Review of Jagged

Jagged by Lauren Dane. Harlequin Books. 2018.

2 stars

Note: I do not recommend this book for disabled, disfigured, mentally ill, or trauma survivor readers. 

jaggedI wanted to read this book because Lauren Dane’s contemporary romances have generally been an insta-read for me, and I’ve reread most of them multiple times. She generally writes strong unabashedly sexual heroines, wonderful friendship groups/family/chosen family, complex heroes, satisfying romance arcs, and her sex scenes are hot and full of heart. While not ideal representation, I’ve generally resonated with the way she writes trauma survivors, which mostly feels respectful and complex, and doesn’t handwave trauma away.

This book hits some of those marks pretty well. It also includes characters from other books of hers, particularly Cake, which made me grin. I liked seeing Gregori and Wren again. It is the second book in a series, and I read it partly just to know how the cliffhanger from Unraveled resolves. I was hoping also that this book would take a disabled character who I felt was represented in a way that was troubling in Unraveled—Rachel—and give her depth and complexity, show how she is competent and independent.

I liked the heroine’s friendship group, though I wished I’d gotten a bit more of them. The hero’s family is just wonderful and complex and was one of my favorite things about this book. I loved all the moments we spend in his mother’s kitchen, loved seeing the family dynamics, including his relationship with his cousin and sister. I liked him, as a hero, and wanted more of him, a deeper sense of him. It felt a bit like there wasn’t enough room in the book to really get to know him as a character, and I missed that.

I was also hoping for more of the bakery than I got to see, had assumed it would be more central like the barbershop had been in the first book, and I love foodie romances. This didn’t quite satisfy on the foodie romance front, which surprised me after reading both Lush and Tart, which really do (especially Lush). There wasn’t quite enough description and enjoyment of food; the baking was barely described at all.

At the core, this book felt really weighed down by trauma, which just was everywhere in the story, with very little to balance it. It took up nearly all the space, leaving little room for the deep characterization that I count on Dane for, the foodie stuff I was hoping for. Even the sex scenes, which are usually a joy and full of light and pleasure in her books, felt really overshadowed by the trauma. I finished the book and felt heavy and sad and just tired from reading it. It’s a contemporary m/f romance, and as someone who has read a large number of Dane’s contemporary romances, I can say that this series is a departure from the others I’ve read. The first book in the series, Unraveled, had a similar issue with being weighed down by darkness and trauma, but in my reading experience, this one was even worse in that regard.

There are (loosely) four major traumas that haunt this book (highlight to read): Rachel’s past experience of being kidnapped, tortured and almost killed by a serial killer; her sister Maybe’s experience of child sexual abuse in the past, and being blamed and demonized for it by her parents; her love interest Victor’s brother’s addiction and suicide in the past; Rachel and her sister currently being emotionally abused and stalked by their parents, who also threaten to take away Rachel’s freedom, and harm them and people in their life. I think that’s part of the issue, just the sheer number of these traumas that are all very much centered in the story. Another piece of the issue is that one of these traumas is current to the books timeline, not in the past, and remains a threat to the heroine and the people in her life all the way through the novel. One of the reasons I found that these traumas weighed the story down is that they were described in minute detail, including the ones in the past. It’s hard to do that effectively with one trauma, and in my opinion generally unnecessary, but when there are three that occurred in the past, it takes up a lot of room in the story to recount them.

I want to be clear, here. I am a survivor of multiple traumas (more than four, in fact). Many trauma survivors are. It is totally fine to write stories about characters who have multiple traumas. It’s not the number on its own, it’s the way the story works with the trauma, which is partly about genre expectations, I think. The detailed recounting of past trauma to their love interest as a way to show trust and intimacy is something that doesn’t automatically overshadow a romance arc when its one trauma in the past, but each trauma needing to be recounted eats a lot of the air in the room, so to speak. There is always at least one trauma that’s present on the page, every single moment of this story, which means the reader never gets to take a breath. On top of that, there is the present day threat that looms over the entire story. And the way the heroine is pretty much reduced to only being a survivor, by the story itself, by her family, by her love interest, by her friends. There are hints of her having other things going on, but even these are framed as being rooted in trauma. She didn’t feel quite like a real, three dimensional character, and Dane is usually stellar at characterization. It’s all of it together, giving the romance arc no room to breathe.

It also, frankly, is just not the way trauma works. People cannot actually think about trauma all day every day in a sustainable way, even if they are experiencing ongoing trauma like the heroine is. It’s just not sustainable; our brains and our bodies demand a break. As readers, we need a break too. I left this book feeling hopeless, despite the fact that there is a supposedly happy ending, because of the way the story was so weighed down. Even the sex scenes, which I usually adore in Dane’s books, felt overshadowed and full of the kind of ableist trauma survivor tropes that generally make me angry, but in this just made me sad. I wasn’t surprised that he kissed her scars and that made her feel uniquely loved and accepted; that she felt safe in his arms even though other people would trigger her; that she slept so much better when he was around even though she had intense sleep disturbance because of trauma; or that she doesn’t “realize” that she needs more in her life beyond safety and survival until she meets him. Dane loves those tropes, and it always pisses me off to read them, but those are part of what I go in expecting from her stories. They felt different this time, because the characterization was so thin, because the MC was grappling with a constant current threat and they are so unrealistic in that context, because the story was so overshadowed by trauma. They just added to the heaviness and darkness, made me feel sad.

Given these ableist tropes and the thinness of her characterization resulting in her being reduced to her disability, this story could have gone to some terrible places with regard to disability representation. Instead, I found a bit of a mixed bag. Rachel is presented as an independent character whose family struggles to see and honor that, who fights fiercely for her independence and survival in ways that are really central in the story, and who continually acts to protect others from the abuse she is being targeted with. She isn’t rescued or dependent on others, not her family, not her love interest. Instead, she uses all her resources and skills to rescue herself and protect others. That aspect of the story was pretty cool, especially in contrast to the role Rachel played in the first book in the series. That said, she also pretty constantly refers to herself as broken and damaged, and everyone in the story thinks of her that way, including her love interest. Not in a reclaiming tough fuck you for reducing me to this kind of way either, but more of a this is how I think about being disabled by trauma ableist way. That hurt to read, as a reader with PTSD, just as it hurt that she frequently told her love interest he would be better off without someone as “broken” as her. In the end, I think the harm outweighs the good in this disability representation.

It was difficult to care about the romance arc or enjoy the heat between the MCs, because of the heaviness of the story and the thinness of the characterization. I wanted Rachel to win her independence and find a way to stop the stalking and be safer, and that was the main reason I was motivated to finish reading the story. The romance arc doesn’t feel central, and doesn’t feel like it really has a conflict, which is unusual for Dane. It is more backgrounded than I have found in her other work. It’s like there wasn’t enough room for it to be full and complex, because of how much room the trauma takes up.

 

Representation

  • Heroine with PTSD
  • Immigrant secondary characters (from Russia)
  • Gay secondary characters
  • Survivor secondary character

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Detailed description of an incident of child sexual abuse in the past, with the child getting blamed for the abuse by her parents. Descriptions of child abuse, especially emotional abuse, but physical abuse and neglect as well. Many detailed descriptions of stalking, threats (including threats of violence, deportation and reporting people to ICE), menacing, controlling behavior and emotional abuse of adult child by parent, including use of misogynist and whorephobic slurs. Detailed recounting of kidnapping and torture that took place in the past. Scene where love interest kisses the MC’s scars from that experience. MC with PTSD, including descriptions of trauma reactions like nightmares, hyperarousal and hypervigilance. A disabled MC is treated by family members as helpless, needing protection, and as someone who doesn’t get to make her own choices for herself. This includes an effort by her parents to legally take away her independence. These things are challenged by her and somewhat challenged by other characters in the book. Internalized ableism. Disabled MC is frequently referred to as broken and “damaged goods”. Ableism, including framing the villain as mentally ill, and ableist tropes about trauma. References to addiction and suicide of a family member in the past. Fat antagonism. Sex on the page.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had no contact with the author.

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4 thoughts on “Review of Jagged

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