Life in a Glasshouse: Possess by Gretchen McNeil

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I'm immortally interested in cultural/literary deconstructions, feminism, anti-racism, South Korea, Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes, Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones, food (including but not limited to maple butter, tomatoes, and toast), fairy tales, parentheses, paper airplanes, films and books.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Possess by Gretchen McNeil

Possess was a title I'd sure I would like. I mean Catholic exorcism, a biracial protagonist and San Francisco as a backdrop? What could go possibly wrong?

We're first introduced to said biracial protagonist, Bridget Liu, with her group of friends in Latin class. Her friends are solely male. This is a bit of a rare occurrence in YA since most heroines only have one True Friend. So I was pretty upbeat. Until I learned that out of the two, one was hopelessly in love with Bridget and the other was gay (and just as aware of previous guy's crush as Bridget). This brought the first alarm.

The second came when the narrative introduced Alexa Darlington, who has bullied Bridget from day one of meeting her with rumors and rumors and ... rumors. Apparently, this has made Bridget a social outcast and Alexa an outright bitch. To be honest, I can see why Alexa would be considered antagonistic (though how she could alienate an entire school with just rumors and a playground fight is beyond me). Then finally, Bridget indulged in a little slut-shaming.
Considering that Alexa had screwed half the junior and senior boys since they'd started at St. Michael's last year, Bridget sincerely doubted [that she enjoyed the school as much as Alexa]
With this, I'd like to bring into the forefront a terrible plague that debilitates many female-narrated books called the Medea complex. (I'm just borrowing the name--Medea, IMO, had reasons for what she did.) The Medea complex: in which [insert female heroine] believes every uterus within a fifty mile radius is out to get her/spends her days hating her because said uteruses have nothing better to do with their lives.

This complex is brought on by girl hate. Girl hate is defined as: the internal or external persecution of any girl well-dressed, made up and/or with a radiance of confidence that is attractive to (wo)men. It is irrational but it's built upon centuries of women being pitted against one another by society for good looks, a good husband and slut-shaming. Unfortunately, although it seems like Bridget is only girl-hating, girl-hating in itself is misogynistic, and to make it worse, the writing of this world indulges in a little misogyny as well.

The narrative itself acknowledges that Bridget doesn't like being with girls. Her mother even asks why she doesn't hang out with girls. I think it's meant to be believed that Alexa has managed to manipulate every single student save three guys into avoiding Bridget. Every transfer student. Every exchange student. And most importantly, every girl. I fail to see how that is possible. Firstly, because though bullying does happen, Alexa can't monopolize the feelings of every single person who ever comes into contact with Bridget. I mean, hello! Women outnumber men. Secondly, because we're never actually given a scene where Alexa shows her manipulative streak. Or at least, one that I find un-cheesy and believeable. Lastly, because Bridget herself contends that if she went to "Sluts on Slope" a.k.a. Mercy the all-girls school, it "would have been hell". This has absolutely nothing to do with Alexa. It's Bridget's own view of basically anything with a uterus.

While Bridget disapproves of her mother's dalliance with the two separate men connected to her husband, she eventually accepts that her mother has needs. I liked the scene, though it kind of smacked of after-school special, which frankly most of Bridget's mother's scenes did. The only problem with Bridget's relationship with her mom is that I found it disturbing that we never get to learn her name. She's consistently told as Bridget's mom, or her mom, or Mrs. Liu (which is strange since marriage is ultimately broken once your spouse is dead). It's never even Mom, which would be understandable and more comforting considering it's Bridget's POV. This brings me to a topic I'll discuss later, which involves the third-person perspective we're given.

There are four other examples of which women in relation to Bridget are used. The first being Mrs. Long, an elderly woman whom Bridget rescues from a demonic possession. The second being the headmistress of St. Michael's, who allegedly despises Bridget and consorts with Alexa in their hatred of her. The third being a nameless date of a friend of Matt (Bridget's love interest) who is described in the most disgusted terms possibly for no reason other than having dressed sexily:
Chris's date wore the littlest little black dress Bridget had ever seen. if she had dropped her purse and had to pick it up, there'd be a Britney getting out of the limo moment. She pawed at Chris's arm in a nauseatingly territorial display like she was afraid he was going to ditch her.
"This is Chelsea," Chris said. "She goes to Mercy."
Otherwise known as Sluts on the Slope. Bridget was pretty sure she saw Chris wink at Matt. Ew.
While benefit of the doubt can be given to whom exactly the "ew" is directed to here, I'm fairly sure I can attribute it to Chris's desire to be with Chelsea, rather than Chelsea's desire to be with Chris.

The last example is Ms. Laveau, whom Bridget criticizes for having a passion which she calls "amateur ghost hunting". Now for the past 150 pages, Bridget has been noted her own lack of experience and apparent insecurity (I don't believe in it for a second) in her own skills, especially since she's only started a few weeks ago. It's offensive that Bridget would be disdainful of someone else and automatically suggest her incompetency when she herself has not been at this for very long.

So to sum it up, we have:

1. The mother figure
2. The slutty bitch
3. The elderly victim
4. The slut
5. The incompetant woman

Numero uno being the only thing remotely portrayed as good in the narrative.

With Bridget herself not being a champion of women, there's a curious thread in the book that I hope gets explored further. At the beginning Bridget finds herself turned on by the power coursing through and is immediately afraid. When she makes out with Matt later on (I'll only hide semi-spoilers), she likens the feeling to the same desire she feels for Matt. When she embraces the power later on, I was quite pleased. At first, I had been bored with yet another reluctant heroine, emphasize on the ine. The parallel between her sexual desire and her desire for power being indistinguishable, I couldn't help but compare it to the themes in A Great and Terrible Beauty. (Awesome! Book!) With this thread, I had to add a star all on its own.

Continuing my discussion of women in McNeil's book, may I say that I have duly noted the absence of women playing an active part in the ongoing war. Women are either victims of men playing around with their own powers or guided by men, and most importantly, father figures. With Alexa's "evil nature" clearly being drawn from her father, I can only hope that she gets a turn around. Though that hope has been hugely tempered by the message for women in this book. If McNeil is reading this, I'm not complaining for the sake of complaining. I just wish/hope that you can be encouraged to add in more positive female interactions with Bridget that don't involve her mother (or God forbid, Hector in said role).

I'd also like the time to address the biracial part of Bridget Liu. Unfortunately, this is another case of Foreign But Not Too Foreign. Although it is completely realistic that Bridget doesn't inherit a bunch of Chinese genes and it is awesome that this hot Irish woman was attracted to a Chinese (read Asian) man, I was expecting more, especially with Bridget's ethnic identity being touted around the blogsphere. All I got though was a passing remark that "I thought you'd be more Chinese" (which I admit made me laugh. My own experiences with ethnicity include people mistaking me for Indian and Native American respectively.)

Bridget's character is a mixed bag. Although I understand that bullying can make people toughen up, Bridget has gone completely out of the spectrum. She acts like she's badass and even acknowledges in her mind taht she is. She talks a big talk but ultimately, can not do the walk. One example is bringing in Matt, who has his own issues galore (and will be called Matty from here on out). He's been apparently ordered to be Bridget's White Knight since his return to San Fran, and follows her around, demanding that she be in his sight at all times. At some point, he follows her and her friends in the car, begging for her to take a ride with him. Bridget firmly says no, many, MANY times. It's awesome. But that's pretty much where her say no to this guy ends. From there on out he manipulates her into going to the Winter Formal with her and forces himself into her life through guilt-tripping. Bridget is so passive and even worse, accepting, it makes me want to smack her. Especially when she shows enough promise to feel disgust at his look of responsibility -- and then contend that it's really, really sweet. Then she goes to tout this:
But somewhere along the line, [the Bridget that was content to wearing her school uniform, playing peekaboo with her baby brother and hide-and-seek with the son of her dad's best friend] had been lost, masked by a hard,, sarcastic shell complete with steel-toe boots and a don't-mess-with-me scowl.
Yes. This is how she views herself as of now. I choked on my nachos when I read this. She doesn't sound any different, intrinsically, than all other generic YA heroines except she wears steel-toe boots. Sorry. I forgot about Lena. This is actually my main problem. It might have to do with my expectations, but the whole book is merely yet another YA PNR. I mean, it even *ends* on the very last paragraph with Bridget saying that she couldn't have gotten through the mess without [Generic Love Interest]. That she NEEDS him. Then to top it off we get this, of her worrying about what to tell Matty of her guy friend, Brad (why she worries is beyond me):
She prayed he wouldn’t ask her about Brad later. How was she supposed to explain that gay men flocked to her like she was wearing a freaking disco ball as a hat without totally and completely outing Brad who, to be honest, might or might not be gay?
Read: guys can't like to be around Bridget girls and not be attracted to her without being gay. WTH, Hero?

The entire story, Generic Love Interest Matty drove me up the wazoo. Backstory above, he moved away and came back and appointed himself supreme Bridget protector. He even uses Sammy as an excuse to be around her -- and promptly ditches the kid as soon as he's got his tongue in Bridget's mouth.

The fact that he's portrayed as nice as opposed to Peter makes me puke as the only difference they have is looks and social status. They are both Nice Guys (TM). Spoilers! And the fact that Bridget is only in shock for about half a chapter and has to remind herself Peter's dead a few onwards because she's wrapped up in herself doesn't help her perspective of him or ours of her.


Of all accounts, the exorcisms are pretty basic and are what you'd see in any supernatural show/book involving demons (i.e. Supernatural, Buffy, ghost shows too). The mythology that develops a little later on doesn't feel very unique at all. I guessed the reveal (like every other element) the moment the Watchers were spoken of.

The way the mythology is presented however confused me. Everything seems well-researched, which made these random gaps in logic even more perplexing. At one point, Father Santos refers to the Hand of God and speaks as though it's never been referenced in history ever. And by no one young either.

Um, how did this Vatican expert never heard of Joan of Arc? If we go by this universe's rules, she must have been a Watcher, so what the hell? Her powers are even spoken of as touched by God. And what about every other saint and prophet in history? But none of this was more confusing than claiming that the story of Semyaza has been hidden for years. By the logic following, I'm assuming that Joan of Arc/St. Benedict/all people who claimed to be touched by God and the book of Enoch just don't exist in this world. It's the only hole in the otherwise more meticulous research in said genre.


The writing may be the real reason why I didn't enjoy this book as much as I wanted to do. The atmosphere only clicked with me once -- in the doll shop. I'm blanching even now just thinking about it. Others have claimed this book scared the shit out of them, but I took every thing with a giggle. The dialogue was cheesy and predictable, like most of the scenes, save doll shop. In fact, the book in whole was predictable. Like I said above, anyone who's read a multitude of YA PNR would know how this ends.

Foreshadowing and telegraphing were the main problems, especially with the villains - although the good guys took a hit. Spoilers! The moment Monsignor Renault walked on page and the demons yelled LIAR, it was obvious who it was directed to. I honestly wanted to slap him each time he appeared and scream, "Dude! Telegraphing!" The same happened with the explanation for Dr. Liu's death. Although Darlington was never mentioned, I suspected by the way he flirted closely with Bridget's mom. My suspicions were confirmed when his voice came on the tape recorder. Undermeyer's illness would obviously be a demonic possession. Father Santos would be a secret agent sent to observe Oh Most Powerful Bridget and the large amount of demonic activity. End of Spoilers! Finally, Matt would end up with Bridget. (And that is NOT a spoiler.)

The plot all felt very uninspiring, as opposed to the setting, which was perfect. Even now, I can feel the fog and downright creepiness of San Francisco around me. The insertion of Catholic elements enhanced the creepiness all the more. But as I think back, it only depresses me over what could have been.

The writing also incorporated several dated pop culture references like Britney's flashing incident, Ke$ha and Jonas Brothers. It was all very odd because Bridget is firmly placed in the hipster camp of hating all American Idol renditions of awesome classical songs and Coldplay and worshipping indie music. Even worse was the amount of trend-speak in the writing itself like Bridget mentioning something was full of fail. Repeating "oh shit" several times, and too many cliches to speak of, made me feel as though the author was trying too hard to capture that elusive Real Teen Speak.

Ableism - in form of non-neurotypical behavior - was just as present, which was problematic enough without considering what schizophrenia represented in this universe. I got pissed off at every mention, which is both from my personal experience of those around me and from researching for my recent manuscript how to properly write respectively schizophrenic and bipolar leads. This probably didn't help my enjoyment of the book.

I'm 100% positive that the writing would have been elevated, along with erasing the foreshadowing and telegraphing, if Bridget had just been replaced with "I". The whole book just felt as if vice versa had been done. However, I concede that the setting would have been lost (at least for me) if it was in first-person.

To close off this major write-off, I must stress that whoever owns Google should put in a word with publishers: if the owner got paid each time a YA heroine used Google, it is entirely possible that their wealth would double.

Rating (rounding up from 2.5): 3/5 stars

Now to cross my fingers that the sequel does not involve anymore deep-seated girl hate.

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