It’s pretty much part of Dating 101 that you keep your crazy under wraps for as long as possible. It’s best to wait until there’s an L-bomb or a ring involved, when it becomes harder for the other person to make a clean getaway. (I always think of Carla’s advice on Scrubs: “He doesn’t know that I cry sometimes because I’m not sure there’s a cat heaven!”) One would think that the same thing would apply to the protagonists in the books we read (after all, we don’t want to sacrifice hours of our lives to a complete screw job), but there are plenty of exceptions. In a book, sometimes crazy can be charming. Or sometimes it allows us to see our own crazy writ large on the page, making those deep darks seem a little less menacing. And sometimes, as with Stacey May Fowles‘ Fear of Fighting (Invisible Publishing, 2008), it does both.
After a devastating break-up, Fowles’ protagonist, Marnie, admits to being “bat shit crazy,” confessing, “I obsessively save all the evidence that I’m alive, and, when I’m satisfied, collect evidence from the nearby Goodwill that other people are alive as well.” Such moments of passive melancholy are interspersed with moments of rage: she wants to hurl lemons in the supermarket, write “Fuck You” in kitty litter in the feminine hygiene aisle. And though some of her responses are a tad unusual, her problems are actually garden variety — something we can all relate to and still delight in its alternately funny and heartbreaking (and sometimes both) manifestations.
In order to understand Marnie’s Urban Fresh rage and sense of invisibility, Fowles takes us to the source, acquainting us with Marnie’s personal romance case file, from learning to kiss boys, to falling in love for the first time, to her first major relationship with Ben, the catalyst for Marnie’s downward spiral. And as Marnie nosedives into depression, we revisit the watermarks of her relationship with Ben, from the drunken night they met to Marnie’s bout of food poisoning to the petty arguments at the end. And as Fowles fearlessly airs all of Marnie’s quirks and insecurities on the printed page (her list of reasons why she’s not a “cool” girlfriend is one of the highlights), we start to identify with Marnie’s plight, for who isn’t lulled by the buoyant gaze of love? Who isn’t wooed into that deceptive shared identity, in which your old self slowly fades away? Who hasn’t opened themselves up fully, only to be rejected? Marnie explains, “Maybe I didn’t want to see or speak with anyone because I didn’t want to explain how miserable I was that the only person I felt had understood me had left me because he couldn’t stand me anymore.” I’d venture that there are very few people out there who haven’t had that feeling, and if they haven’t, they probably should.
So yes, while not all of us may be reduced by heartbreak to a shut-in who passes the day with Internet-fuelled hypochondria, Netflix, and Jim Beam, but I think most people have flirted with this kind of despair, using masochistic reminiscing and mounting depression to hang on to the last tattered shreds of something glorious. I think most people have felt unworthy of their partner, kept a lid of their crazy and tried to be the “cool girlfriend” (or boyfriend). We’ve felt judged by our parents, by our former classmates, by the people behind us in the line at the Urban Fresh for being alone.
But we are not always judged harshly, and one of the most beautiful touches of Fear of Fighting is the handful of chapters written from the perspective of Neil, the man across the hall, who loves Marnie without reason, without limitation, even as she is deep in the throes of despair and self-loathing. Neil is an embodiment of our own tender feelings for Marnie, and a reminder that there is a softer side to love’s fickle attentions, that love can be simple and undemanding, and that even when we see no reason to greet the day dressed and sober, when we may be hopeless, jobless, and generally unfit for human contact, it is still possible to be loved, and not just by the people that have to.
This kind of thing isn’t easy to write well. It’s too easy to descend into live journal melodrama, but Fowles punctuates biting prose and wry humour with moments of unguarded sweetness and sincerity. Fowles’ range is remarkable, and she captures the detachment as well as the decadence of love. The directness of her sentences is often disarming, as Fowles rips off the band-aids we’ve been using to cover our own love scars. Take her explanation of Ben: “I didn’t want anybody but instead I got Ben. And I slept with Ben immediately and loved Ben instantly.” Yet Fowles is also capable of more lush, rhythmic descriptions, when they’re called for. Take Marnie’s description of her golden days with Ben: “With Ben, skin was frontier and words no longer translated, we simply hummed to a rhythm in the perfect afternoon light. I lost all my boundaries with him; there was no feeling of end, no lines drawn in chalk to outline us and them, you and me. Everything became everything else, blended and bleeding like a watercolour stain, gradations of light and dark.”
Fowles’ prose is beautifully complemented by the illustrations by Marlena Zuber, which channels a sort of childishness with a darker edge, though they do sometimes also add a welcome levity. It’s a beautifully produced book, and the printed inner covers are not only aesthetically pleasing, but carry the book’s message as clearly as what lies between them: You can hang your own wallpaper.
It’s a book you can read in one sitting, and a book you’ll want to. A book that explores what it means to be a couple, what it means to be alone, how to care for others and how to care for ourselves, and most of all, the delicious scars of love — how we make them, and then pick them, and eventually, how we heal.
Want to join the fray and talk Fear of Fighting with the author and other readers? Join the inaugural Book Madam Book Club today at 1 p.m.! (There are prizes!)
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