A Point To Ponder: How Much Should One’s Personal Bias Affect A Review?
***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS***
Or should it?
I just recently finished reading a book that has given me pause and really made me reflect upon how much my personal bias against the subject matter is affecting my ability to be impartial to it, to look at the merits of the writing, the strength of the premise, and the development of the characters rather than how much I disagree with the way the author, Lichen Craig, chose to resolve the conflict in her book Gentlemen’s Game, the story of a man who commits an unforgivable atrocity, never has to answer in any way for it, then, in the end, gets everything he ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter.
Okay, to be fair, that’s not the entirety of the story, but here’s the issue; that’s what it all boils down to for me. Why? Because the author devised a conflict so impossible for me to overcome that it completely obliterated any good that had happened before and negatively influenced my opinion of everything that happened after. So, how much should my personal feelings weigh against my objectively reviewing this novel? Of that I’m not certain.
This particular book deals with some controversial subjects: infidelity (what is and isn’t considered breaking one’s marriage vows), what does and doesn’t define being gay, group sex, as well as a brutal scene of rape and torture, which, I might add, is NOT mentioned in the book’s blurb on Goodreads, which is the blurb I read. The proper warnings are noted on Smashwords, however. As you can well imagine, the author did not set out to make this book a light read, and she succeeded spectacularly in that regard.
The plot of this novel revolves around a trio of affluent men–all married, all successful–who, on occasion, get together to play cards, break bread, and have sex with one another. None of the three men see this as infidelity because, hey, it’s just sex; nor do they consider themselves to be gay. They don’t even consider themselves to be Bi because none of the three of them find other men (men outside of their group) sexually attractive. This secret relationship they share is simply a “Game” between friends, nothing more.
This scenario is introduced when one of the men, Scottie, befriends a young playwright he’s helping to find a haven to which he can escape from the madness of New York City, a place where he can write and enjoy the peace and tranquility of the countryside. Greyson is not gay either. Though he was at one time engaged to be married, the relationship ended before the wedding and he’s remained single ever since, but Greyson, like the other men, is attracted to women. Scottie invites Greyson to join him, along with friends Colin and Jack, for their next Game day–the details of which Scottie fully discloses to Greyson, so at least he doesn’t go into the situation uninformed. Nor does Greyson go into the situation uninitiated, as he and Scottie have sex before Greyson is introduced to the group.
Scottie, Colin, and Jack have a bit of an understanding, that being they never pair off to have sex and exclude the other members of the group, but that unspoken rule was bent when Scottie had sex with Greyson and shattered entirely when Jack and Greyson meet and their attraction to each other ignites a spark that becomes so much more. The two men begin a love affair that both excludes and includes the group, though Colin and Scottie don’t come to understand the depth of feelings Jack and Greyson share until much later.
Jack is the only one of the original three members of the group who is unhappily married. His wife is a faithless shrew who has cheated on him time and time again over the course of their sixteen year marriage, but the final and unforgivable transgression comes when their teenage son walks in on his mother and her current lover, in flagrante delicto. Jack and Greyson, by then, have more than consummated their relationship, have, in fact, moved on to planning a future together. When Jack sues for divorce and full custody of his sons, Jack’s wife comes out, claws and fangs bared, and exposes Jack and Greyson’s affair, playing the ultimate sympathetic victim in the media–the high society wife whose husband has left her for another man. Not only that, but she also publicly accuses Greyson of pedophilia, an entirely unfounded accusation, which made me wonder why Greyson didn’t sue her for Defamation of Character, but that’s neither here nor there. I guess. Just another niggle for me to add to the list.
As the stress of the public mudslinging and the very real possibility Jack may lose any chance of gaining custody of his sons begins to weigh heavily on Jack and Greyson’s relationship, the final straw is placed upon the heap when the four men get together for their usual day of indulgence, and Jack’s demons finally catch up to him. Drunk and warring with the jealousy and sense of betrayal that have accumulated over years of playing the cuckold, Jack watches Colin and Greyson having sex, an event that, coupled with the drink, finally breaks his fragile hold on his emotions and self control.
Before I go on, let me just say this: Yes, I disagreed with the author’s justification of what does and does not constitute infidelity. I also think the author pushed the “I’m not gay” envelope into the realms of “methinks he doth protest too much,” but really, these two things paled in comparison with what happens between Jack and Greyson when they return home from their night with Colin and Scottie.
Jack violates Greyson, violates him emotionally and physically, brutalizes his body, rapes and tortures him; in short, Jack robs Greyson of his very humanity, strips him bare of everything he could once count on in himself–his ability to trust, his decision making abilities, his ability to write, his safety and security, his peace of mind. Everything. This scene was not written as an incidental event. No, this scene was written in great detail–the lacerations, the bruises, the tearing and bleeding of Greyson’s anus, the fact that Greyson loses control of his bladder, the residual nerve damage to Greyson’s wrists when Jack, in his drunken stupor, leaves Greyson tied up for hours–no detail was spared in just how broken and bloodied Greyson was. The author gives the reader a very clear picture of how much Greyson suffered that night and in the subsequent days, months, and years of his recovery.
And here’s where the issue lies for me and my ability to review this book objectively. I have never been the victim of any sort of crime, let alone a violent crime against my person. I’ve never had to relive a nightmare over and over again in my mind, nor have I ever suffered at the hands of someone I love. I have never been debased and humiliated, violated and tortured, and I hope to God never to be. But my sense of empathy and my ability to imagine what enduring something like that would entail is strong enough that I cannot, not even in my wildest imaginings, believe that a victim would return to his abuser, regardless of how much the aggressor repents, how much his friends vouch for his character, how much he begs for forgiveness and promises it will never happen again. That’s something I simply couldn’t buy into. Does someone who has been victimized, has recovered, and has succeeded in moving on really buy into a book in which the victim returns to his abuser and they sail off happily into the sunset? I can’t say, but I think fair warning should be given to its potential readers.
So, the only defense for Jack’s egregious crime is that he was drunk. He doesn’t remember what he did, so while he can feel remorse after the fact, it seems as though he’s getting only a sideways view of his crime. It’s like murdering someone in your sleep–sure, you know you did it, but do you feel the same way about it as you would if you were in the moment, present and aware of your actions? If I get blind drunk and get behind the wheel of a car, then maim or kill someone, am I partially absolved from responsibility for my actions because I was drunk? Absolutely not. Should I be expected to answer and pay for those crimes to the fullest extent of the law? Of course. But Jack has an out here. He was given a pass because, well, he had no idea what he was doing, and that was horribly unsatisfying for me. He should’ve been held accountable for his actions and punished accordingly. But maybe that says more about me and my need for justice. I don’t know.
At what point does forgiveness become excusing the abuser for his behavior? At what point does pardoning the abuser’s sin give him a pass on his culpability for his actions? At what point does the victim sacrifice more than a little bit of my sympathy for what he’s suffered? I’ll tell you when: at the point that he returns to the man who nearly destroyed him. And that’s the point where it feels as though the author is re-victimizing the victim; at the point where the author stripped me of my ability to respect Greyson and his choice to return to the man who raped him and robbed him of his free will.
And this is why I’m having such a difficult time deciding on how well this book worked for me. Looking at it from a writing standpoint, the author does a respectable job of telling her story. It’s not flawless but it’s self-published, so I can forgive some of the editing issues. I was along for the ride, in spite of some minor misgivings, up to the point of the crime. From there on, things were hit and miss for me, mostly miss.
I didn’t need every single action and reaction in this book to be justified for me, but I did need for the author to do a better job of helping me believe and buy into the choices that were made, something that may have been a truly impossible task, given the subject matter.
For burrowing into my psyche and really making me think, this book gets high marks. For drawing me into the story and the lives of these characters, the book did just fine. For making me believe that there was a happily ever after that could be carved from the detritus of rape and torture–that, simply put, was a fail for me.