Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Not for the Faint at Heart - Tender Morsels

I have been putting off this review for awhile now because I really didn't know where to start. I really wanted to like this book. Hell, I wanted to love it. And that just wasn't the case. I picked up Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (448 pgs, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008) for a number of reasons: As a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, it fit well with the Once Upon a Time Challenge. It is on the list of Printz honor books (and I have challenged myself to read them all). And most importantly, it is Nymeth's favorite book!! (Fortunately, she has chosen to forgive me for not liking it!)

There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

From the very first paragraph, you can tell this isn't going to be a Disney's re-telling of ANY fairy tale. Fourteen-year-old Liga lives in the woods with her father. Her mother is dead, she is scared to death of her father. Her father not only sexually abuses her, but has caused her to miscarry a couple of babies when she inadvertently gotten pregnant. Liga herself is so naive, she didn't even realize she was pregnant. But when it happens the third time, she tries to hide the fact from her father so she can have the baby.

When her father is killed by a passing carriage, Liga gets to keep the child she is carrying and her daughter Branza is born. If dealing with her father's abuse all those years wasn't bad enough, next she is attacked by five of the town's boys and gang-raped, causing yet another pregnancy. Liga then decides she has had enough pain from this world and tries to end her life and Branza's. But an intervening "spirit" won't allow it. She is given a chance at a better life in another "world". Similar to the one she knows, it is a place of her Heart's Desire. A plain vanilla world, where bad things don't happen and the bad people just don't exist. It is here that her second daughter Urdda is born.

But this Heaven can't last forever, and while Branza is content to live quiet and peacefully with just animals as friends, Urdda is more adventuresome. A few people from the "real" world have found their way into Liga's Heaven, and Urdda is determined to find out where there go. And this is the beginning of the end.

This is just a quick synopsis of the book. There is a lot more to it than just this. Other people have been able to enter Liga's Heaven. Some for their own selfish reasons. Others completely by accident. Basically, the book is broken into 3 parts. The Before Heaven, Heaven, and the Real World. I wanted to like this book, I really did. But it was just too harsh for me. I was expecting a fairy tale, and that is not what I got. Although the rape scenes are not explicit, Lanagan certainly doesn't pull her punches. It is tragic. The things that happen to this poor girl are tragic.

While some people liked the beauty of the story, I seemed to be more focused on the negatives. The real world was over-the-top harsh. There wasn't a lot of gray area here. When the women were returned to the real world, there was either good or bad. Not much in between, as you would normally see. And while, I liked the last section the best, the ending highly disappointed me. As far as I was concerned, there was no "happily ever after".

I can see how polarizing this book is: I think you will love it or you will hate it. Unfortunately, I happen to fall in the hate category. I almost quit reading after the first 2 chapters. And while I can appreciate the uniqueness of the story, I just didn't like it. If you are looking for a sweet, tender re-telling of a fairy tale, don't read this one. Because it's not. And I don't think I would consider it YA either. Maybe for older teens, but certainly not for the pre-teen or Tween set. I'm far from a prude, but the sex in this book is over-the-top. There is incest, gang-rape, drawf sex, and some really disturbing animal sex. But don't let me discourage you from reading it. In fact, I like to hear other opinions. I'm giving it 3/5 stars for being a unique and well-written story, but if I had to rate it for how much I enjoyed it it would only be a 1.


Becky said...

It does sound polarizing. I can see why the elements in the story were so hard to take! I will say that I'm interested in the overriding message of the book, and might have to check it out. Did Nymeth review it as well? Thanks for your review!

Amanda said...

I didn' tknow how to review this one either. I found it very uncomfortable, but beautiful after the first couple chapters were over. The only thing that really ruined the experience for me was the cloth men. I rated this 4.5 because I tried hard to forget that part, but i have a feeling that rating's going to go down with time. Not terribly down, maybe to a 3.5, but I just had to block out the book because the cloth men scene was so disturbing to me. It's well written, no doubt, but extremely uncomfortable.

Amy said...

Hmmm. To be honest, this might not be the book for me. Or..I would have to be in the right mood. Sometimes that stuff doesn't bother me, but sometimes it completely distracts me from being able to appreciate a book.

So this is definitely a must be in the right mood to attempt it sort of book, I think.

Renay said...

I'm curious! What made you think it was a fluffy retelling of a fairytale? I mean, obviously you read it for a reason, and none of the reviews I have seen suggest it is anything but a dark story. I find it odd when people disclaim that point in their review as if it was ever marketed as such.

Also, I am going to disagree with you pretty vehemently about saying this is not a young adult story. It's hard to say that without suggesting you think teens won't "get it" or advocating it be censored. I think, as well as being for young adults, it's for girls and women, specifically, and mothers and daughters, and anyone living a sexualized life--which definitely includes female young adults. There's a difference between saying "maybe some YAs won't like it because their privilege protects them from sexual abuse and sexual violence" and "this book isn't FOR YAs" because one is okay and the other one is treading dangerous ground.

It upsets me when people suggest a book is not YA just because it has sex and violence. :(

Stephanie said...

mjmbecky - Yes she did review it. You should definitely read her review of it.

Amanda - Yeah, the cloth men really got to me too. The whole vengence thing they too on was a bit much for me. Though in her shoes, who knows how I would feel!

Amy - Most definitely, a book for a certain frame of mind!!

Renay - I'm pretty weird about reading reviews before I read a book. I don't like to have plots spoiled for me. I read Nymeth's review. And while I knew there were some troubling scenes, her exuberance for the story really made me want to read it.

I didn't think it was a fluffy re-tell, but I didn't think it would be quite so harsh either. And you know me. I so not into censorship. But this is one book that I would not let my 10 year old read (she has a wicked vocabulary, and reads at a pretty high level.) My point about parents being parents and all.

I'm not suggesting teens shouldn't read it. I said pre-teens. I would be disturbed if my pre-teen read this book. Teens would probably take more away from it than I did. Most teens I know are pretty discriminate readers. They read adult books all time. I just don't think because the main character is young in the beginning necesarily means it should be marketed as a YA book. I wouldn't consider this a YA book. But that is just me. And it's not just because of sex and violence, it's the whole subject matter. This is a story of grief, sex, violence, love, loss and vengence.

Renay said...

Oh, gosh! No, that's not what I meant at all, I am not out to scar small children with tales of dwarf penis and explicit rape scenes. I do NOT think 10 year olds should get this book to read, at all, not just because it's explicit, but also because I think they wouldn't understand by themselves. However, girls say, 15 and up? The threat of sexual violence which pervades the real world Liga escapes--that's all too real, and they live it every day and I think a book like this would be good for them if they're interested. That goes back to your point about the real world in this book being either all good or all bad, which I thought was an interesting point to make. I feel like that sometimes as a woman...that there is no inbetween, it's either AWESOME or it SUCKS, and boy I sure the hell felt like that as a teen. Does that make more sense to my point about why I do think this books is good for older YAs--and also adult women?

I don't believe YA is a genre. I consider it more a marketing tool, so therefore the age range for YA books is basically, what, 12 - 25? Inside this category is a bunch of fluidity that's excellent because kids often do read up and down as they grow into reading habits, but is troublesome for books like this. That's a huge gap, and it's good for parents to cover the bases, but even as I wouldn't want a kid to be shocked by reading this, I'd still want it in the YA section.

I hope I explained myself a little better that time! :) I'm sorry you didn't like the book, though. It definitely would suck to stumble into if you're not expecting it. Um, I spend my time immersed in rape culture readings, so maybe I am desensitized. You should read several super happy books after this, just in case. >>

Stephanie said...

Renay - Oh, I full agree YA is a marketing tool, and the publishers take full advantage of it. And I agree with you...this book is fine for teens. I even put that in my review. I didn't think the younger set would be able to understand the nuances of this book. 15? I'm not worried about that. My son reads YA targeted books all the time. He's devoured the Twilight books, the Vampire Academy books, and a whole bunch more. He's going to be 13 in a few weeks and in 8th grade. I wouldn't want him to read this. And not just because I think it would be better for girls. Hell, if boys want to read this, they should. Let them see what the consequences of some stupid actions can be. As street smart as he thinks he is, I think there is a lot to this he wouldn't understand.

I didn't really expect it to be sunshine and butterflies. But I was surprised at just how uncomfortable this book made me. I read lots of books that aren't "super happy". I don't know why this one affected me the way it did. I really wanted to like it.

Ana S. said...

Let me explain why I liked the ending:


I loved it because it didn't give me the feeling Liga was going to be unhappy. At all. And I loved that it wasn't a Hollywoodesque "and they lived happily ever after" ending. I mean, I don't think there's anything wrong at all with love and romance. They matter, and they matter a lot. But we're so often taught that romantic love is the one source of happiness in life that it makes me happy to see something that counters that idea. A more traditional ending would make it possible to interpret the whole story as a tale of a woman who is "saved" by the right man, and that would have made me sad. Again, I don't think falling in love and getting married means that a woman is letting a man "save" her, but that reading is so prevalent that it would be hard to avoid, you know? This way, Liga had other things in her life, and she was able to find her place in the world even without a romance.

And there's another, possibly more important reason: the ending made her seem so much stronger to me. I worry that if she had married Davit, she would have come across as someone who had suffered everything a person can possibly suffer and would collapse if life dealt her another blow. I think it would make it seem that her only chance of being happy after what happened to her would be to have everything go her way in the future. This way, we see her suffer another disappointment and pick herself up. We see that she can handle it, as we all can. We see that being happy is not about never getting hurt. And that seems to be a really important point to me.

Of course, this is my reading, and as I was telling you on Twitter you are more than entitled to have your own: *clutches copies of TM and Sons & Lovers, whispering 'There, there. Stephanie doesn't love you, my dears, but I do*

Stephanie said...

Oh Nymeth! I love the way you have broken down your reasons for loving the ending. And truthfully, they are all so valid. I personally agree a woman can have just as fulfilling of a life without a man beside her. BUT in this case, I just wanted to see Liga happy. And I really don't think she was. The disappointment she felt was evident, and her desire and love for Davit had been there for so long, it wasn't going to just vanish immediately.

She had been through so much. Endured such horrible trials. And did her best to raise 2 daughters all by herself. I felt she deserved to have a happy ending...and it just didn't FEEL happy to me.

Thank you for not holding it against me!!

Chrisbookarama said...

I've read a few reviews of this and I'm not sure about it. It does sound terribly depressing- like an Oprah book! I think a mature reader should read it not a younger one. YA marketing scares me. Parents might think it's a 'fairy tale' and not realize that it has such dark themes just because it is marketed as a 'young adult' book. Publishers should be clear on what that means because it might mean different things for different people. I think the same about the Twilight books. I see 11 yr olds with it and I wonder if their parents know what it's about.

Ana S. said...

I'd never hold someone's different opinion against them, I promise! Least of all a friend's *hug*

Also, I feel bad that my post might have mislead you, and I wanted to explain that I didn't mean to downplay how dark the book is (and I know you weren't saying I did). I actually picked it up unprepared myself: all I knew was that Neil Gaiman had recommended it, that it had a cool cover, and that it sort of retold Snow White & Rose Red. The first few chapters were quite a surprise, but instead of being shocked, I was actually glad that a book, especially a book marketed for teens, was willing to tackle sexual violence so honestly. I'm not saying this is the "right" reaction to have, of course, just that it was the one I had. I don't even quite know why, but I trusted the story from the very start. I trusted that those things weren't there just for shock value, I trusted it not to be Oprahish, and in the end I was rewarded.

So I guess that I didn't make it sound disturbing because to me it wasn't. It did have an emotional impact on me (I cried SO much while reading it. Including in public, because somehow I thought it would be a good idea to read it on a train. And it's not that I don't want people to see that a book can make me cry, but I dislike being stared at. And man, was I stared at), but it didn't shock me. It's possible that like Renay I have been desensitized. Also, Nick Hornby once said that being a parent changes the way you react to bad things happening to young people in stories...I wonder if that helps too. I bet that if I had daughters myself the book would have evoked a whole other set of emotions in me. And there's of course the fact that we all have different limits and different comfort zones, which is perfectly fine.

Anyway...I just wanted to explain :P

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

You know, I've seen a ton of reviews of this book places, and I don't think I've read any of them fully. Until this one. I'd read the interview with the author over at books i done read, and it got me partially intrigued and at least clued me into some of the darker aspects of the book. It sounds interesting, especially after reading the stream of comments! I will look out for it!

Anonymous said...

Oh,me too...I read this for the Printz Project challenge quite awhile ago and hadn't the slightest idea what to say about it. I have so many conflicting feelings about it. Love...hate...I can't decide still.

samantha.1020 said...

Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts on this one Stephanie. I'm not sure if I will like it or not but I think that I will still give it a try.

Stephanie said...

Nymeth - Please don't apologize!! I didn't mean to say you misled me. I can totally understand why you liked it.

But I think you might have hit the nail on the head with the kids thing. I know that I have changed alot since I've had kids. Probably not as much as some people. But having daughters has made me a different person. And reading stories about little girls getting abused is harder than it used to be. Honestly, if I read this book 10 years ago, I might have had a totally different outlook on it.

Again, don't apologize. I hold your opinion on books extremely high. Higher than almost anyone I know!! (of course, you DID like Sons & Lovers!!)

Janssen said...

Yikes. . . doesn't sound like something I'll be reading, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this yet but am hoping I will fall into the love it category. It's a shame you didn't like it, hopefully you will get more out of your next read.

Kailana said...

I really need to read this and see what I think, but I haven't got around to it yet!

Susan said...

I took this out of the library, but it had to go back before I could read it. I do want to read it! But given the nature of the content, I know I have to wait until I'm in the mood - can handle that darkness, otherwise I know I'll get mad at the book. And yet, Nymeth did love it, so I know it will be good somehow too! I really appreciate your honest review, Stephanie, and I love this debate that followed!