Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas

Title: This Gorgeous Game
Author: Donna Freitas
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date: May 25th, 2010
Pages: 208 pages (hardback)
How I Got the Book: Christmas gift.

This Gorgeous Game
Seventeen-year-old Olivia Peters has long dreamed of becoming a writer. So she's absolutely over the moon when her literary idol, the celebrated novelist and much-adored local priest Mark D. Brendan, selects her from hundreds of other applicants as the winner of the Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize. Now she gets to spend her summer evenings in a college fiction seminar at the nearby university, where dreamy college boys abound and father Mark acts as her personal mentor.

But when Father Mark's enthusiasm for Olivia's writing develops into something more, Olivia quickly finds her emotions shifting from wonder to confusion to despair. And as we wide-eyed innocence deteriorates, Olivia can't help but ask--exactly what game is Father Mark playing, and how on earth can she get out of it?

This remarkable second novel by the author of The Possibilities of Sainthood, about overcoming the isolation that stems from victimization, is powerful, luminous, and impossible to put down.


Before her eyes, Olivia Peters's dreams are coming true. A story she entered in a writing contest won first place and as a prize, she is enrolled free of charge in a college fiction seminar taught by Father Mark Brendan, famous author and Olivia's idol, who is also going to help groom her story for publication. He becomes enthusiastic about her writing and they spend a lot of time together discussing her story. His attention begins to cause Olivia discomfort, then comes to flat-out scare her. If she doesn't respond to his messages, he desperately contacts her and will not stop until she gives in. Her dream spirals into a nightmare of paranoia and fear, and there's no one she can talk to that she thinks will understand.

I'm always on the lookout for good books about stalking because it is a terrifying, real-life experience and when I see so many books make stalking look romantic, I need books that portray it as the horrible thing it is so I don't lose all faith in humanity. This book has been on my wish list for months and I was glad to finally get a copy of it. (There's also the fact that I want to write a book about a girl getting stalked and want to see how other authors do it, but that has little to do with anything. Moving on!)

Olivia and her tale are both written wonderfully. Just as most real victims would, she doesn't come to realize how she's being drawn away from her friends and family or Father's Mark's behavior until she's in a little too deep to end it just like that. The effect his obsessive behavior has on her is written convincingly and he never seems like some over-the-top caricature of an obsessive man; from the many accounts of similar stories I have heard, he fits right in with other men like him. Everything, from the obliviousness of everyone around Olivia to her crisis over whether or not to hate God and blame Him for what's happening, feels like something that could happen in real life instead of an overdramatic fictional rendition. I also liked how it delivered the message that when priests do this to people, it is their fault, not the Catholic church's. On a side note: finally, a book that shows stalking as what it really is! This calls for the first use of the "stalking is bad" tag on a book with stalking that's not trying to get passed off as romantic!

At times, I felt like the book was trying a little too hard to be suspenseful. Take this quote from page nine: "There I am in seventh period AP calc and Ms. Lewis is drawing tangent lines on the board and her arm and the chalk slope up, up, up and there is a knock and the door opens and Sister June our principal is standing there and I see the expression on her face and I know." I understand that this is an attempt to build the suspense, but the excessive run-on here threw me out of the story just after began. I pay just as much attention to the construction of the story as the story itself. This book has numerous moments where I read a sentence, then re-read it ten times over because it either didn't make sense or I was trying to determine whether or not that blaring error was supposed to be there.

To tell the truth, this book made me uncomfortable for a reason different than what one might think. In hindsight, I wish I had done my research a little better so that I would have known how heavily religious this book would be. I had a feeling it would be a little religious because of Father Mark being a priest, but I had no idea how deep it would go. Olivia going to a Catholic girl's academy, the university where the class is held being called Holy Mary University, the cross Olivia's love interest Jamie wears around his neck (which is brought to the reader's attention multiple times),... I have no problem with the Christian religion itself or any denominations of it. The problem is that heavily religious books in general make me uncomfortable. I would have had the same problem if it were heavily Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, or even heavily atheist. That's why I stay away from religious fiction in general. If I had known beforehand how Christian the book would be, I'm sure I would have been better prepared and not been as uncomfortable as I was. I mean to offend no one with the statements I've just made.

Readers who like their endings closed-ended will not like how This Gorgeous Game ends. It's left very open-ended, so much so that it brings down the quality of the entire book. The reader gets a vague idea of what happens, but it would have been preferable to sift through the aftermath with Olivia and keep riding with her as everything that happened to her is revealed to the police and we see exactly what happens to Father Mark. Had he done this to other girls or was Olivia the only one? Sometimes, open endings are what is best for a story to keep the reader wondering, but that is only to a certain degree. The ending of this book left too many questions in its wake.

I teetered between two or three stars because one of my rules is that if I lack an emotional connection to the book, it's three stars, no exceptions. I lacked that connection until the last fifty pages of the book, when I really got into the story and I started feeling horrified at what Olivia went through and really connecting with her. If that connection had been made much earlier than it was, this would be a four-star book for sure. Beautifully written, powerful, and tangible, I recommend this to anyone who is sick of the romanticizing of stalking or just wants a good, suspenseful, and well-written read.

What am I reading next?: Once in a Full Moon by Ellen Schreiber