Review of Untouchable, a High School Bully Romance by Sam Mariano Rating: **
Protagonist Zoey has become a pariah at her high school after reporting being groped by a member of the football team to the school administration. He was consequently booted from the team, impacting both his chances for a college scholarship and the team’s chances to make the state playoffs.
In the first scene of the book, he and a couple of buddies, including Carter, team quarterback and wealthy scion of an important family in Zoey’s small Texas town, corner her in an empty classroom (in a school that apparently has so much unused space that there are classrooms out of hearing distance of any other humans during the school day) with the intention of bullying her into recanting her testimony and restoring the guy to the team. When Zoey is defiant, things spiral out of control. She is stripped down to her panties and, under the threat of gang rape/sodomy, forced to fellate Carter while the other two look on/stand guard..
(Notice all those passive voice sentences in my description? Writers do that when we want to emotionally distance ourselves.)
After this assault, Zoey has to figure out how to move forward. Her previous #metoo moment has already made her high school life almost unbearable. It will be her word of the three of them. In addition, she has no support at home–her mother thinks she made a mistake by turning the first guy in.
Huddling in bed the next day, she tells herself all she has to do is make it through her senior year and win the scholarship to the college in Pennsylvania that she has in her sights. Then she can leave small town Texas behind forever.
But sociopath Carter follows up his sexual assault by appearing at her house with a container of hot soup, inquiring about her health. Zoey’s mother is ready to swoon that her little girl is garnering attention from the wealthy jock and can’t understand why Zoey doesn’t want to date/marry him. (If I were from Texas, I’d probably find this stereotype really offensive.)
I titled this post “Rape Fantasy” as a reference to Margaret Atwood’s 1977 short story, “Rape Fantasies.” That story chronicles a group of women exchanging stories about how they’d handle a potential rape–all of which end in not-rape as they talk to and connect with their would-be rapists. This book is another such fantasy, where rape isn’t rape if you look at it the right way.
***BEWARE OF SPOILERS BELOW***
Driven by curiosity and a sense of fatalism, Zoey allows Carter to push past her boundaries without consequences. In one scene he ignores first her request not to take her virginity and a subsequent request to wear a condom so she won’t get pregnant. Afterward, she shrugs off this unprotected rape with a kind of “water under the bridge” attitude.
At the end of the book, Zoey and Carter wind up living together in an apartment near the campus of Columbia University, attending grad school and happily engaging in the rough sex they both enjoy.
How did Zoey earn this happily ever after? By being strong enough to endure Carter’s abuse and finding the hidden gem of a guy underneath. What really made me nuts was the implicit statement that if you’re mentally tough enough, being raped doesn’t have to be a big deal.
At one point she says, “We aren’t what is done to us. People are going to hurt us, and it’s going to be hard, and sometimes we might never get closure. We might never understand why… People don’t get what they deserve. They get what they get, and then they have to make the best of it.”
Although, in our imperfect world, Zoey’s statement may be accurate, I don’t much care for it as the theme of a book marketed to teenage girls. I hate to think of any young girl who has endured such abuse being persuaded that philosophical acceptance is the healthy response, and feeling even worse when she can’t adopt that attitude.
I gave this book two stars because it’s competently written. It has a riveting (if horrifying) first scene, believable dialogue and three-dimensional characters with arcs. I didn’t rate it higher because I profoundly object to the notion that women should just tough their way through sexual abuse and treat it like it’s no big deal.
I probably would give it a negative rating. One of my big problems with Fifty Shades is that lack of definitive consent. She kept saying no and he kept pushing. I would have a huge problem with the forced nature of some of the encounters in that book.
Definitely stay away from this one. The author prefaces it with a trigger warning and she’s not kidding.
Bully romance is just not for me, at all. Yikes times a million.
(Unless it’s a bodice ripper, which is basically old-timey bully romance, but let’s not explore what that says about my psyche too much.)
The very first romance I ever read was The Sheik by E.M. Hull, copyright 1919. (No, I’m not that old. My aunt collected books and I found it on her shelf.)
It was the seminal bully/stalker/psycho kidnapper romance, later made into a movie with Rudolph Valentino. It centers on a desert sheik who kidnaps a tomboyish young British woman and forces her to become his mistress.
Really, someone should have ripped that thing from my grubby 12-year-old hands.