My Absolute Darling (by Gabriel Tallent) is heavy and dark. But as a HUGE fan of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I am not afraid of heavy and dark. In fact, I tend to gravitate to these kinds of stories.
I agree whole-heartedly with a tweet put out by All the Ugly and Wonderful Things‘ author, Bryn Greenwood, “If you only read books that make you feel safe and comfortable, what’s the point of reading?” Books, in my opinion, are meant to challenge us. To either affirm our beliefs, or better yet, to flip our world’s of thought upside down and inside out. To challenge our ways of thinking and to help us see a new perspective. Maybe, after reading a book that is opposite of our thinking, we change our point of view, but even more realistically, at the absolute very least, maybe it will instill just a little bit of empathy and compassion for certain people and/or situations. We can’t all have the same experiences in life, but we can all read about challenges and events that can, in turn, challenge us and our ways of thinking.
My Absolute Darling did challenge my thinking. From the very first pages, I was cringing at the lifestyle of Turtle and her father, Martin. In fact, one scene was so particularly disturbing that I had tears in my eyes (I NEVER do that!) and I literally had to read it one sentence at a time. I’d read a sentence, have to set the book down for a few minutes, and then, when I was brave enough to tackle another sentence, I’d pick it back up and read one more. It may have been the hardest reading I’ve ever read. When I finished the scene, my heart felt shattered. I know that sounds dramatic, but it was that intense.
There’s so much to say about this book and I don’t know where to start. In short, I’m really not sure if I liked it or not. Am I glad I read it? Yes, absolutely! The reasons I didn’t like it gravitate more towards the author’s choices than the actual story itself. I found Tallent’s writing style confusing and difficult to follow. It took a long time to find a rhythm with how he writes; in fact, that was probably the main reason it took me awhile to get through the book and almost made me mark it as “DNF” (Did Not Finish).
Another thing I didn’t really like about the book is all the unresolved issues. We never fully understand what happened to Turtle’s mother and why she isn’t around. Martin complains that his father is a terrible person and that he despises him, yet the grandfather presented to the readers seems like a very reasonable, even lovable, man. Turtle adores him and spends hours with him playing cribbage. This confused me and felt like a sloppy disconnect on the author’s part. The timeline of the book was hard to follow. At one point, Martin just ups and disappears but I couldn’t tell if he was gone for a week or several months. It isn’t made clear until further on in the story – almost past the point of caring. Lastly, when Martin reappears, he has another person with him and it’s never fully explained how that relationship came about either.
So what did I like about the book? Mainly, the characters. Tallent does a beautiful job developing characters with depth. Turtle is multi-faceted – on one hand, she’s very independent and strong. She can handle a gun better than her father and is an excellent markswoman. She knows how to fend for herself, living off the vegetation of the land around her when her father abandons her for months at time. She is smart and has the ability to think clearly when her life and a friend’s life is in danger. On another hand, she is very childlike and fearful. Due to years of child abuse (emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual) at the hands of Martin, she has very low self-esteem. She wavers in her love and her relationship with Martin – mostly because she has no idea that her situation isn’t appropriate or normal in any way. She lacks decisiveness when it comes to Martin – and that was frustrating (although realistic) as a reader when you can see how strong of a character she really is!
While Martin is a despicable character, Tallent does an excellent job on his development as well. I think it could be easy to fall into a trap of making a character like Martin very one-dimensional – he’s a creep – but Tallent forces us to see more than just that side of him. He shows us that Martin is incredibly selfish and suffers from extremely low self-esteem. He’s scared and insecure so he overcompensates that by being abusive in every way. He’s manipulative and untrustworthy. In short, Tallent does an excellent job of making the readers hate him.
While reading the book, all I could think about was how much I disliked it. But as I continued to read, and eventually find a rhythm with the story, it did grab my attention and forced me to become attached to the outcome. Ultimately, I was too invested in Turtle and had to see how her story played out. As she gained her confidence, her redeeming qualities captured my heart. Since finishing the book, I’ve found that my overall attitude towards it has softened more from “a book you love to hate” to a “book you hate to love”. It’s definitely got the All the Ugly and Wonderful Things vibe (although, admittedly, if forced to chose, AtUaWT would still be my recommendation over this one). It will make you cringe, it will make you cry, it will make you smile, and ultimately, it will make you so happy you read it!