rules set by other demons who are much older and more powerful than him. In both, the woman and the demon live incredibly lonely lives, find companionship in each other, and choose to face oblivion together (except Nida and Gaap's union reads as more platonic than Joy and Malachi's). And of course, in both Sweet Vengeance and "Demon 79", the female protagonist is motivated to commit murder, with the major difference being how she's motivated. Whereas Nida's goal is thrust upon her and forces her to question her understanding of morality and humanity, Joy's goal is self-assigned, she doesn't believe killing her rapist detracts from her humanity, and while she does have a strong sense of justice, she's not preoccupied with being perceived by others as good.
While Sweet Vengeance hasn't made me eager to read more monster romances, it has enabled me to understand more of the subgenre's appeal with less judgment, and it has definitely made me a new fan of Viano Oniomoh. (She's got a new romance novel out called Just for the Cameras that's giving me Harbor flashbacks from the premise alone, so best believe I'll be snapping that one up too.) Sweet Vengeance is the most audacious and imaginative book I've read in a while, it's my favorite read of 2023 so far, it balances the silly with the morbid and the delectable with the dire while still making every page count, and Oniomoh not only wrote and self-published this novel but also illustrated the cover herself! That's undeniable talent right there! If you're interested in "paranormal erotic romance" (as Oniomoh categorizes it on her website), romance novels set in Nigeria, survivors getting revenge against their rapists, recovery from grief and depression, cartoons (especially 'The Amazing World of Gumball'), or stories about Black plus size women getting all the love and tenderness they deserve, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"He let out another airy chuckle. Joy's lips twitched for a moment. And like clockwork, there was the sweet, bright scent. Was this the scent of her pleasure? Her happiness?
    Fuck, Malachi had been wrong. If her bloodthirst tasted divine, then it was nothing on her happiness. He wanted to cause her to form that scent againand again and again and again, just because" (38).
"'Sweet, murderous Joy,' Malachi husked, his wings flaring, wanting to wrap around them both, like he could shelter them from the world. 'You are exquisite.'" (45).

"And so what? He suddenly thought, almost viciously. So what if Joy was using him? So what if he couldn't have her after this? So what if he never saw her again? Was he going to pretend he didn't want her now, just because their contract would soon come to an end?" (72).

"Malachi was hit suddenly by the force of her beauty. The glow of the moonlight, along with the slowly morphing colours of the flowers around them turned her into a living, breathing painting. She looked like something ethereallike a Sovereignlike if he reached out to try and touch her, she'd disappear, burst into a shower of sparks" (130).

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