TW: sexual assault, gendered violence.
This review contains spoilers.
A year ago last Thursday, a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard was murdered in south London by a serving member of the Metropolitan Police who used his position to lure her into his car and rape her. In part because she was young, white, middle-class and photogenic, her murder inspired an upswelling of rage and sympathy and sparked a national conversation about the ubiquity of gendered violence in the UK: there was – and remains – a feeling that any woman or femme-presenting person could have shared Everard’s fate.
Published in 2020 – a year before Everard’s death – Holly Bourne’s Pretending taps into that same rage and fear, the emotional legacy of being female or perceived as female under patriarchy. Bourne’s protagonist, April, works for a rape crisis helpline and is herself struggling with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted multiple times in a previous relationship – a trauma that in her mind renders her unattractive and undesirable to cis men in general. After yet another failed date with a man who just straight-up does not want to deal with the after-effects of her trauma, April devises for herself a perfect alter-ego, “Gretel”, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’ll be everything she thinks cis men want – needy only when they want her to need them; adventurous and independent, but not too independent; undamaged, untraumatised, her history a cipher. As Gretel, she starts dating a nice man called Joshua, with predictable consequences: she finds herself wanting to pursue a serious relationship with him, but knows he’ll likely leave her if she reveals the extent of her deception.
Bourne is obviously working with some weighty themes here, and has some important points to make. In particular, the low-grade awfulness with which almost all of Pretending‘s male characters are afflicted speaks to the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s harms and the gender roles it enforces: many cis straight men are genuinely terrible because society enables them in their terribleness.
But that weightiness sits uneasily beside some of the other choices Bourne – and to some extent her marketing team – have made. There is a lot about this novel that is signalling “light-hearted romcom”, from the pale pink hardcover with its cutesily feminised handwriting to its near-total obsession with specifically romantic relationships: April’s self-avowed “hatred” for men is framed as a problem primarily because it makes dating fraught and unsatisfactory. We rarely see male characters in roles other than “potential or actual romantic partner”, with the not-so-honourable exception of April’s gay best friend coworker, who exists solely for emotional support purposes. And while there are scenes featuring female friendships where romance is not a topic of conversation (on the recommendation of her therapist, April joins a boxing club for rape survivors), they feel somewhat tangential to the main narrative, and somewhat undermined anyway by the fact that April does end up with Joshua, a choice that has a distinctly #notallmen vibe to it.
The central problem with all of this is that the novel seems fundamentally torn about whether April’s creation of Gretel is an ill-advised but quirky rom-com meet-cute type situation, or a symptom of a serious, trauma-induced mental breakdown. If it’s the latter, then April is not in a condition to be dating anyone and her heterosexual happy ending is both psychologically unlikely and something of a betrayal of the novel’s message about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and its centring of women’s experiences of it. But the former doesn’t work either: the novel wants us to read April as a psychologically realistic character whose attempt at catfishing is motivated by genuine trauma; to take her hatred and fear of men, in other words, seriously. It’s like – an essential critique of Western heterosexual culture has been shoved into a narrative structure (the romance) that has served in part to create and perpetuate Western heterosexual culture, and is fatally undermined thereby. Bourne wants to have her cake and eat it: to point out glaring problems caused by gender roles in het romance and have her heroine settle into an uncomplicatedly happy het romance.
This lack of narrative discipline is matched by a lack of grammatical discipline at the sentence level. Frankly, the novel could have done with a thorough copyedit. What is a sentence like this doing in the ninth book from a high-profile author with all the might of Hodder & Stoughton behind her?
“Don’t fall into that trap of being the untogether one whom people care about deeply, but whom they also use to feel more in control of their own lives.”
Those “whoms” are horrible; they feel grammatically wrong even if they technically aren’t. “Untogether” is a clumsy kludge of a word. The whole sentence is – well, it conveys meaning adequately, but it’s inelegant in the extreme. I’m not trying to argue that every page of every novel must be a perfectly engineered work of art, but I genuinely think this is some of the worst prose I’ve ever read in a published book. The Shopaholic novels are better-written than this.
Pretending, then, is a failure. It fails to argue for, or represent, any real, radical change in the patriarchal order, reaching instead for consolatory structures that suggest only a little light tinkering is required around the edges of Western society. It’s a failure of ambition, to imagine more and better things for everyone affected by patriarchy. It’s a failure of craft. We who are angry all deserve more.