Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Mel by Liz Berry


I've been feeling kind of down lately and one of my favorite kinds of comfort reads is retro romances. I don't know why, I just love how dated they are. It's like peering into a small window into a whole other universe; I love it. MEL is a book I've been wanting to read for a while, too, because Liz Berry is one of my favorite retro YA authors. A lot of her love interests are villainous antiheroes and I love that for her (and for me, when reading them). I also appreciate how she makes her heroines fully dimensional beings with real flaws, even if they are "unlikable."

MEL is probably my least favorite book that I've read by this author even though I still liked it. I'll get to why later but part of it is because it tries to do a little too much and the ending feels a little overextended. The book opens with the heroine trying to unalive herself, so right away, there's no punches pulled. She doesn't succeed thank goodness and isn't actually all that motivated, but you really get a sense of her despair. Her mother is severely depressed and also a hoarder, so she lives in squalor in their small English town and has no friends, or anyone to rely on in her community, so she feels isolated and completely helpless.

When her mother is taken away into care, she gets defensive and hostile. Especially when social services tries to place her with her elderly aunt. Instead, she goes to live with one of her neighbors, a Black woman named Mrs. Miller, who lives with her husband and two children. While there, she decides to clean up and refurbish her mother's house as part of her senior year project. This results in her going to the thrift store and befriending the man who works there and, later, his grandson-- who just so happens to be a famous rock star named Mitch (lol). Mel and Mitch became friends and then they become more, because obviously. but there's also a sort of love triangle between Mel and her creepy teacher, Keith Edwards, too.

The summary for this book on Goodreads makes it sound like this is self-insertion fantasy but it is a lot deeper than rock star wish fulfillment. It launches some well-aimed criticisms at government bureaucracies, and how social services fails the people it's supposed to protect. It also paints a nuanced but sympathetic picture of mental illness, and what it can be like to be a child with a parent who is mentally ill. The romantic relationships are probably the messiest since they are dated, although Keith is definitely not the hero of this book, but the way everyone kind of treats his perving like bad manners as opposed to, you know, an actual crime probably dates this book worse than the boots and big hair.

As a love interest, Mitch is OK. Assassination (the band) feels like a toned down version of Easy Connections, and Mitch is like a toned down version of Dev. Mel is an intense and sympathetic heroine and I liked her a lot, but I felt like the way she ended up romantically entangled with Mitch was rushed and kind of half-assed. And why did it need a pregnancy scare? Especially a shamey one? Perhaps most upsetting is the fact that Mel's mother ends up dating a nurse from her psychiatric facility. Because that's definitely not an abuse of power. And unlike the teacher business, there's not really any metatext about maybe not predating on one's patients.

Overall, this was fine but if you're new to Liz Berry's work I wouldn't recommend starting out with this one. 

3 out of 5 stars

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