Monday, 5 September 2016

Review: The First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

1 star
TW: Islamophobia, rape accusations

I feel deeply ambivalent about First Star I See Tonight, to be honest. The central romance was okay (until the end when everything went massively screwy), but there was an Orientalist subplot and some other elements that I quite disliked and was uncomfortable with. 

In some ways, the whole thing was vintage SEP, which is not surprising since it's the latest installment in her long-running Chicago Stars series. In others, it was SEP trying to fit herself to today's readers, market and society. If this had been a vintage SEP book, I might have written some things off as a product of the time, but I can't do that here, especially when she seems to have almost gone out of her way to make it 'current', including diverse characters and expounding on rape culture, Islam and other random things (even when her writing and characters didn't actually hold up to her throwaway political statements).

But, first, let me back up a bit. First Star I See Tonight features Piper Dove, a down-on-her-luck detective, who has been assigned to follow ex-NFL player Cooper Graham, now the proprietor of a hot new nightclub. He twigs pretty quickly, and eventually offers Piper an alternate arrangement: she'll work for him at the club instead, since she's noticed some things that don't seem quite right. 

SEP has always been the master of the redeemable alpha-hole hero, and Coop is walks the line well. His back-and-forth with Piper was priceless, but he wasn't too much of a jerk. He was also reflecting well on his behaviour and how that might come across to women, with a self-awareness I would personally like to romance heroes display more often. 

However, his 'save the cat' moment was a subplot that involved him using his influence to 'rescue' a Pakistani woman, Faiza, from her indentured servitude to a Middle Eastern Royal Family presumably based on that of Saudi Arabia. He does so by basically buying her, giving the prince the impression he is going to use her as a sex slave. The whole thing - from the white saviour element to the representation of the degenerate Arab prince - just left a bad taste in my mouth. Frankly, I just wish the whole subplot hadn't existed. 

To make matters worse, there was one really horrible incident of Islamophobia by the heroine, which was just so not okay:
Piper asked if she would consider taking off her headscarf until they went through [the US/Canada border crossing]. "We're an odd-looking group," she said, "Even though all our papers are in order, it would make the crossing easier." 
I'll paraphrase that in case those of you in the back didn't catch it the first time 'round: 
Please compromise your deeply held religious beliefs, so that Coop and I don't have to be inconvenienced if the border guards are racist fuckwits
That also came on the back of another uncomfortable - and frankly bizarre - exchange, where the author finishes recounting a conversation between Coop and Faiza like this: 
Only when he ventured into politics did Faiza grow fiery. "The word Islam means 'peace, purity, submission, and obedience," she said. "What has terrorism to do with any of those things?"  
It's just weirdly dropped in, and then normal conversation resumes. I can't see the point of it at all, and none of the reasons I can think of for so blatantly and randomly making such a statement in the middle of people apolitically living their lives (right after this, they get lunch from Burger King) are flattering. Does she think that her readers are going to associate Islam with terrorism and, if so, that this will dissuade them? Does she, in some way, feel that she needs to establish that her Muslim character is not a terrorist? I don't even know what to think about it, and after those two incidents, I skim-read the parts relating to that subplot. 

Overall, I think First Star I See Tonight is a powerful example of just because you can handle something in your writing, it doesn't necessarily mean you should. There's the use of Faiza to demonstrate Coop and Piper's compassion and to force them to work and spend time together, which belittles and erases the experiences of real maids in similar (or worse) situations. In the vast majority of cases, no-one is coming to save foreign maids, and even if they do escape or are injured so badly that someone intervenes, justice is scarce. 

But, unfortunately, it wasn't just that subplot; there's also a false rape accusation against Coop. He makes a statement acknowledging the damage false accusations do, but I still felt icky about it. I don't have the strength to go more in depth, but this review by Amanda on Goodreads explains it well (in actual fact, it explains everything, though I should probably issue another spoiler warning). (EDIT 28/11: Ditto with this review by Gabby and Rudi at Book Thingo, which draws out the weird gender dynamic and toxic masculinity of this book.)

Then there was the end. Pretty much everything I liked about this book - Piper as a resourceful woman, the way Coop avoided pulling rank over Piper, the lighthearted nature of their interactions - got obliterated. First, Piper got wishy-washy and ran away from her fears, but I could deal with that. What I couldn't deal with was when everyone drank the Koolaid and agreed with Cooper's insane idea that the only way to prove himself to Piper and remove her fears was for them to randomly get married. That is not a unilateral decision, or something woman should enter into reluctantly. 

Oh, and one more thing: the epilogue. Piper had stated throughout that she didn't want kids. In the epilogue, we find out that she "negotiated" with Cooper to have one child, provided he is the primary carer. There's nothing wrong with women not wanting children, so why do we always get these epilogues where they renounce on their decisions so we can see them play happy families? I'm so over it, especially since there are few enough heroines who don't want children in the first place. 

Writing this review has been exhausting and I don't know if I've been able to convey everything that I intended. I'm publishing it anyway because I think this is about as coherent as it's going to get; the book itself was just too much of a tangled hot mess. It had some okay moments, but it had major problems with representation, and I'm in no rush to have another similar reading experience any time soon. 

EDIT 28/11: A few weeks ago, I was shocked to see a Favourite Books of 2016 post, in which 6 of the 8 well-known romance authors asked rated this First Star I See Tonight as one of their favourite contemporary romances for the year, because all I remembered about it was its sickening racism and misogyny. Then, today, I read this all-encompassing and damning review of at Book Thingo and, since I couldn't remember what, precisely, I had written in my review, I revisited it, and I was shocked to discover that I had given it a 2.5. I think I was trying to be 'balanced' and 'fair' and was swayed by SEP's star power, so the occasional moments that didn't involve majorly problematic representation got built up into 'this book has some okay parts' in my mind. This was an unacceptable expression of my  privilege, and I apologise unreservedly for anyone who may have been harmed by it. I have changed my rating to 1 star to better reflect how I regard this book in retrospect, and to respect the fact that being wishy-washy about calling out a book for bad representation - especially from a industry stalwart such as SEP - is probably just as bad as staying silent. 

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