Nope, no thanks, not for me.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)
Mark and Maggie’s annual drive east to visit family has gotten off to a rocky start. By the time they’re on the road, it’s late, a storm is brewing, and they are no longer speaking to one another. Adding to the stress, Maggie — recently mugged at gunpoint — is lately not herself, and Mark is at a loss about what to make of the stranger he calls his wife. Forced to stop for the night at a remote inn, completely without power, Maggie’s paranoia reaches an all-time and terrifying high. But when Mark finds himself threatened in a dark parking lot, it’s Maggie who takes control.
(Synopsis via Goodreads.)
Surely I can’t be the only one envisioning a Roaring Rampage of Revenge after reading this description? Picture it: months after being mugged at gunpoint and knocked unconscious in an alley, Maggie once again finds herself in a perilous position. Only this time’s she’s ready. Prepared. Expecting it, even, thanks to the PTSD and anxiety and depression. And she fights back. Kicks some serious ass. Maybe comes to her husband Mark’s rescue. Mark, the same guy who’s spent the better part of a year tiptoeing around her, walking on eggshells, maybe even scoffed at her paranoia, once or twice, when he thought she wasn’t looking. Bonus points if he’s entertained fantasies about how he would have protected HIS WOMAN, if only he had been there when it happened. But now that he is, he’s paralyzed with fear, unable to protect himself, let alone his wife. Yeah. That’s what I’d expected, going into Listen to Me.
As it turns out, this is the most misleading yet still dead accurate book description I’ve seen in a while. Maybe ever. Certainly in recent memory.
Here are three reasons why I disliked Listen to Me, from least to most spoilery:
1. Mark is completely unlikable – and not in an entertaining way (see, e.g., everyone in Gone Girl), but in a “rooting for his death, can’t wait for him to get chopped up into bloody pieces and fed to Jeffrey Dahmer” kind of way.
So his wife was mugged at gunpoint and assaulted – knocked unconscious with the butt of said gun – nine months ago, just blocks from her doorstep. Since that time, she’s been going to therapy; taking Valium; and meditating. Trying to move on with her life, you know? Despite the crippling depression, anxiety, and likely PTSD. And she’d been getting better!
Until one day, three weeks ago, the cops showed up on her doorstep and showed her some very gruesome crime scene photos. A young woman was murdered in their neighborhood, and they suspect that the same man might also be behind Maggie’s assault. (Both perpetrators remain at large.) Naturally this triggered Maggie and completely derailed any progress she’d made. (DAMMIT, BENSON AND STABLER, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!?)
And now, instead of at least playing at being a compassionate, understanding husband, Mark’s kind of acting like a dick. He’s lost his patience. He knows women who bounced back from miscarriages, and no one died here, so why can’t Maggie just be okay already? He holds his wife’s mental illness against her, thinking it makes her “weak” and a “loser.” He’s embarrassed by her, entertains fantasies of leaving her (for Elizabeth, his much-younger ex-research assistant, with whom he’s been exchanging racy emails for months), and generally avoids her when possible.
Mark is also just an awful person in general. He’s pretentious, self-centered, and a bigot and a hypocrite. He readily acknowledges that, if Maggie was doing what he was doing with Elizabeth, he’d be livid: yet this isn’t enough to compel him to stop. He wants Maggie to stop being helpless and acting like a victim – yet he recoils when he finds the weapons she’s hidden around the house. (Did you want her to fend off a mugger with her clutch, hmmm? PLENTY OF WOMEN CARRY MACE OKAY.)
He vocally and frequently scorns technology – including in his job as a college prof. – under the premise that it makes us stupid and saps away our humanity. (Because yeah, humans never treated each other cruelly prior to 1983.) He kind of reads like a privileged white guy who wants nothing more than a return to the “good old days” … of criminalized abortion and Jim Crow. The days when things were indeed awesome, for people who looked just like him.
He actually calls himself an outlier-slash-genius at one point. For reals!
My absolute favorite passage comes when Maggie calls him on his bullshit. During their drive east, Mark begins complaining how it’s so selfish for people to live in the middle of nowhere; cities are more environmentally friendly. Never mind that they’re en route to spend the summer at his parents’ farm…in the middle of nowhere.
“In ten more years, towns like this won’t exist,” Mark said. “Did you see all those For Sale signs? Everything is empty. It’s just not cost-effective to live in the middle of nowhere. It’s irresponsible.”
“Your parents live in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
“It’s different. They live off the grid.”
“No,” she said. “They don’t. They aren’t farmers. They’re retirees. They couldn’t live without access to the city.”
“My father still teaches.”
“He’s emeritus. He teaches once a year,” she said. Then, after a beat: “When he feels like it.”
Maggie ends up apologizing. *head desk*
Anyway, Mark is awful and he doesn’t die, which is even more awful.
2. The occasional out-of-left-field digressions. I’d say that they slow the action down, except there isn’t much action to speak of.
Immediately beneath Maggie’s moccasins was a freshly paved twelve-inch surface covering made of sand and rock glued together with man-made hydrocarbons, beneath which was a six-inch layer of recycled asphalt product, beneath which was an underlayment of gravel, beneath which — deep, deep, deep beneath — was the continental crust itself, igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Some twenty miles beneath the crust was the lithosphere, beneath which was the asthenosphere, beneath which was the upper mantel, beneath which was the liquid outer core, beneath which was the solid inner core, where — on this particular day — the temperature was just shy of 10,800°F, as hot as the surface of the sun.
Some thirty-nine thousand miles above, Maggie shivered.
Like, I guess that’s lovely, but it’s so random and irrelevant to the plot that I don’t really see the point.
** spoiler alert! **
3. The ending.
Okay, so the denouement comes very late in the book (around the 85% mark) and is not at all what I expected. The buildup is long and drawn out and doesn’t ultimately deliver. It kind of boggles my mind that a 200-page book could feel bloated, weighed down by excess material, and yet Listen to Me does. But I digress.
So here it is: while walking Gerome in the hotel parking lot, Mark gets into a confrontation with a a group of people who have parked there for the night. Whether on purpose (which is what I’m leaning toward) or accidentally, in their haste to get away, one of the cars runs Gerome down. Maggie is asleep in the hotel room when it happens; Mark fetches her after the fact. A veterinarian, Maggie euthanizes Gerome right there in the parking lot. And…that’s it. Scene.
To be fair, I anticipated Gerome’s death. Everyone knows that the dog always bites it in a horror story. What I didn’t expect was that Gerome’s death would be the fucking main attraction. 185 pages, and all we get for our patience is a dead dog.
Maybe this is a personal preference, but I suspect that many dog lovers will be turned off by this twist. I’m not generally faint of heart – I recently finished the werewolf story Mongrels, the landscape of which is littered with dead animals, including a fair number of dogs – but a little warning would be nice. Even Stephen King let readers know what they were getting into with Cujo and Pet Sematary. (Both of which, by the by, my dad read to me as a kid. Which also goes to the “not faint of heart” thing.)
And the euthanasia is like the icing on the Cake Wreck. Anyone who’s ever sat by a beloved friend for this is all but guaranteed to lose her shit. My oldest dog Peedee died of cancer just before Thanksgiving, and I just now (as of this writing in April) found out that another one of my dogs has cancer. Peedee was euthanized at home, using Maggie’s own cocktail of drugs. I wouldn’t call the ending traumatizing, exactly, but it sure ripped open some scabs that were just starting to heal. So thanks for that.
** end spoilers **
Either way, it all just feels very cheap and pointless. Even more so when you factor in Mark and Maggie’s Freaky Friday-esque swapping of fears/world-views that follows. Add ’em all up, and it seems like this book suffers from delusions of grandeur; that it imagines itself to be deeper and more philosophical than it actually is.
Again, my feelings could be colored by the ending, but. I wasn’t exactly loving the book up to this point, so I don’t think that’s all of it.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drown my feelings in a steaming hot cup of Daiya cheese sauce, enjoyed from the bottom of a snuggly, warm dog pile.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: After being mugged at gunpoint, Maggie suffers from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She’s on Valium and seeing a therapist, but her progress is derailed when the cops, investigating a possibly related murder, show up at her house with graphic crime scene photos in hand.
Animal-friendly elements: Maggie’s a vet. She recommends that her clients (presumably adopt) mutts, since purebreds suffer so many health problems; and cringes when she sees a headlight meant to stun deers mounted to a truck. She babies her dog Gerome, which is to say she (mostly) treats him like the sentient creature/family member he is.
But the ending? Brutal. See my review for more.