“My Absolute Darling” is Beautifully Written but Hard to Like

I am lucky enough to live in a city that is very literature conscious. There are four independent bookstores, and two more used and antique bookstores to boot, and even better, these bookstores host local and national authors on the regular. That is how I wound up meeting the author, Gabriel Tallent, of My Absolute Darling, in the middle of September. I was excited for this book talk. As I perused Twitter and Goodreads, I read multiple exemplary reviews praising this powerful debut novel. It had skyrocketed onto the New York Times Bestseller list and was already onto its second printing within a month of its publication.

Going into that book talk, I read the jacket summary of the book and knew that the main character was a young girl, aptly named, Turtle. My interest was piqued, and as I sat in the audience, listening to Gabriel’s lilting, mesmerizing voice, I knew without a doubt I needed to read this book. I purchased it and set about reading it that same evening. That delight soon subsided as the heaviness of the story took hold. Within the first chapter the significant and horrifying abuse committed by father to daughter is laid out for the reader in plain, powerful language, and it hurts to read it. Within the first fifty pages, a part of me felt unnerved, uncomfortable, and angry for Turtle.

Turtle is one of the most real, human, and strong characters I have read. With the beautiful backdrop of the Mendocino coastline in California, you follow the story of the young girl as she takes back her agency as a person, as a woman, and as a victim. As a fair warning, this is a book that will make you cry. It is emotionally and physically graphic; following Turtle’s dark emotional and mental journey is intense. She is trying to make sense of a situation that is beyond rationality and in the beginning of the book, the reader can see that she does not have the capability of understanding. That changes as the story progresses, as she grapples with the perceived loss of her innocence. She believes her father loves her, it is a conviction she cannot grasp and cannot let go of simultaneously. And she, too, loves her father. She knows of nothing else. Within this smelter of emotions, we have the abuse, school, her grandfather, Jacob, Brett, and Anna all come tumbling in. She is abandoned and comes to realize her own strengths, begins to tease out who she is as a person. Lastly, her final catalyst is another young girl. From there Turtle takes the last step of separating herself from all that has happened to her.

I did not like this book, but it definitely was one of the best books I’ve read this year. The writing was tremendous. Each detail captured my attention easily and allowed me to pour myself into the book. He creates characters that sit with you long after you put the book down and leaves you heart heavy. At times, I was truly disgusted over what was happening, but still, I could not stop reading. This story is important because it touches upon taboo topics and tells the emotional journey of a young girl faced with an enormous situation and how she survives it. Even during the darkest scenes, Turtle survived and fought through it.

As a reader, I felt more uncomfortable than Turtle at times, which at the core of the book is the destination for the reader, to be moved by the story and its characters. We need more stories like this: that give us flawed, exceptional, persevering women. This book gives us an admirable heroine, a young girl who goes to hell and back, and although does not arrive neatly on the other side, she still manages to fight her way through.   

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