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A Tale of Rape to Love or Hate

Posted: 07/14/10 12:02 PM ET

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books.

Ok, no one called my new novel Thief the best of books, but how critics responded to it seemed to depend on what side of the Atlantic Ocean they were on.

I know that once a book is published, an author has to let it go: people like the thing or they don't. But the absolute negativity of some the American reviews in comparison to reviews in the U.K. and Ireland startled me.

Here in the U.S., Thief has been called "abysmal," "boring," and a "failure," but across the pond in the U.K. and Ireland, book reviewers found it "sensuous," "as uplifting as it is harrowing," and "so absorbing" that it "make[s] the reader want to complete the novel in one sitting."

Did they all read the same book?

Published by Sarah Crichton Books/FSG in the U.S. and by Atlantic Books in the U.K., Thief isn't always pleasant to read. It tells the story of Suzanne, a 30-something woman who comes to terms with her rape as a teenager in unorthodox way: she corresponds with and then visits an incarcerated rapist. Although the relationship with the prisoner begins innocently, it becomes sexually charged - and it's not the only sexual relationship in the book. But sexuality is one of the focuses of the book, along with power, control, and the relationship women have with their bodies.

My frank depiction of sex (in a book about the aftermath of rape) is one thing that made U.S. reviewers squeamish. Karen Sandstrom, former books editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer , who is now writing for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, objects to the number of times I use the word vulva, while Maurene Goo of Venus Zine states that, "Thief uses the word cock a lot."

But Thief isn't just about sex, at least not according to Julia Pascal's review for The Independent in the U.K. "What makes [Thief] so impressive is the way the central character has insight into her own fury, hurt and sexual guilt," she writes. A review by Declan Burke (for The Irish Times) said the novel offers "a fascinating insight into one woman's journey to come to terms with a horrific crime"; Burke goes into greater depth in his own blog, Crime Always Pays, and calls the book "emotionally complex."

Not so fast. The anonymous U.S. reviewer for Publishers Weekly (whose judgment of the book can be read in its entirety on Amazon.com or BN.com) asserts that my protagonist Suzanne "is less a character than a phoned-in grotesque thrown together to serve the requirements of an ill-considered story of petty self-enlightenment." Maurene Goo seconds that opinion about Suzanne's lack of enlightenment and elaborates: for her, Thief played out "like a bad Lifetime made-for-TV movie" that had her "envisioning Tori Spelling."

Though I inspired Goo to think of Tori Spelling, I apparently made Independent writer Boyd Tonkin draw another kind of connection: Wuthering Heights. He discusses Thief in his article "Summer of tainted love: A season of strictly adult stories about the shadow side of love and sex," declaring, "The demon lover has stepped back over fiction's threshold," resembling "not so much Dracula as...Emily Brontë's Heathcliff."

Americans Goo and Sandstrom don't describe my male characters as demon lovers - they refer to them as "dum-dum" (singularly) and "one jerk after another" (collectively).

In perhaps the oddest criticism of the book, Karen Sandstrom laments that, even though my main character is an English teacher, "literature is strangely absent" in the novel. Hmm. Maybe she missed the references to Jane Eyre (pages 3 & 4) and Bleak House (page 73), or the Stephen Crane and Thoreau quotations (page 134 & 168, respectively).

The literary contrast Goo makes may be the most important of all. She points out that though my work has been likened to Kate Chopin's, she could "glean" few similarities between Thief and the "feminist literary tour de force," The Awakening.

Very true. At the end of my book, after Suzanne ends her relationship with the rapist, she goes for a swim - and doesn't drown. In fact, she goes to work the next day. She keeps in touch with an old friend and makes a new one. She's hopeful about the changes she's making in her life. And she goes on having sex.

That's right: I wrote about a character who wasn't a virgin when she was raped, so we can't feel sorry for her for that reason. And after her rape, she went on opening her heart and her legs (didn't she learn anything?!), so we can't feel sorry for her because she's now afraid of sex and men. We also can't admire her for being spunky (like Jodie Foster in The Accused) or for taking revenge.

But perhaps the biggest choice I made was to write about a character who didn't have the good grace to die after her rape. We can't make of her story what we will, and she also can't speak wisely to us from the grave. All she can do is go on living her life the way she wants to live it.

No virgin, no victim, no vigilante - I guess I failed on all counts.

Or else I wrote a "strangely moving" book about desire that isn't politically correct, a book that's "disturbing" and even "horrific" but still a "riveting page-turner." You'll have to tell me.