Review of My Dinner with Andrea

My Dinner with Andrea by Jen Durbent. Hybrid Ink. 2018.

3.75 stars

Note: I would recommend that disabled readers be cautious in approaching this story (see review for details), and highly recommend that readers who are trauma survivors look at the content warnings.

my dinner with andreaThis is a riveting, intense novel that goes right for the throat. It is definitely not an easy read, and while it has a central romantic storyline and a fairly hopeful ending, and therefore is technically a romance, it didn’t feel like a genre romance to me. Instead, it felt more like trans literary fiction, thematically and style-wise. It ripped me open, and I am still reeling from reading it, a week later, as I’m writing this review.

The first quarter of the book read like a trans lesbian polyamorous romance, relatively lighthearted, with some style elements that felt like litfic. The two trans women POV MCs, Faith and Andrea, were charmingly awkward as they began their romantic dance with each other, and it felt both real and heartwarming to watch them connect, to see their insecurities shape what they thought was going on, to flirt with each other. Something inside me was cheering “Yes!” as I read, because there is something so wondrous about reading trans/trans romance written by a trans author for trans readers, as a trans reader. I’ve written about this before, what it’s like to read trans romances that don’t center the cis gaze. I was so excited to be reading my first trans/trans romance centering trans women! I was firmly rooting for them as a couple by the time I hit 25%, and was looking forward to seeing how their next date worked out.

It was right about then that the story turned.

Violence exploded into the story, and it was relentlessly intertwined with the romance arc for the rest of the novel. Faith’s wife Michelle gets a POV around this point, and not too long afterwards, first one, then a second, antagonist is introduced, and gets a POV. It’s also around this time that the structure of the novel shifts sideways a bit, and the narrator begins to more frequently break the fourth wall and talk directly to the reader.

It’s like there’s an earthquake, and the romance that was the core of the first quarter of the book is now on all this intensely shaky ground, or perhaps, the story implies, always was. In addition to the violent trauma that occurs within the timeline of the novel, we are also drawn into the past of each of the (now 3) women MCs, and trace traumas that each of them experienced in the past. There were always faultlines, it whispers, there was always trauma and violence and threat, it is true now and was always true, and romance persists in the face of it, in the complex spaces and connections that it creates, in the way we fiercely claim our desires and take care of each other as we cope with it.

I rarely read stories that give violent antagonists a POV. I often find that the way they are written is deeply ableist, or just plain creepy. The inclusion of a Nazi POV and a violent police officer’s POV in this story did not feel ableist or creepy to me. It was disturbing, and difficult to read, but the way it was written did not let them off the hook and did not make them into a spectacle of a monster. Instead, the story insisted on highlighting the ways that these two characters were commonplace, connected to systems, had tremendous privilege, and justified their own actions even as those actions were deeply wrong and they were terrible human beings. The use of the narrator in these sequences was particularly interesting, as the reader was often addressed, and this technique was used to present these characters as unreliable narrators, and insisting that the reader look at them critically.

I felt uncomfortable reading about the intense racism that was intertwined with the antagonist characters’ toxic white masculinity, heteronormativity and transmisogyny, as we only meet one significant character of color (a secondary character) in the story. That said, it felt like the book primarily concentrated on the ways that these two characters were violently transmisogynist, and at several points the story acknowledges the whiteness of the 3 MCs. Even given that, a story with Nazi and violent police officer antagonists that is overwhelmingly white felt off to me, as a white Jewish reader, especially in 2018, given the current situation in the United States with regard to both police violence and Nazism. It felt like the story was setting up two opposing kinds of white folks: violently racist transmisogynist toxic white men, and white women (two of whom are queer and trans, one of whom is cis and disabled) who are targeted and victimized by them, and are by contrast not culpable in white supremacy because of their experiences of victimization and marginalization. I think there were attempts to disrupt this, but I don’t think they were particularly effective.

I really liked the romance arc, the tenderness and awkwardness in it, the way they saw each other and held each other. The kissing was particularly lovely.  I liked the scene at and after the concert a lot, particularly the way Andrea experienced it, and the ways they navigated sex in their relationship. I liked the scenes between Andrea and Michelle, and the ways they navigated polyamory. I really appreciated Andrea’s relationships with her friends, and seeing the complexities of her life; it felt real and nuanced. I adored the geekiness throughout the story; the moment describing flow is one of my all time favorite bits in the book.

My feelings about Faith and Michelle’s relationship are complex. I liked seeing the quiet domestic moments, the way they held each other up, supported each other, the moments when they were gentle with each other’s soft spots. And it was hard to watch them together, too. It ached, how Michelle was about Faith’s transness, and how Faith was about Michelle’s disability. It felt complex and fraught and I wasn’t sure that it was best for either of them to stay together, but it didn’t really feel possible for them to break up either, which made the polyamory aspects of the story feel uncomfortable for me, as a polyamorous reader. But it also felt very realistic; that is often how relationships work, and we do often stay in relationships with people who don’t get us but have been there a long time, who aren’t as careful with us as we need them to be, who sometimes hurt us very much. This relationship being so central to the story is one of the reasons it doesn’t feel like a genre romance to me, because there are all these hurts they are nursing with each other, and they just keep on going along together.

 

I was troubled by the role that Michelle, the disabled cis woman MC, plays in the story. When we first meet Michelle, it’s after Andrea and Faith’s first date, and there’s this scene depicting Faith doing everyday more abled partner of disabled person stuff, that’s a combo of just making things a bit easier because you have more ability in this area and things that lean more to a caregiver role. I was torn in this scene, because while I recognize this as a disabled reader who’s been on both sides of this with my partners, I also wanted to meet Michelle by knowing her as a whole complex person, and those few pages are filled with infodump about everyday disabled life from an abled partner perspective. It made me uncomfortable how intensely this scene frames Michelle as DISABLED and needing help right when we meet her, and not even from inside her own experience of disability.

I cannot talk about this next bit that troubled me without major spoilers and discussing violence and trauma, so highlight to read. We don’t get to be inside Michelle’s POV until after she is violently sexually assaulted by a man she’s dating, and murders him in self defense. We learn about Michelle’s sexual assault and the murder from Faith’s POV, and Andrea’s POV. The immediate aftermath is told from Faith’s POV and emphasizes Faith’s guilt for being out on a date at the time, which turns into guilt about being trans as that’s what led to them opening up their marriage and her wife dating him in the first place. It isn’t until Faith goes out on another date with Andrea that we get Michelle’s POV, and it begins with her telling Faith its okay to go, even though she isn’t okay with it, and spirals into the details of the assault, which include substantial emphasis on Michelle being vulnerable because she is disabled, and him taking her mobility devices away. This recounting of the trauma is incredibly detailed, in a way that felt gratuitous and focused on highlighting Michelle as helpless. This is countered somewhat by the fact that she killed him in self defense, but Michelle’s vulnerability is really lampshaded in this moment in the story.

The assault was foreshadowed by Faith saying a few times that she found Michelle’s date creepy and had a bad feeling, and Michelle blowing it off. The foreshadowing made me uncomfortable because it feels like it frames Michelle as ignoring necessary help in reading potential danger. Particularly because the last conversation between them is Faith worrying if Michelle is going to be okay and Michelle calling her on it, saying basically that just because she’s disabled, that doesn’t mean she can’t take care of herself. We need more disabled characters in stories insisting on their own autonomy, and pushing back against this kind of everyday ableism in their relationships. It is deeply troubling to me as a disabled survivor reader that this kind of insistence on independence and autonomy as a disabled person was used to foreshadow a violent sexual assault from a date. Undercutting insistence on autonomy in this way sets Michelle up as helpless and dependent, and it was just awful, as a disabled reader, to think back to that particular moment after reading about the assault.

In general, I was troubled by the role Michelle plays in the story, and in particular the role her experience of sexual assault plays. She doesn’t get to be a full complex character in the story, which troubles me particularly because we read for pages about her being violently assaulted. It felt objectifying. Her first POV segment is 95% description of the assault and the murder, and her having trauma symptoms. Michelle’s POV moments aren’t really focused on herself, and there’s this thread in them, of disgust and anger and rejection directed towards Faith for being trans. (Which comes through in Faith’s POV moments, too, but its quite stark in Michelle’s.) It feels like Michelle is being framed as a helpless victim, a burden, as an obstacle to the romance, as a trigger for Faith’s internalized transmisogyny, as a problem in Faith’s life and for Faith and Andrea to manage as a new couple.

It wasn’t until 88% that I got a glimpse of something that felt like it was uniquely Michelle’s POV. It was a notable moment, because Faith uses casual ableist language, catches herself after Michelle grunts when she says it, and apologizes, making an excuse. And then we see Michelle thinking about how Faith keeps saying the word anyway, even though they’ve talked about it before. It’s a tiny blip in the scene, because Michelle doesn’t say anything to Faith, but it cracked things open in her POV for me, had me thinking about all the things that Michelle likely lets go every day. It resonated so much for me as a disabled reader, felt very real. And I loved that the book draws attention to this ableist term in this complex way. I wrote a whole thread about it because it really stuck with me.

Unfortunately, Michelle’s arc ends up going to a place that’s focused on how hard it is to date as a disabled heterosexual woman with PTSD who is in a polyamorous relationship with her trans wife and her wife’s girlfriend, how she might never find a man, before refocusing on Andrea and Faith and polyamory. I found this moment very frustrating. Yes, its hard to date after having a traumatizing dating experience, and its not a piece cake to do it as a polyamorous and disabled person. That’s real, and resonates for me as a disabled polyamorous dating violence survivor. But this story doesn’t have the room to hold the complexities of that reality and still be hopeful about disabled life, not with everything else that its trying to hold. It feels again like Michelle is framed as this hopeless victim who will never have the life she wants, and it made me yearn intensely for an actual full POV and deep characterization for Michelle, and a full romance for her too. It felt like she was sort of presented as an MC in this story, but she gets short shrift and is actually more like a thinly drawn secondary character, and, not unrelated, the story gets caught up in a bunch of ableist frameworks around her.

I struggled a bit with the way polyamory works in this story; the framework of them opening up their marriage because Faith transitioned made for some moments that set off warning bells for me, particularly given Michelle’s role in the story. That said, there were some aspects of the polyamory representation that felt both sweet and true to life, and some that cracked me up, and I think my concerns largely lie in the area of Michelle’s characterization, not the representation of polyamory.

The PTSD representation felt accurate, though it was weighed down by the aftermath of immediate trauma. It was intense to read the detailed flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. This is a story that has trauma all woven through, and shows Michelle, devastated by recent trauma, in psychological crisis and struggling to cope, not having a lot of tools for that. It also shows Andrea, who has been coping and managing trauma for a long time, and Faith, who has intense self loathing and dysphoria, is sometimes suicidal, and is a cutter, and who struggles quite a bit with those things on a day to day basis. In the story, it mostly shows how these characters are just trying to live their lives, which resonated for me as a reader with PTSD. It felt accurate, while not being especially hopeful, though the ending leans toward hope; it just did not balance the weight of all the trauma and violence packed into the story, for me.

In general, the story felt quite weighed down by detailed descriptions of violence, trauma and self loathing, which made it difficult for hope to shine through.

Faith has a bunch of internalized fat hatred, which was difficult to read. It was nice to have it gently balanced by Andrea’s perspective, but it still was hard for me, as a fat reader, particularly the way it intertwined with Faith’s gender dysphoria.

There is a lot of transmisogyny in the story: institutional, interpersonal, and internalized. I really appreciated the way it was presented in complex realistic layers. It didn’t feel performative for the cis gaze the way it can often feel in trans lit (especially when written by cis authors). Instead it felt intimate, felt like it was a way of acknowledging a shared reality with trans readers. Painful, but important. I especially appreciated the small moments of recognition of transmisogyny shared between the trans women characters (both between Faith and Andrea, and between Andrea and her BFF Vannah). They felt just as intimate and tender to me as a reader as moments like when Faith realizes that her and Andrea have the same trans books, or when they talk about language to use during sex.

In general, the moments that center trans women’s relationships with other trans women are the places in the story that I loved the most. They are rendered beautifully, and with tremendous care, and they make this book precious to me.

Representation

  • Fat trans lesbian POV MC with PTSD who practices self harm
  • Trans lesbian POV MC with PTSD and anxiety
  • Disabled woman POV MC (?) with PTSD
  • Trans women  of color secondary character
  • Trans lesbian author.

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

Detailed description of a violent sexual assault including physical abuse, abuse targeting a disabled character that removes access to mobility devices, that culminates in murder in self defense. Detailed recounting of sexual assault in the past.

References to danger that comes with disclosure of trans identity. References to death threats from former lovers and dates. Threats of physical violence, physical fight with former date who is a Nazi. Nazi character gets a POV, targets trans women characters via police. Two incidents of police violence described in detail. Shooting. Life threatening injury from shooting. Violent police officer gets a POV. Detailed descriptions of minimizing and justifying racism, transmisogyny, using police as a weapon, and police violence.

Death of beloved queer elder chosen family members. Trans woman secondary character who has died is misgendered by family in her death. References to a trans girl being kicked out by her family for being trans. References to queer youth being abused by family and kicked out of families for being queer.

Transmisogyny, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized. Use of transmisogynist slur both in an oppressive way and a self-referential reclaiming way. Deadnaming. Misgendering. Gender and body dysphoria are described in detail; included in those descriptions are descriptions of depersonalization and suicidality. References to self harm in the form of cutting.

POV MC with PTSD, symptoms are described in detail, including flashbacks, intrusive thoughts of the trauma, of doing violence, and transmisogynist intrusive thoughts.

Detailed descriptions of traumatic injury that resulted in disability.

Racism. Ableism, both interpersonal ableism (including use of ableist language even after being asked to stop) and internalized ableism. Fat MC has substantial internalized fat hatred intertwined with gender dysphoria. Casual moments of bodily hatred (e.g. referring to men’s genitals as gross).

Alcohol use, including drunkenness. Drug use (marijuana, mushrooms), including hallucinations. Reference to parent being addicted to drugs.

Sex on the page.

 

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the author.
  • I am friends with the author on Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “Review of My Dinner with Andrea

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