What can a supernatural YA novel have in common with an archaeological mystery set on the English saltmarsh? Both dealt with Celtic mythology, albeit from different stances. Both were written by women, and both have women as at least nominally central viewpoint characters. There’s romance in each, as a central driving force in the YA, peripheral to the plot of the mystery.
Neither one is deathless prose or a showstopping read. Tropes and genre conventions abound. None of this is unexpected.
Here’s what I didn’t expect: Both books made me angry.
The books, which I’d happened to get from the library and read more or less in tandem were:
The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths (the archaeological mystery)
and Lament by Maggie Stiefvater (the YA fantasy)
Both books made me angry. For a lot of the same reasons.
We’ll start with The Crossing Places, since it left me merely annoyed, rather than livid:
Brief plot summary: Ruth Galloway is a professor of archaeology who lives in a cottage on the desolate saltmarsh, enjoys her solitude and the natural landscape, teaches archaeology and forensic anthropology at a nearby university. When a skeleton is discovered nearby, she works to help the investigation using her archaeological skills, to help the police figure out whether the skeleton is tied to a disappearance a few years ago. Tension escalates when a young girl is kidnapped, leaving Ruth and the police wondering if the crimes are connected, and whether they can solve the mystery in time to save the most recent kidnap victim.
Here’s the thing: Given the amount of prose dedicated to description, the author seemed to be more interested in having readers know that Ruth Galloway was overweight and unhappy about it than that she was an archaeologist.
Dr. Galloway is introduced in her cottage solitude, which serves to set up the desolate salt marsh murky landscape and her solitary life with cats. We see her morning routine, which is a pretty established trope for character introduction in detective novels and otherwise. The paragraph where she confronts herself in the steamy mirror after her shower is at least an established cliche for the genre.
And in just those first few paragraphs of chapter one, before we’ve met any other characters or found the body, we get her criticism of her naked overweight body, her thinking of her mother’s criticism of her single life, even her mock-interview monologue where she makes fun of herself for having a solitary spinster life with cats.Every mention of herself as overweight is entwined in some aspect of self-criticism in Ruth’s inner narrative. They sort of peter out once the mystery gets going properly, resurfacing when Ruth is thinking about relationships, hers or others’.
But it left me feeling surly. Why has the author decided that Ruth’s body size is so important that we need repeated reminders of not only her weight, but how unhappy she is about it? What does that have to do with her archaeological expertise, her ability to help solve the crime? Or even her desire to live alone, which, given her brooding about relationships or other characters’ discussions of her solitude, seems to be tied to her weight and self image? The implication seems to be that she’s alone because she’s overweight and therefore unhappy.
So, Dr. Ruth Galloway is single, prefers her solitude on the lovely desolate salt marsh, and she’s a smart professor who is helping the police with their archaeological inquiries. She’s brave enough to survive living alone even when the tensions of the mystery escalate. She has close friends, former lovers, just like anyone at any size who’s made a life and career for themselves in their 40’s. Whether they live alone or not, whether children are part of the picture. I’m irked at the narrative space given to Ruth Galloway’s body image and self-criticism. I feel like I emerged from the novel knowing more about her personal life and moping than about her archaeological practice.
It points to larger questions about why on earth would this seem like an okay way to structure a murder mystery novel about archaeology. Such as: how would the narrative read if Ruth Galloway were Robert Galloway? Would it raise questions or just be part of the genre?
On to Lament, which made me angrier. And worried me, honestly. None of the following are spoilers, as such, if you’ve read any other supernatural YA, ever. Romance tropes abound.
The basic plot outline. Deirdre, our narrator, is a shy, awkward high school girl, gifted in music, but socially awkward. At a music competition, she meets the very handsome Luke, and they make beautiful music together. (Literally, people! Get your nasty minds out of the gutter.) They play music together and win the competition: he’s handsome, she’s infatuated. Even though she acknowledges that she barely knows anything about him. Days later, Weird and Variously Dangerous Magic Stuff has started to happen to Deirdre, and it’s definitely connected to having met the handsome Luke. Her parents, her best friend and her grandmother warn her off Luke, but she falls harder (trope). Because Luke kisses her and meets her in secret and makes her feel beautiful for the first time ever (trope).
Within a few days, a scene plays out more or less like this:
Her: “We’ve only met a few days ago. We don’t know each other!”
Him: “How long does it take to know someone?”
Her: “I don’t know. A month? A few months?” It sounded stupid to quantify it, especially when I didn’t wan to believe my own reasoning… but why was it so hard to say no?
Him (takes her hand, toying with fingers: “I’ll wait.”
(Her inner monologue rhapsodizes about his handsomeness for a while, then.)
Her: “I don’t want you to.”
Then he says, and this is a direct quote from the book.
“I don’t think anyone could smell as good as you. They can’t have you. I want you.”
Does this sound familiar to anyone else? (I apologize for making you all watch a clip of Twilight.)
Later, Luke says to Deirdre, and again, direct quote: “I keep waiting for you to tell me to leave you alone. To tell me I’m creepy.”
(Spoiler alert: she doesn’t.)
They do this dance throughout the book. Luke moans about being too dangerous and not good enough for the wonderful magical Deidre but he doesn’t leave, and she doesn’t ask him to. Even when she learns that he’s been variously murderous and magical and more murderous. (of mystical faeries, and doing the bidding of a faerie. but still. Murderous!) Instead, she clings tighter. Glossing over the fact that she makes statements like “Somehow, it didn’t surprise me that Luke knew right where my room was.” (Stalker, much?)
But, you could argue, that Lament turns out with Deirdre realizing her own magical powers in the showdown with the supernatural. So it’s okay! Really!
Or is it grooming behavior? Throughout the book, Luke the “you can tell me I’m being creepy” handsome mysterious guy who may or may not be supernatural or immortal, knows exactly what he’s doing to manipulate Deirdre. And his stalker behavior of building her up with compliments, isolating her from family and friends, invading and ignoring her boundaries… all in the name of romance and love.
And it’s common enough in the supernatural genre that it’s read as romance or love. Maybe Twilight has a lot to answer for?
It worries and angers me on a deep, visceral level, to see how common this YA trope of love-stalker is. And to know that younger audiences are reading and sighing over these so-called romantic behaviors, instead of questioning them for being creepy. I worry about the insidious ways they can play out to normalize creepy behaviors in the real world, or make a teen girl ignore a red flag of an abusive relationship in the making.
Yes, I’m comparing books from different genres. The typical mystery reader is a few decades older than the typical YA reader. And it’s really only the serendipity of library books that led to me reading them in tandem.
But what worries me, and makes me angry is how unquestioned some of the genre conventions are, and how toxic they have the capacity to be. The fact that female readers are also under trope attack, belongs in the mix as well, and could fuel a whole separate post.
Give me a mystery novel where a smart woman appreciates her body just as much as she appreciates her keen mind and her chosen solitude on the edge of a gorgeous landscape. Use the pages to tell me things I didn’t know about archaeology and her understanding of how prehistory and mythology can inform the solving of modern crime. Sure, bring in the love interest who’s a cop. But let’s have it be mutual appreciation, not desperation to ward off trope-heavy spinster loneliness.
Give me a YA fantasy novel where a girl grows into her smartness and her abilities without the catalyst of pining for stalker-romance. Instead, let her learn, and grow from friendships, and tell the faerie boy to shut his manipulative mouth, because she’s got music to play and faerie queen magic butt to kick when she saves the day.
Is any of that too much to ask?
And if it is, should we be asking why?