Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: When the River Flows Out of its Bed by Gaelle Cathy

When the River Flows Out of its Bed by Gaelle Cathy is a mystery romance that straddles the fine line between YA and 'adult', romance and thriller, believable and over the top. It starts off a bit rocky, and in your face over the top, but it settles down and we get to know the characters properly, and then it hooks you in with a well written relationship and an underlying mystery.  It's good.

Quick Overview: Rich girl Eliza is a rebel and a party girl who sleeps with every girl in sight. Constantly in trouble, she's been brought back to her home town of Lorien to try and finish her final year of high school. There she sees the shy and mysterious Julia, a girl deliberately excluded from social contact or personal freedom, and is captivated by her. Eliza makes it her purpose in life to become Julia's friend and uncover the secrets keeping her a prisoner. Along the way, she starts to grow up a bit herself and falls in love for the first time in her life.

Characters & Plot

Eliza is the only child of an incredibly rich business man and his trophy wife. Nearly twenty, she's repeating her final year of high school and academically unmotivated. She despises her father for his moneymaking obsession, his cheating, and his general absence. She respects her mother but clashes with her regularly. She's a typical Bad Rich Girl, into drugs and partying, and sleeping with as many women as possible, despising social manoeuvring and people who donate to George Bush (such as her father). She makes much of the fact that she can make her own money and isn't dependent on her parents, but only made that money because of her parents' connections. She's the sort of poor little rich girl that has enough sense to see the problems, but not quite enough to react sensibly or accept the situation and use it productively, preferring to steal cars, do drugs, sleep with anyone she wants, stay out until all hours, loudly despise the way her name opens doors everywhere (while using it) and generally regard her parents as the Devil.

When the book opens, most of the worst and rockiest of her teen years are behind her. She has been pulled out of her English school, where she was sent after screwing up badly a year before, for sleeping with a teacher. Back in the sheltered and super rich community of Lorien, she has her final year of high school to complete and no interest in being amenable or happy. Until she bumps into Julia on her first day and is stunned speechless by her beauty. She then becomes intrigued by Julia's oddness and reclusiveness, and becomes enthralled, making it her mission to get to know her.

Julia is this adorable, sweet, shy girl who is so incredibly nervous and withdrawn that she is written off as weird and completely ignored by her classmates (admittedly partly due to her history), and instantly taken under the wing of everyone else. She captures the hearts of Eliza, and Eliza's mother, cook and friends, who all form up around her to protect and nurture Julia.  At sixteen, Julia is a fair bit younger than Eliza. She's a dedicated, straight A student.

Oh, and she's also a traumatised orphan who has been deliberately isolated and is the victim of all kinds of murky and suspicious goings on. She's generally suspected of playing a role in murdering her father and is treated as a leper in town and school, based mostly on rumour and general suspicion. Her painful personal history includes murder, accident, adultery, and child abuse, all interwoven with a huge property scam.

Eliza forces her way into Julia's life under the pretext of being the new manager of Julia's facility, they bond over music, Eliza persuades Julia to tutor her (she needs it!), and drags her out into the wider world to see sights and have fun. Eventually Eliza introduces Julia to her friends and brings her home for sleepovers, where Julia instantly wins Eliza's mother over and inspires justified suspicion of Eliza's motives. Both characters grow up and change enormously, and for the better, and it is very clear that both of them are affecting the other and falling very much in love.

As Eliza pokes further into her past, mostly using the services of her computer-whiz friend, she uncovers more and more oddities and tragedies in Julia's life, and stirs up more and more trouble with some very powerful men. While it is very localised, the local community involves some of the most powerful, and richest, people in the country, so they can do an awful lot of damage and have an awful lot at stake. When she stirs up too much trouble, it spills over onto Julia, and Eliza finally realises that the situation is actually dangerous - too late.

The supporting characters are mostly varied and interesting; from Eliza's friends, who are gradually replaced by Julia in the story, to her very dignified and elegant mother. Her father is very much a cipher, and we see very little of him - but that is a large part of Eliza's problem with him. Sometimes I lost track a little of who was whom, but together they built up a rich backstory for Eliza's life.

The Relationship

The developing relationship between Julia and Eliza was fantastically well done. It was also rife with potential problems and treading around the edge of Unfortunate Implications and generally ripe for abuse; luckily, in this story, they are a match and Eliza does care about Julia and usually gets it right. But in another story, the way she went after her, ended up in a position to stir up trouble and have power over her living arrangements (to some extent), and the way Julia ended up trusting her could have turned into something very bad (even if accidentally). I believe it is a testament to the writing that, while I recognised the potential pitfalls, I never really worried that it would go down that path, and that if it did, the author wouldn't blithely continue writing it as a happy and perfect relationship (Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, I'm looking at you).

I identified with it very strongly, as I recognised a scary number of conversations from personal friendships - although the personalities of the characters were slightly more extreme, due to their personal histories. This could be a stumbling block for readers; if you don't enjoy reading about having to coax someone to do things, and stop freezing up in exams despite being a straight A student, and angst about whether it is safe to indicate sexual interest, and generally watch someone force another girl out of their shell, then be warned now - it is major part of the story and occasionally it seems ridiculous (but then I stop and think about it and realise that I have thought or said very similar things). If you aren't particularly into slow and nervous relationship development, there is also exciting crime to be had! The underlying backstory weaves in and out and lurks in the background enough to provide a thrumming counterpoint of tension and Drama to the friendship.

The growth of the characters was a delight to read. Julia's was obvious; slowly learning to interact socially and discovering all the things she had missed in life, starting to trust Eliza and slowly learning what it is to have a friend and to fall in love. Eliza's is more subtle, although it gets pointed out fairly frequently; from the moment she meets Eliza, she starts to pour all her (apparently considerable) energy into her. She becomes less and less interested in hard drugs and late night parties, preferring to spend time with Julia, and worried about explaining her awful condition the next day to her new and innocent friend. And actually sleeping around causes her to feel incredibly guilty, even before they officially acknowledged that they might have feelings for each other. Essentially, she starts to shed all the self destructiveness, keeping only the things she is proud to expose Julia to, such as her (surprisingly decent) friends.

Drugs??! And Violence Too?

Ah yes. There are plenty of drug users in this story, all wild teens. However, while drug use was rampant in Eliza's past, and she attempts to throw herself back into it, there are also huge consequences - from the major tragedy and disasters in her past, to conflict with her desperate mother and generally feeling truly awful the next day. And that was impressive, the way her exhaustion and headaches and generally miserableness was written in consistently. The drug use begins as excessive, and used to be worse, then scales back dramatically to the occasional recreational marijuana with her friends (compared to cocaine and heroin and crack parties).

The violence is minor, but there is a particularly unpleasant and dramatic scene towards the end, which worked well and validated the undercurrent of physical danger and the implied threats throughout the story.

Is It Friendship or Romance? Is There Sex?

The amaxingly well done part of this story is that, after the initial poleaxed instant crush Eliza feels, she becomes consumed with a need to protect and learn about Julia, burying or forgetting any sexual interest entirely. While I suspect she was holding out quietly for sexy times and ultimate romance, she shelved it away into her subconscious, recognising that Julia was in no state to be receptive. For much of the story, Eliza is intent on being Julia's friend and 'rescuing' her (something that - while full of potential for unfortunate implications - handily dodged all the pitfalls to be okay). She's caught by the twin lures of innocent, broken Julia and the exciting scent of intrigue that needs dragging out into the open, with the handy double benefits of helping Julia and stirring up a lot of trouble with the rich elite.

And this was really well written. Much as I was hoping they would kiss and tumble into love and a bed for most of the book, I was also glad that they hadn't. Because their relationship was clearly not at that point and still developing and because Julia was so fragile and so open to emotional abuse that it would have felt very ethically ambiguous or plain wrong. It's hard to enjoy a good sex scene if you're being bothered by the nagging suspicion that one of them is actually being taken advantage of.

The girls do a dance of push and pull, befriending and shrinking and responding and shutting down and opening up, and gradually, gradually, Eliza starts daring to notice that she is actually in love with Julia. And innocent Julia starts to think about sex and love and attraction, slowly uncurling and looking towards Eliza, who freezes up lest she scare Julia off. And finally, finally, Eliza seduces Julia and they have gorgeous, romantic butterfly sex. Repeatedly. And the relationship continues unfolding believably, with shy Julia delighted and insecure by turns, and moving from innocence to worrying about what to do to Eliza. Experienced Eliza discovers the joy of teaching Julia about her body, and does all the work for the first few encounters, letting Julia learn at her own pace.

So yes, there is sex. But if comes at the very end, so you better keep reading to get there. When it does arrive, it's worth it, it's a splendid culmination of all that patience and worry and delight in each other, and they become lovers based on a solid foundation of friendship.

Problems and Critique

In the beginning I would have complained about the characters being cliche and unrealistic, the setting (uber rich Lorien, a community near New York) being wish fulfilment, and the bad girl 'drugs and drop out' person of Eliza as excessive and shallow. But after the first wild drug party we start to get real depth and storyline and consequences and reasons, and awareness of things like 'poor little rich girl' not being as much of a burden as Eliza first implies. I occasionally found Eliza abrasive and her interactions with people thoughtless or unsympathetic, but it was generally consistent with her character. I also occasionally become frustrated with Julia's helplessness and worried about how long Eliza would put up with her and if it would be healthy for either girl.

The rest of my criticism is just a list of things that I personally found a bit off but may not bother other readers much, or may actually just be a matter of taste. They are generally consistent characterisation of a less than perfect character, minor enough to ignore, or resolved further along in the story. None of them are major. So, in order of irritation level:

One, the infodumps from Eliza giving us backgrounds on herself and those around her (sometimes necessary, bt often feeling forced and excessive. Infodumps by nature should be avoided. These were much worse in the beginning and dropped off significantly after we had been introduced, but still showed up occasionally). She did manage to work in some of the Significant Events fairly gracefully, actually waiting to reveal them slowly when talking to Julia. I was a bit thrown by the setting for a while, never having heard of Lorien.

Two, the incredibly excessive affluence level of Lorien and Eliza's family. While, again, this became a decent part of the story as the book progressed, some of it just seemed ridiculous, such as Eliza making her first easy million in stocks, and being handed random companies to 'manage' - something she didn't seem to do, except when trying to achieve a specific goal.

Thirdly, the way Eliza immediately assumed sexual abuse and major political corruption from Julia's situation, going for the most dramatic and sordid possibility (while still remaining in the realm of the believable, thank goodness - no long lost princesses or complicated CIA plots).


Editing was decent. The beginning was a bit rough, between the infodumping, the apparently over dramatic or unrealistic characters and setting, and the overall 'can't quite put my finger on a specific issue but it could benefit from a rewrite' feeling that I have mentally tagged as 'first novel syndrome'. But after that it gets a lot better. I believe there were a couple of typo/proof reading mistakes, but no more than that.

It's also a decently long novel, and well worth picking up. The pacing is good, and - much as I would have like more story - it moved along at about the right speed and wrapped up when it should.

You can buy When the River Flows Out of its Bed as a Kindle ebook or paperback on Amazon. 

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