BY NICO VREELAND
[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
I’ve seen almost nothing but adoring reviews for The Girl Used to Be. Do not be fooled by them.
Girl is a novel about the Witness Protection Program, and a girl named Melody who feels very sorry for herself because she’s in it. She feels so sorry for herself and so bored that she runs off with the son of the mafia don who had her parents killed. Charitably, that’s a difficult premise to pull off. Uncharitably, Girl is the worst book I’ve read in a long time.
I don’t think anybody should read this book, and all the glowing reviews out there are cause for concern. If you’re thinking of reading Girl, first allow me to lay out exactly why this “eloquent, haunting,” “humorous, poignant, and compelling” novel is actually none of those things.
In fact, it’s not really a mystery or a thriller, either—I’m only filing this review under “Mystery” because Girl‘s up for an Edgar Award. No, friends, this is a romance. And it’s a romance of the very worst kind.
To start with, we’ve got Melody. It seems like Cristofano wanted to portray her as a smart, traumatized juvenile (though she’s 26). He wants her to be defensive and rebellious and independent, but simultaneously dying to be noticed and loved for how smart and awesome she is. The problem is that Melody is neither smart nor awesome, she’s petulant, superficial, incompetent, weak-willed, and desperately dependent on men.
She’s always thinking about her looks (and hating them), and about whether or not this or that man is interested in her. She has no will or ambition, only a generalized resentment toward the world for her lot in life. She whines and moans constantly, and sometimes literally falls exhausted into a man’s strong arms.
The man often happens to be Jonathan Bovaro, son of Tony Bovaro. Tony is the mafioso whose crime Melody and her family witnessed, and who later had Melody’s parents killed. Knowing that, Melody promptly—and I mean promptly—takes off on a cross-country joyride with Jonathan. He woos her with an expensive, ugly sweater, and they fall in love immediately.
Let me just repeat that, because it’s such a stupid premise. Melody runs off—for no good reason—with the son of the man who killed her parents, and they fall in love after two days on the lam. Jonathan’s idiotic plan is to take Melody to see his father, the man who’s been trying to kill her for twenty years. That’s almost the entire plot of the novel. There is absolutely no mystery (except for why this book is up for an Edgar).
Jonathan, as a character, brings a whole host of problems with him. He’s a very gentle man who introduces himself to her by holding a pen to her throat and letting her think it’s a knife (then he says he won’t hurt her). He’s never killed anybody—only laundered money. He doesn’t want anything to do with his family’s crimes, but he has no problem spending their profits on lavish hotels and spa treatments. He’s nonviolent but threatens anybody who’s not Melody, and sometimes beats the ever-living bejeezus out of them. Basically, Jonathan doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It finally clicked for me after Melody kept getting turned on by Jonathan’s mean attitude toward the rest of the world. Jonathan is supposed to be perfect. Toward Melody, he’s the consummate gentleman: attractive, polite, generous, and gentle most of all. But toward the rest of the world, he’s strong and assertive to the point of assholishness, willing to do whatever it takes for Melody to be safe and comfortable, including being a huge jerk to everybody they come across for absolutely no reason. Melody falls for it, even though he’s the kind of guy any normal person would be embarrassed to go to dinner with.
As for why they’re suddenly in love (and, uh, why they ran off together, risking their lives), Cristofano hamfists half a rationale: they’re from different worlds but they’re oh so similar (except for every aspect of their personalities).
OK. I know I’m being harsh. Even with novels I don’t like, I try to find something about them that the author does well. I try to give credit where credit’s due, even when a book, on the whole, isn’t great. But that’s simply not going to happen this time. The Girl She Used to Be starts with an excruciatingly stupid premise, and manages to fail at every single stage of its execution. The dialogue is atrocious and obvious, the jokes are lame, the plot is boring and ridiculous, and all the scenes are ludicrous.
For instance, here’s an example of the kind of inane time-wasting that fills this book. In this scene, Melody—speaking first—is surprised that Jonathan suddenly pulls out a pack of gum instead of a cigarette.
“Is that Nicorette?”
He noshes it like a dog chewing a bone and he gets this sad look on his face, like he recently buried a close friend. “What can I say? You make me want to be a better man.”
I lose my smile. “Are you serious? You stopped smoking f0r me? But … I never asked.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have to.”
The surrender of an addiction might be the noblest of all gifts.
Ugh. Bear in mind they’ve known each other for two days at this point, and those two days have consisted of driving in a car and staying at a hotel.
Basically, this novel is a wish-fulfillment fantasy for teenage girls: all the men are super hot, and a man who is supposedly perfect thinks Melody is “flawless.” There’s even a five-page spa treatment scene, after which Melody becomes irresistibly attractive to all men (before the treatment, she was so ugly that men at bars dared each other to hit on her as a joke), and it’s all paid for by Jonathan. That’s right, Melody’s perfect man literally buys her beauty with money from the mafia family that killed her parents. But she loves it because she’s pretty now, and isn’t that what all girls want?
I guess that kind of insipid wish fulfillment is why Girl got such great reviews. It’s actually remarkably similar to the Twilight books, or, at least, to The Oatmeal’s analysis of the Twilight books. (Also see NPR’s thorough dismantling of Twilight‘s prose.) Why a middle-aged man with a wife and kids found it necessary to write a less nuanced version of Twilight, I do not know.
If you’re the kind of masochistic reader that likes to laugh at bad writing, Girl is a gold mine. If you’re looking for a well-written book with some hint of suspense (and you’re not a teenage girl), look somewhere else.
OK, I take that back. It’s not a good book for 13-year-old girls either; Melody is a terrible role model for young women.
For more specifics about the terrible writing in The Girl She Used to Be, check out my other post coming out today, What Makes a Bad Book Bad?
Similar reads: Girl is most similar, as I mentioned, to Twilight. For a slightly funnier comic mystery, try The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston. For a very, very funny crime/caper novel, read Lighthouse, by William Monahan (screenwriter of The Departed). It’s not in print anymore, but it’s worth the effort to find.
Edgar impact: I don’t know why this book is up for an Edgar. It certainly shouldn’t win.