Monday, June 8, 2020

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann

DNF @ 28%

So in case you missed it, I came out as asexual earlier this week. (Yay!) This is not exactly a new revelation; my sexuality has always played a pretty significant role in my life, and because nobody ever talked much about sexuality in any of my high school or college classes (bar a gender studies class that was definitely a bit out of date), I spent a huge part of my teenage and adolescent life very, very confused and frustrated, indeed.

Part of the reason it took me so long to figure out what I was is because 1) sexuality exists on a continuum so it's not a black or white "I am 100% this" situation, and 2) because of that, and because of all that gray area, I was afraid of being mistaken and wrongfully appropriating an identity that isn't mine. As I got older and more sure of myself, I felt comfortable enough claiming that identity because the more I learned about it through research and life experiences, the more it really felt like me, you know?

So I figured, what better way to celebrate Pride Month and coming to terms with my being "out," than by reading my first book with an asexual MC? It should have been awesome-- but unfortunately, it was not. Mostly because this doesn't exactly feel like the best ace rep. All my ace buddies disliked this book and I'm sorry to say that I am falling into the same camp. This doesn't feel like me.

Forced cuteness. This book feels very juvenile. The main character is NINETEEN. She acts like she's twelve. The way she behaves is simply not what you would expect of a college student and the writing feels like middle grade, or maybe a young 14-15 tops. All the "sarcastic" asides in parenthesis don't help. They are clunky and awkward and usually make the heroine seem like a snot. (She is.)

So shallow. For someone who has no sexual attraction (more on that), this is the most looks-obsessed individual I've ever encountered in fiction that wasn't a sexist dudebro in some old sci-fi novel from the 70s. She describes everything around her with a "Cutie Code" and tells everyone where they rate on it (shallow). When talking to a therapist, she describes herself as "having an intense aesthetic attraction," and having "an intense obsession with aesthetics" in the beginning of the book. Her whole attraction to the love interest starts because he's so hot, he shorts out her Cutie Code. The highest on her code was red, but she calls him "code black" and freaks out at how hot he is.

The portrayal of asexuality. I am so confused about some of the choices the author made. I thought this was #ownvoices, and it is for the heroine's Black identity but not for her identity as an asexual, I don't think. At least, it doesn't appear to be based on this interview I found with Bustle. The heroine has no sexual attraction to anyone and doesn't react to sexual imagery, which okay. But then looking at some dude's face is enough to make her go OMGGGGGG. What??? How does that work?

I mean, at least for me, I can objectively look at someone and say that I find them attractive. You can react to erotic media and feel a sexual reaction but that doesn't mean you want to race out and put it into practice. I read this great book recently that nailed what it's like to be asexual: the author compared it to everyone around you eating spiders and talking about how great they are, and you're just sitting there with your sad spider bowl and thinking to yourself, "Yeah, I could make myself eat these spiders, but I would much rather not eat these spiders." Taking that genius analogy a step further, you might really enjoy looking at pictures of spiders or watching videos of spiders, but you still don't want to eat spiders yourself. The enjoyment of looking at spiders is separate from the eating of spiders, even though most people in that analogy enjoy doing both. That's asexuality for me.

Going even further, maybe someone you really care about and want to be with loves eating spiders and wants to eat spiders with you. You still don't like eating spiders, but you love your partner and eating spiders with them is an activity that you decide to do together after some discussion, and even though you would probably not eat the spiders if you were alone, the love and happiness you have for your partner makes eating spiders tolerable, and maybe even pleasant at times.

The book tries to go into the nuances of that, and there is some discussion about the difference between attraction and arousal-- which is fair. I feel like one is a matter of biology and one is a matter of psychology. Arousal is more like a reflex, but attraction is a psychological component that is really complicated, and ties in to how you identify and what you're looking for in potential partners. But because of the way it's portrayed, that comes off as muddled. Especially since the author kind of seems to be saying that maybe asexuality is just a matter of not finding the right person.

The portrayal of Asian men as love interests. So this is something that I am a little more unsure about, being a white lady and not an Asian man, but three of my exes were Asian men (one was half-Korean, and two were Chinese) and I've dated about three more Asian guys casually, and this is something that nearly all of them brought up to me as an annoyance when dating Western girls: Takumi is portrayed as passive and sexless, even though I don't believe he's asexual, and it's like he's willing to brush aside all of his needs and feelings for Alice, which doesn't really feel like a healthy relationship to me. In the beginning of the book, Alice's girlfriend breaks up with her because Alice can't give her what she wants (a sexual relationship). She's villanized for this and Alice's friend wants to drive down to where she lives and beat her up for this. And the way she talks about him is kind of super aggressive, all focused on how pretty he is, the way some girls talk about Korean pop stars. It's kind of... infantilizing and doesn't seem like the basis of a healthy relationship.

Takumi, on the other hand, seems to be willing to go completely without sex for Alice, which makes him the good person in this scenario. I guess, like my other ace friends, I'm confused like this. It isn't like Alice's girlfriend cheated on her; she was up front with Alice that the relationship wasn't right for her based on their mutually exclusive needs, and the narrative portrays her like she's a slut for this. I feel like it would have been a much better story if maybe Takumi was ace or demi, and they could have talked about how hard it is to be attractive (bleh) and have people want sex from you all the time, when that's the one thing you'd really rather be absent from your relationship. THAT might have been a really interesting narrative in the book, and it would have brought up a lot of interesting talking points about objectification that ended up thwarting it instead of, you know, feeding it.

I'd be curious to see how an Asian person feels about this rep since it seemed so awkward for me. I did wonder if maybe I was reading too much into the narrative text, or if it was just more of Alice being typically vain to everyone, but I always try to mention anything that bothered me personally.

So yeah, I guess this book fell kind of short for me. I'm sad, because I was really looking forward to seeing "myself" in these pages, and while there were some things the author got right in this book and made me go "YEAH!" there were a lot more that she got wrong and that, combined with the cheese grater levels of irritation I felt while reading this hyper-cutesy writing style made me pretty put out.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

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