Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Review: The Derby Girl by Tamara Morgan

4 stars

The Derby Girl  is the third book by Morgan I've read, and I've come to realise that she's is exceptional at creating emotionally complex and realistic characters and plots. 

Gretchen, roller derby player and perpetual student, has been giving Dr. Jared Fine, local plastic surgeon and national hero, his coffee for months, but he doesn't recognise her when she stops to help him with his broken-down car orr when he asks her out a few minutes later. Jared is fascinated by Gretchen's her tough-girl demeanour, but Gretchen is playing a role and holding herself back, worried that Jared only wants the fantasy of the tattooed derby girl. 

The interplay between Jared and Gretchen was great. They snipe away at each other, and Gretchen doesn't take any shit, calling Jared out when he's being a selfish prick. He's a classic messed-up anti-hero (although a very nuanced one), and much of the book's conflict comes from Gretchen's concern that his relationship with her might be emotionally unhealthy. Having said that, we also have an excellent sub-plot surrounding Gretchen's aging grandmother, with whom she lives. 

Although Jared had a tendency towards dickishness, Morgan constructs this in such a way that, for the most part, you can't really hold it against him. Jared's sensitiveness, his upbringing and career, and his growing awareness his male privilege, meant that I didn't have any problems with him as a hero, at least until the final chapters. Up until then, there was never any doubt in my mind that Gretchen would reform him, in the great tradition of romance heroines everywhere.

Except that, I kind of felt that, in the end, she didn't. And, even though I suppose that was in line with the complex emotional realism that I value from Morgan, it also is the reason I shaved the rating down to 4 stars, even though I decided about halfway through that it was definitely a 4.5. 

In short, the ending let me down. Throughout the book, Jared has a complicated relationship with his father, and fights against the thought of becoming an uncaring, manipulative bastard like his old man. Without giving too much away, the ending sees him manipulate his friends to get what he wants, and, for me, this played into the fatalistic belief that he would become like his father, and took away from the hopeful note that his relationship with Gretchen could somehow 'save' him. 

Even though it may not sound like it from the way I've presented Jared and Gretchen's relationship, the traditional idea of a woman being responsible for her male partner's wellbeing and behaviour is one that is challenged throughout The Derby Girl. It does concern Gretchen that this is what Jared expects of her, and they discuss her concerns in the final pages of the book:
"...that's the problem. I can't be responsible for your actions or lack thereof. That's not a relationship. That's a jail sentence."
 "You're wrong." When she opened her mouth to protest, Jared grabbed her hands, unwilling and unable to let her go. "The problem with that scenario isn't that I'm asking you to be my reality check--It's that you haven't asked me to yours in return."
This is also where Gretchen's strength of character is important, in that it gives the reader peace of mind that the dynamic will always be that of equals, because she isn't afraid to draw boundaries and stick to them.

On the whole, The Derby Girl was a funny and enjoyable read with good emotional depth. I came away loving it, and it was only packing the dishwasher afterward that I started to have reservations about the ending. So, really, the take-away here is to never to do housework. It gives you to much time to think stuff over. 

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