BY NICO VREELAND
[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]
Minotaur Books, 2009
A Bad Day for Sorry is, at its core, a revenge fantasy about a woman who tracks down and punishes wife-beaters. It’s a righteous premise, and it’s entertaining in the way that wish fulfillment usually is.
Our heroine is Stella, the middle-aged owner of a sewing supply store. In her spare time, Stella helps battered women get peace and respite from the abusive men in their lives. She ties bad men up with bondage equipment, and does whatever needs doing in order to convince them to leave their women and never come back.
In Sorry, Stella hunts down one particular scumbag on behalf of a woman she barely knows. It’s a quick-reading and fairly entertaining story, but Stella’s detachment from the case at hand makes for a relatively tension-free narrative. She doesn’t really care all that much, and so it’s hard to care about her.
The woman at the center of the case is Chrissy Shaw, a friend of a friend of a friend of Stella’s. Chrissy’s husband, Roy Dean, kidnaps their infant son and takes off. There’s a bit of a mystery included as Stella follows a winding path to find Roy Dean, but the question at hand is never whether or not she’ll find him, only what she’ll do to him when she catches up.
The characters are not very complex. All the bad men, like Roy Dean, are wife-beaters and mafia henchmen and cold-blooded murderers. All the good men are noble and perfect and good-looking. Again, it’s wish fulfillment, and it makes sense to have clearly drawn teams. Littlefield’s prose is entertaining, if not dazzling, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do (though nothing was striking enough to quote for this review). There are some amusing moments, and some touching ones. But the plot is not very good, and, more importantly, there’s the problem of Stella’s motivation.
In the most compelling revenge stories I can think of (The Count of Monte Cristo and the movies Taken, Payback, and Oldboy come to mind), the formula is simple: an unjust act is committed against the hero, he is wronged so gut-wrenchingly that he does nothing but obsessively pursue revenge against the person who wronged him. That maniacal urge for revenge consumes him so completely that nothing else matters, and nothing will stop him, short of death. Depending on how deep the narrative gets, there might be questions of selfishness, sacrifice, guilt and innocence, and so forth. But the heart of the drama is always that burning need to right a personal wrong.
In Sorry, the wrong Stella tries to right is just not personal enough for her to be consumed by her quest. She got into the revenge-against-abusive-men business because of her own abusive husband Ollie, but she killed Ollie before the novel begins. After that, she’s never in any danger that she doesn’t seek out, and she could walk away at any time without any personal consequences. She doesn’t even like Chrissy in the beginning; the only thing tying them together is Stella’s vow to help any woman in need.
Now, I understand that those revenge movies I named all feature male heroes, and I certainly think there are and should be differences between the way men and women go about a thing like revenge. But the way Stella handles her business leaves a lot of tension on the table. She’s often bored by the case, and she can always take a moment away from it to fix her make-up or flirt with the sheriff. The bottom line is that Stella’s vague sense of noble purpose doesn’t translate to page-turning drama the way an all-consuming personal vendetta does.
Chrissy, on the other hand, blossoms somewhat and becomes the novel’s best character (that’s even her on the cover pictured above). In the face of a threat to her child, she turns from a ditzy trailer-park wife into an ass-kicking juggernaut. Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough of Chrissy in the story, and small doses of her passion can’t overcome Stella’s indifference.
Basically, Sorry is an OK book. It’s worth a read if you’re not expecting the nail-biting tension of a good mystery or thriller. If you’re looking for a light, sweet story and a touch of wife-beater revenge fantasy, you could do worse.