Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

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“This weakness of mine for the unloved… it was probably pathological.”

This is a tricky, wonderfully dark read. It crawled in the beginning and I thought, ‘well this is going to be boring’ but then everything began to deteriorate in a good way. Bo Luxton has written best sellers but her talent is settling now. Living a charmed life with her husband and little girls in the Lake District, she is content if not feeling ‘to die for love’ for Gus well, she is living the life most people would give anything to have. She counts her many blessings, and loves nothing more than her young children. She is soothed by the nature of her surroundings (the mountains) sure of the idea the rest of the world is sick from being cut off from the natural world. Maybe all marriages become stale, it’s just the order of life. All she needs is her children and her beautiful world, away from the sickness of the city and human mess. She is about to attend a writer’s retreat, picking talent from a pile of hopefuls she comes across a disturbing story by aspiring author, Alice Dark. Entitled “Last Words” it tells a sinister tale, a relationship between it’s author and her dying mother, because surely something this intense has to be autobiography? Alice Dark becomes the chosen, creator of her favorite submission, and the meeting between the women takes place. The two are drawn to each other instantly.

Alice Dark is young, broke, living with feckless, useless boyfriends– her current, Jake. Jake, who refuses the ‘mainstream’ life, a talented artists making a living from his work but his talent can’t push him to thrive, and what once seemed like a promising relationship has expired.  Alice envies Bo Luxton’s “Lyrical Beauty”, where Alice’s writing is haunting and dark, Bo’s can only come from the angelic hands of ethereal talent. “Bo must write with feathers.” Alice and Bo are going to build a unique bond at the retreat, one that extends into emails back and forth and soon an invitation for a visit to Bo’s home. Both become too close for comfort.

This is a strangely complicated relationship the women form, dangerously intimate. Both are exquisite liars and truth tellers, chew on that! Each unravels in her own strange way, both cling to each other but for different reasons. Bo seems to both test her feelings for Alice and deny them, Alice is a wreck pulled this way and that by her emotions and Bo’s attention that seems to wax and wane. One moment their intimacy is raw, the next there is a feeling of indifference. Alice’s stays are more frequent, she wants nothing more than to see Bo happy. But is she seeing too much into their friendship? Does Alice just want a mother that will nurture her, heal the rotting wounds her own mother left? What is Bo getting out of this, is it Alice’s youth, thinking she can feel electric again, that some of Alice’s freedom and wild spirit will rub off on her?

Do we really know what the heck is going on? Who is the prisoner that speaks at the start of the novel? Why is Bo such a champion for young talent? What happened in her past, with another student? Both women are damaged, but who is ripe for destruction? Why won’t Bo ‘pick over old memories’, just what happened in her untouchable past? Why does she collect damaged people, ‘waifs and strays‘, as her husband Gus calls them? Why is Gus warning her to “be careful this time” ? What happened with her own mother, what was so bad that she assures herself she is nothing like her ? Is that why Alice’s story touched a nerve with her? Could the bond be created on the backs of terrible mothers?

The hunger is why things move so fast between the women, the hungry need. Both are empty for reasons we half understand, picking over the wreckage of their pasts, trying to find something solid and vibrant in the now. In Bo’s mind, Alice is ‘fragile’, ‘artless’ and only Bo can untangle her rotten past. It’s all about winning her confidence, taking her under her wing, and in doing so- Alice feels her real life has just begun. Has it?

The reader is on unstable ground, as much as the minds telling the story are unstable. How can a story be tender and brutal at the same time? It’s a mess, you go from passion to hatred, seeing vulnerability as necessary to regretting your character being careless and unguarded. At the end, everything happens fast and my my, strange to think exposure can be a relief to someone fueled by manipulation… but who? You have to read. This is one of those novels where if you dip too much into the review you ruin the shock of it. I liked it far more than I expected, because what is more dangerous and painful than trust and vulnerability?

Available Now (published October 1, 2017)

Trafalgar Square Publishing

Orenda Books

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