Author: Meg Tilly
Publisher: St. Martins Griffin, February 2010
Gemma Sullivan is a 12-year-old girl who hides her interest in school but secretly loves learning. She does her best to make a life for herself, despite her neglectful, alcoholic mother and the unwanted attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Buddy. Buddy has been forcing Gemma to have sex with him since she was 7 years old and has convinced her that it must be kept secret or she will go to jail. Withdrawn and friendless, Gemma dreams of having a normal life with a normal mother and a clean home. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Gemma, especially when Buddy decides to pimp her out to his friend Hazen Woods for $100.
Hazen Wood is 36-years-old and, once he experiences sex with Gemma, begins to fantasize having her all to himself and living with her as man and wife. Increasingly plagued by his twisted desires, Hazen kidnaps Gemma—forcing her to ride in the trunk of his car because she refuses to “play nice” and keeps trying to escape. They travel across the country, with the dynamics of their relationship evolving over time as Gemma learns to tolerate Hazen’s depravity and violence by cultivating a rich inner life and imagination.
Eventually, they end up in Chicago where fate intervenes and offers Gemma a chance to escape from Hazen. But will Gemma be able to rebuild her life and overcome the horror of her childhood? Will she be able to undo the damage of a lifetime of sexual abuse, violence, and neglect? Is there a chance for Gemma?
On the back of the review copy that I received, author Meg Tilly talks about what inspired her to write this novel, including her own childhood experiences with sexual abuse by various family members. She writes that the voice of Hazen came to her first, and when she wrote as him: “…I was shaking and nauseous. I felt like I was coated in him somehow. The writer in me was a mix of things; terrified, but relieved too, excited even, because I knew I had touched something true.” She didn’t hear the voice of Gemma for a long time. “And then one day, a miracle happened. Gemma started talking to me in her quiet and shy voice and I thought, ‘Ah…Now I can finally write this book.’”
I think it takes guts for Meg Tilly to reveal her own experiences with sexual abuse, but knowing this adds so much credibility to the character’s voices. This isn’t an easy book to read. Alternating between narration by Gemma and Hazen, the book was often so disturbing that I had to put it aside. Hearing Hazen’s twisted logic and justification for what he does to Gemma made me sick. Unfortunately, I did feel like Meg Tilly took me into the mind of a pedophile—and it was a very disturbing place to visit. But, at the same time, getting to know Gemma and learning how she manages to survive and even thrive in a horrible environment and situation helped to offset the disgust I felt when reading Hazen’s sections. As a reader, you root for Gemma and ache inside when she believes Hazen’s threat and lies. Gemma thinks like a 12-year-old and not an adult, and you begin to understand how easily pedophiles can manipulate children in these situations.
I am very thankful that Meg Tilly provided Gemma with a way to escape from Hazen and have another shot at life. I don’t think I could have finished this book if there hadn’t been a glimmer of hope at the end—that Gemma was finally exposed to adults who weren’t out to abuse or take advantage of her. I know that not all abused children get a “happy” ending, but I’m glad the author chose to provide one for Gemma.
My Final Recommendation
I always struggle giving a “recommendation” for a book like this. This isn’t a book you enjoy or read for pleasure. It is disturbing and shockingly graphic in many sections. The writing is good—almost too good in parts. I was really disturbed reading the sections narrated by Hazen; I didn’t want to hear what was in his head. But, at the same time, perhaps there is value in being taken inside the mind of a pedophile. I’m glad the book ended with a chance for Gemma to reclaim her life; it would have been entirely too depressing if she hadn’t. If the premise of this book interests you, I would recommend it as it was well-written and you won’t soon forget it. As far as my ranking, I’m giving it 3.5 stars. I think it was a worthwhile book, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone due to the subject matter.
Whys and Wheres: I received an Advanced Readers’ Edition of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. (The book will be published in February 2010.) I originally requested the book because Meg Tilly is an actress who I remembered from Agnes of God and The Big Chill, and I was curious to see how she wrote. As far as I can tell, she isn’t acting anymore and had devoted herself to writing and raising her family. I hope that this book was therapeutic to her as a survivor of sexual abuse.
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