Sharon Shinn, The Shape of Desire
Love in a terrible state

The book starts with the first person narrative by Maria, who speaks to us, except when relating incidents deep in her past, in the present tense, a [shtick] that I find annoying, but relatively easy to tune out. She's detected a stranger entering her house, but soon realizes it's her gorgeous boyfriend:

My God, he is so beautiful. Beneath the grime and beard stubble, his skin is marble white; his deep-set eyes are a dense and impenetrable brown. His mouth is full and heavy, his cheekbones deliberately planed. Black hair sweeps back from his forehead in a theatrical fall. He could have been an actor, a model, a muse, some rich woman's companion... (p. 2)

I presume the author is attempting to pick up on the success of the Twilight franchise (‘marble’ skin, theatrical black hair). Which, as a lot of commenters have observed, is also rife with abuse issues. The problelm is that Shinn can't quite bring herself to wholeheartedly embrace the Twilightian Weltanschauung; but neither can she entirely shut off her critical faculties, so we have a protag whom even the character herself admits is amoral—not immoral, simply without morals in regard to the object of her desire.

Maria, like Bella, lives—obsessively—for her lover. She only feels ‘alive’ when she sees him, as the author makes clear from the get-go (we learn this by the end of the first scene, on page 5). She feverishly anticipates his arrival, then mopes when he departs a few days later: by page 12 she admits:

I'm almost thirty-five years old and for close to half of my life I have been in love with a man I cannot introduce to my family or my friends...They wonder if I'm simply off, strange, missing some essential component of affection or desire.

They don't understand that what I have is so precious, so intense, such an essential part of my life, that I would not give it up for any inducement. If I tried, or if someone forced me to, I truly believe I would die (p. 12)

Over and over again, this comes up: she can hardly stand the thought of going to work whilst he's ‘roaming the streets, visiting parks, browsing through stores, existing’ (p 17) without her; she ‘lives’ for the rare, scarce email he sends during the times (roughly 25 days of every month) he's away. Were I willing to do a chapter by chapter analysis, a la Fred Clark/Slactivist I could quote endless examples of this obsession—they're sprinkled throughout the novel; but I wanted to complete this today.

When he's around, they a) have sex b) eat c) watch tv or movies and, oh yes, d) argue. Why? Because he's a secretive, controlling bastard: everything she's learned she's had ‘to chisel out of [him] by asking questions [he] doesn't want to answer’ (p 34) and, at the end of an argument about his animal form, forces herself not to ‘clamor’ aloud:

“I've done nothing but let it go! I believed your impossible story without a shred of proof! I've designed every detail of my life to accommodate yours (i.e. purchasing a house that backs up to the woods, lying to friends and family, never going overseas, etc) I have loved you without conditions, trusted you without reservations. All I want is to know you better. All you want is to keep your distance.” (p.35)

This unsatisfactory relationship, in which her life bumps along in a half-awake state, working, cleaning, eating, gossiping chatting with coworkers (and very little else—this woman has no hobbies, to the point she wishes she could take up smoking to pass the time) while either anticipating his return or mourning his departure, would have continued indefinitely but for the murders.

Meanwhile, we have the coworker Kathleen. Kathleen's story is far more typical than Maria's: she's a classic abused spouse. According to statistics, domestic violence—physical, psychological or sexual abuse perpetrated upon intimate partners—happens to as many as 1 in 3 people. It strikes all levels of society, from the highest to the lowest socioeconomic strata. Though the stereotypical abuser is characterized as a drunk—indeed women's push for Prohibition was explicitly to address domestic violence, not ban a fun recreational drug—perpetrators are not necessarily drug abusers.

Perpetrators of DV are so common because they're ‘ordinary’ —regular guys.[1] They may be stressed by chemical dependency, unemployment, discrimination, and the like, but ultimately, they beat their partners because they can; because they're in a position of power for that particular relationship, and society turns a blind eye.[2] Domestic violence is a huge part of our culture, so embedded that film-makers have an easier time getting rape(y) scenes than fully consensual sex past the movie censor board.[3]

Kathleen clearly needs to get out of a relationship that has deteriorated so badly she comes to work with makeup covering bruises, and a spouse so threatened that even the longterm loan of an unwanted, inexpensive netbook is threatening. And indeed, mutual friend and Maria's bestie, Ellen, is attempting to do just that. Problem is, Kathleen doesn't want to leave her husband, because she loves him.

Ok, that's common, a lot of abused spouses are so damaged, their self-esteem so undermined, that they feel this way. The problem is, the author seems to feel this is acceptable, too. Clearly there is supposed to be a parallel between Maria and Kathleen's situations. Both have secrets (though Kathleen is unable to preserve hers). Both are obsessively, unhealthily in love. Bad enough when Maria merely puts up with behavior that in the real world would be huge red flags for infidelity, fraud, or serial killing; but even in the context of the story—even when she's afraid her lover Dante is responsible for killing a bunch of people—she reacts not by questioning him, but lying, scheming and enabling him to escape detection.

Clearly, Not Healthy.

This comes about when Kathleen's husband, a marathoner, is killed by some sort of animal in the nearby state park after an altercation between him and Dante. Third in a series of recent killings, Maria becomes abruptly afraid that Dante has become a murderer while in animal form. Because he refuses to discuss his lycanthropy, she doesn't know precisely what forms he typically takes, how much of his human cogitation or social restraint he retains or how likely he would have been to randomly start killing people.

(This is also why I shouldn't be too annoyed at my friend for giving away the murderer: the author hasn't done enough to explain why Dante would have killed the previous two victims to Kathleen's husband—why, after 15 years of turning into an animal, would he suddenly start killing people? The only hint we're given is that he's started to turn into bigger animals, (he suggests a bison) but again that doesn't really make sense: he's been at his adult weight for—one presumes—at least 10 of the 15-odd years Maria has known him. Since he turned to small animals while small, and larger animals—‘never less than 50 lbs’ after becoming an adult—why would he suddenly be shifting to bigger animals now? Deer, mountain lions and wolves (which he's evidently been in the past) all fall roughly into the 100–200 lb range, as do adult human males. Bison, on the other hand, can weigh as much as 2000 lbs, 10x as much, so I couldn't help but feel that when Dante makes this suggestion he's bullshitting Maria, a highly emotional person whose sentiments easily overrule her critical faculties [a trait of which Dante is highly aware]. In any event, we have no reason except Maria's obsessive worrying to believe Dante should've suddenly started slaughtering random hikers for shits and giggles.)

However, Dante is present in another city with Maria during another murder, and she's so filled with relief that he calls her on her emotional reaction, and she finally admits her fears to him.

So of course, then Maria (and Dante's) suspicians turn to his taciturn brother, who has also violently interacted with humanity; and of course the real murderer turns out to be the nearly normal sister, Christina, who had the misfortune to get a blood transfusion (which causes madness in the were) during the birth of her baby 3 months ago, which is when the murders began. Presumably she's also the white wolf bitch that Maria feeds.[4]

Maria, who rather desparately desires a baby but can't have one with Dante because he considers their family affliction a ‘curse’ and snipped his tubes long since, takes over Christina's baby, Elizabeth. Dante learns how to consciously control the ability to turn human from his brother and decides to marry Maria. They will cover up the sister's death, stealing her car and abandoning her body as a Jane Doe in the hopes that no-one will connect the body that perhaps—unbelievably (on the local network news, no less...)—shifted from a ‘shambling’ bear-wolf creature back to human—with them.

The end.

You can sort of see why my friend felt the book just ended. The author did, actually, set up these threads, what with Maria babysitting Elizabeth and just loving her, and a brief mention somewhere along the way that blood transfusions are a bad idea. However, once again, there needed to be more support: why, for example, did a woman well aware of a dangerous family tendancy risk a hospital, instead of a midwife (presumably a were-midwife) or even simply refuse a transfusion? It's perfectly legal to do so. Besides the fact that, one doesn't normally need a transfusion for birth.[5]

We know, in sort of a vague way, that perhaps Christina's end will be an unhappy one because the author, instead of focusing on the beauty of Christina Rosetti's poetry (I'm fortunate enough to have a copy of “Goblin Market” in a collection of victorian faery tales) the narrator instead merely notes her sad, unhappy life. But are her brothers really so heartless that they can casually discard her corpse like a piece of trash and meanwhile scheme what to do with her possessions—her car, her house, her savings? Even the sentimental Maria is more interested in getting into the dead woman's email and fooling her colleagues—plus, of course, snatching her baby—than in any kind of mourning.

I consider myself a cold-hearted bastard, but I was still rather appalled at their behavior. There was no guilt over Christina's victims, only plans for divvying up her estate and escaping detection: all three of them—Maria, Dante and William—are accessories after the fact to murder, which appears not to bother them at all.

To be sure, the narrator is aware of her sociopathic tendancies, but seems totally uninterested in controlling them, let alone reversing them (i.e. dropping Dante). ‘We love who we love’ she says to Ellen, her nosy co-worker her who, in an obvious example of soft racism[6] (that I think the author is subtly criticising, because it fails) attempts to set up an adulterous but otherwise appealing colleague with a member of his own race. She's speaking of her own relationship, but Kathleen the abused is still sobbing her heart for her dead, abusive husband ‘who truly loved her.’

Um, no. He truly controlled her. That kind of relationship is not love. Love builds you up, makes you stronger, encourages your growth. Ritchie the abuser bought his wife expensive gifts with his wife's earnings (that then impoverished them to the point that she couldn't even afford an inexpensive computer) but he did not love his wife. Unlike Ellen's racism, which is slapped down, Kathleen is still grieving, still loving her horrible spouse and everybody–even Ellen the savior, who ought to know how these monsters work—is on board with this.

Plotting is hard. I get this. I've been working on a fantasy with some eerie parallels—average looking female protagonist with motherhood issues, male protag complete with greasy black mane, both of whom are—oh yeah—animals (except, all the time) who spend most of the book working, gossiping and sweating their love lives or lack thereof—and have been writing ‘the last three chapters’ or ‘the last three days’ for about...the last year. Those friends who have been willing to listen to me about this book are wondering if I'll ever get it done, and I've only come to realize that what I thought was a done deal (the ending) had a lot of unexplored issues that needed to be resolved if the character motivations were to make sense—and I'm just an amateur.

But the fact of the matter is, sloppy plotting, the unwanted child of an unwillingness to face hard questions (in this case the unhealthy shape of the protags’ desires) has resulted in a book that, thematically, starts with a rather creepy, controlling lover and ends with pathological liars and murderers triumphing; with abuse victims consoled and encouraged in their love for their abusers; with, so far as I can tell, five people dead in order that the author can satisfy the main character's lust for motherhood and finish the book.

It's bad enough when an author creates this sort of thing unconsciously, out of her own issues[7] ; worse, I suppose, when they know better, but throw off the doubts to have a good time or at least pay the rent; but unconscionable when ze knows better, drops hints, but isn't willing to take the story to its logical conclusion for a lack of backbone, resulting in a story that is neither deliciously awful—Cleolinda's twinkie—nor challenging—say, a bitter salad—but instead is the worst of both worlds, tasteless diet food.

So I'd say my friend has good reason to be unsatisfied with this novel.

[1]In my idiolect, guys is a technically nongendered term with a default status of male, which as it happens applies to abusers too: they can be female, but usually are not; victims, too, can be male but usually are not.

[2]When I was asked to help an abused family member I read up on this subject and learned far more than I ever wanted to know about it. The abuser in this case was employed, white, upper middle class and without substance abuse issues. IOW, a ‘regular guy’.

[3]This is explored in In this Film is not yet Rated and elsewhere, but of course I didn't save the link. However, familiarity with mainstream US film bears out this assertion.

[4]A dangling plot thread my friend cited as evidence that this book was a rush/hack job.

[5]This, for me, was the point when it became obvious even to clueless me how badly Shinn had written herself into a corner. Partway through the book there's a throwaway line about blood transfusions making weres insane. That, already, smacked of Deus ex Machina; but then Dante supposes Christina never mentioned the blood transfusion to her brothers because it ‘would've worried’ them. But it's unfair to the reader, because most people do not associate childbirth with transfusions. It just was so obviously convenient: how do I, as author, make this character a murdering savage so's the readers, who are likely moms themselves, will sympathize with my child-stealing protagonist, as opposed to her mother?

[6]Another example would be Maria's ethnicity itself: she's some sort of latina, presumably, for they all ‘share a certain olive-toned coloring inherited from my great-grandparents, who emigrated from Mexico’ though it's been diluted by marrying white people and aside from that paragraph never comes up again—not in their family customs, their food (excepting one para down), their holidays or anything else. It doesn't drive the story, affect the narrator or her family; so, aside from getting her politically correct cred in, why did the author bother to mention it?

[7]As people have argued for Stephanie Meyer.