Publisher: Lee Boudreaux. Feb. 16, 2016.
Genre: Literary Fiction
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When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James's life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help -- but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear. -Goodreads
This is perhaps the least outlandish book that I could ever review on Outlandish Lit. But it was so amazing, that I can't go on not saying anything about it. It's one of those books that's relatively long, and it's not super plot driven, and it sounds simple up front. But it's a novel that you want to stay in for as long as possible. Tender uses stunning writing and a keen sense of what it is like to be college-aged to create a riveting, close look at a relationship between two people.
We follow shy main character, Catherine, as she grows up in small and large ways in college in the 90's. One of the most important moments in her life is meeting her friends' friend James by chance and becoming his closest friend. Meeting a person can be life changing, and James is for her. He soon comes out to her as gay when Ireland decriminalizes homosexuality. After that, their relationship gets even more intense, complicated, strained, and obsessive in fascinating ways. And then Catherine does something really bad. I have to say, this story is like the most nightmarish conglomeration of embarrassing mistakes I've made and people I loved when I shouldn't have.
And Catherine could not understand where those feelings were coming from; she could not understand why they had such a hold over her, gripping her by the hair it seemed sometimes, clasping her by the throat--but she felt them. She felt alone; or she felt, at least, the threat, the specter, of her aloneness. She felt the panic of his going, and the emptiness with which it would leave her. He was not going anywhere, and yet she felt it.
McKeon's perspective on what going through college as a sheltered girl is so real and so cringe-worthy. There were so many moments where Catherine was like "Well, it's second year and I'm grown up now. Look at all these friends I have and these parties I go to, I am very confident" (not a direct quote) and then moments later we see her actually in the context of these friends/parties and she is just the most strange and awkward human. Catherine is so painfully self-involved and highly emotional, and I related way too hard to her odd, fluctuating self-esteem at that time.
How McKeon shows us around Catherine's mind while her relationship with James gets more and more complicated is masterful. At the beginning of the book, it's a straight forward narrative through Catherine's eyes. But as strain grows between the two characters, the format of the book starts to shift. We start to see abrupt, single thoughts instead as she feels her life is falling apart. Her depression is communicated through seeing how stilted her thoughts are on the page itself. It's something I wasn't expecting, but was delighted by.
Because what had she been up to?
Sleep, as long as it lasted. Which was not--which was never--long enough.
And then the waking. And with it the thinking. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time it will not be so bad.
I don't want to say anything more about what happens in the story. It's a book where it's worth going in blind. Being in Catherine's head can be a nostalgic struggle, but it's worth it for where she takes you in the end. Everything Belinda McKeon captures is true and real and important. I cried. I wish I was still reading this book right now. And this is coming from someone who hates reading about relationships.
In the backyard of Baggot Street, a feral cat close to giving birth. Dragging herself around. The noise of her. Trying, as they watched from the steps, to burrow into a tangle of ivy.
"She's trying to get away from the pain of it," Cillian said. "She doesn't understand it's inside of her."
Catherine stared at him. Could that be true? Could that possibly, possibly, be true?