fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Beauty is a wound, beauty is a curse. That’s pretty much the after-reading impression of Cantik Itu Luka, Eka Kurniawan’s beautifully-crafted, painfully-punchy feminist novel. Or is it more appropriate, though, to call it a fictional summary of the modern history of Indonesia? Either way, Kurniawan has truly managed to weave strands of events of the past, in a humorously sinister way, and philosophical views on women’s beauty into a magical story about a family that is doomed from the start.

The semi-surrealistic tale starts with the resurrection of Dewi Ayu, a native woman of Dutch descent, after twenty-one years of her death. Upon finding out that her youngest daughter Cantik, an unfortunately very ugly girl, is pregnant with a child of nobody knows who, the storyline immediately brings us travelling to the past where the curse begins. Ted Stammler, a landlord in the Dutch colonization era, takes away a poor local woman named Ma Iyang and makes her his mistress. From this affair, Ted begets a bastard whom then he takes as his legal child. But neither his wife nor Ted himself know that his crucial decision will one day cause total chaos when their son and the illegitimate daughter fall in love with each other and bear another bastard that is Dewi Ayu. No time for mourning over the fact, however, because the time flies by and soon comes the period of wars: the German invasion of European countries, the looming of the second World War, and the coming of the Japanese to Indonesia. In the middle of it all, readers will see moments when Dewi Ayu is forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese and has to live that life for years afterward, even after the independence. And as the history keeps shifting from one period to another, even to the time when communism is at its glory, the plot unfolds complicated love stories between Dewi Ayu’s startlingly beautiful illegitimate daughters and the three men who represent the historical events being narrated. But theirs are not the romantic ones we can describe as sweet and tender, for they demand blood, tears, heartache, revenge, hatred and leave those women’s lives as bitter as the history they have to endure.

2015 English edition’s cover

Cantik Itu Luka seems to come up with some ideas, materialized in its subplots and lines of narration. Women’s beauty, for instance, is being described as a power which can conquer and has to be conquered by the power of men, the brutal power of physicality. Alamanda, one of Dewi Ayu’s illegitimate daughters, affirms this paradoxical fact when she points out that before the independence men “use” beautiful women to heal the mental wound they have to suffer in the middle of wars, while after the independence beautiful women “use” their physical quality to play with men. But that’s not all. The narrative can also be considered bearing the writer’s criticism of the history of Indonesia. With his dark humor and satire, Kurniawan mocks the inevitable historical fact that after hundreds of years fighting against the colonizers, namely the Dutch and the Japanese, the fighters of Indonesian independence did not get the win they deserved on the battle field but had to live with the idea that everything was done on the negotiation table instead. He symbolizes it with the Shodancho’s remark:

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

Kurniawan also talks about the massacre of 1965 here. But instead of glorifying it like any other writers, he chooses to explain why and how communism boomed in the newly liberated, poor Indonesia. He doesn’t take sides, too, in my opinion, for he tells openly about the horrible things communists could do—getting rock-and-roll music lovers into jails and killing the high-profile generals—without any tendentious, judgmental tone on it.

Cantik Itu Luka is a rich novel with a layered narrative and complicated structure, very blunt and explicit in its telling. It is a good thing, but sometimes Kurniawan is just too vulgar and crude, especially in narrating the sex scenes. It feels unpretentious that way, though, daring to give itself a bad name for being so honest in everything, not only in its telling people what the writer has on his mind but also the way he says it. Thank God the humor helps, although more often than not the reader has to endure his stark satire. What’s so powerful and sharp about this book is undoubtedly its characters. Every single person making appearance here is very well portrayed and elaborated, not only through their narrated descriptions of physiques, emotions, and also behaviors and attitudes but through their dialogues, too. Kurniawan has truly done a great job on that, looking at how many characters he creates to people this book with. If I have something to complain, then it is the feeling I got that it’s too “Latin American”, with its magical realism formula. The (Indonesian) grammar is also a problem, with incorrect marks and horrible sentence arrangements. Not that it matters too much, though. Some readers might not even notice them.

Overall, Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka is a fabulous work, despite its few weaknesses. It summerizes our bitter history in a surrealistic, satiric way some people might not be capable of doing, and provokes our thoughts on women’s physical beauty. It triggers our (cynical) laughs, without (actually) trying to be funny. And it gets us thinking, without (really) trying to be serious.

Rating: 4/5

fiction

Layar Terkembang

In 1936’s Indonesia was barely on the verge of its independence, but the pressure for gender equality seemed greater and greater. Through Layar Terkembang, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana appears to imply that the urge to embrace modernity, in every aspect possible, couldn’t be held back anymore. Told in a form of short novel, the thought-provoking story of this classic Indonesian work unfolds what it was like in the past when an independent woman fighting for a place in society had to war with her own desire for love that demanded her letting go of her stand and cause.

The book opens with two young women visiting an aquarium one morning and encountering an attractive young man by the name of Yusuf. The two sisters catch his attention instantly, but it is Maria, the younger one, who sweeps him off his feet for her sheer beauty and easy manner. It’s not that he doesn’t find Tuti, Maria’s older sister, attractive, but she is made of sterner stuff and more difficult to please that Yusuf can only admire her as a smart woman and nothing more. Tuti herself is not a woman to fall for a man so easily and chooses to stay single in order to focus on fighting for her cause: gender equality for the local women of a country which is still a Dutch colony. Over the times, though, as Maria and Yusuf forge a strong bond of love and affection, Tuti starts to feel jealous and lonely, missing and desiring for something Maria has and she doesn’t. She even almost—almost—accepts her fellow teacher’s proposal just so she can fill her empty heart and know what it is like to have someone who loves her. But she finally declines it for she knows that she can’t marry without love and that she can’t be with someone who is not equal to her in everything. However, at the end Alisjahbana shows us that even a woman as strong and stubborn as she is cannot fight the destiny, especially when Maria is dying and asking her to fulfill her last wish.

Tuti and Maria are poles apart, there are stark differences between them. While Maria is prettier, weaker, easier to love and dependent, Tuti is stronger, stubborn, tenacious, self-reliant and has no qualms about saying what she thinks is right and coming up with harsh comments on everything. Between the two there is Yusuf, a young man with an open mind and love for nature. He is a man who has respect for women and can appreciate women’s intelligence and thoughts, but he is also an average man who chooses beauty over brain. His character is a bit disappointing and too much confusing, especially when he, conscious or not, can fully understand how Tuti sees things and thus defends her opinions everytime there is a chance. Perhaps, to my thinking, Alisjahbana describes him in that particular way not only to show how men generally see women, but also to state that between two different qualities women can have, a man can turn to a path more worthwhile.

Layar Terkembang is not a tale of a love triangle, precisely, it is about women and how a relationship between a man and a woman should be. The writer wants to show that even in 1936 when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, the more developed a nation or society, the bigger the demand that women got equal rights to men in many if not everything. Women also, as represented by the character of Tuti, demand that a marriage should not anymore be an institution where women have to give up everything and only say yes to anything arranged for them, but rather a relationship where two people love each other and realize each of their rights and responsibilities and have equal positions. This book is a subtle embodiment of the urgent need for modernity wrapped up in the urgent demand for gender equality in a country that was still crawling towards independence. Quite unfortunately, however, this grand idea is not elaborated in a detailed plot. Short and compact, Layar Terkembang really doesn’t have an adequate storyline. So short is it that it feels as if the events hop from one scene to another without further explanation, and some readers may think the narrative has an irrational time structure. What helps the book to engage the reader other than its feminist message is definitely its characterization. The three of them, Tuti, Maria, and Yusuf are very well drawn, vivid and strong and drawing sympathy no matter what they do and how they behave.

Layar Terkembang by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana would have been a completely perfect novel had it not lacked the narrative elaboration a reader might have expected. Nevertheless, I think this book is still worth reading and being labeled as one of the classic works to remember. It’s something we would call an eye-opener.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa

This book by Maggie Tiojakin begins with the meaning of absurd, literally, more or less as it is explained in the dictionary. The intention is obvious: to forewarn readers of the unpleasant absurdity her stories would definitely present. Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa consists of solely absurd short stories of which narratives expand beyond the reader’s comprehension. They might not be stories readers will go for if they want something easy, despite the simple plots, but the stunningly crafted tales offer us something more than just an introduction-problem-conclusion pattern.

Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa has nineteen short stories with different spans of lengths, some of them are short and some are quite long. But however long it takes the reader to finish all of them, and no matter how many scenes each of them is comprised of, they are created and meant to faithfully give the reader one “single effect” that, as far as I know, is what a short story is all about. The feelings come and go as the stories pass by, yet the satisfaction of reading them stays longer. Tiojakin doesn’t intend her stories to answer any question derived from any premise expressed subtly in their narratives, instead, she slips questions into them for us to ponder what the answers are. All of them are beyond our reason, but not totally unfathomable. Somehow, at some point, the reader may find themselves understanding some of the ideas, especially of those less frown-worthy. Stories like Tak Ada Badai di Taman Eden, Lompat Indah, Labirin yang Melingkar-lingkar di dalam Sangkar, Suatu Saat Kita Ingat Hari Ini, Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa, A Business Trip, and Sunday Mass are those which will force the reader to think hard, think twice, before they even get the faintest idea of what each is about. And while the depths of Fatima, Kota Abu-Abu, Ro-Kok, and Violet are not quite difficult to reach, the rest of the contents such as Kristallnacht, Panduan Umum Bagi Pendaki Hutan Liar, dies irae, dies illa, Saksi Mata, Dia, Pemberani, Jam Kerja, An Evolutionary History, and The Long March are very much easy to devour.

Among so many short stories included in the book, there are particularly three which caught my very attention. The first number that starts the book, Tak Ada Badai di Taman Eden, has truly had my head reeling even after the full stop passed by. It’s about a married couple who doesn’t seem to be happy, or at least the wife doesn’t. Looking at the narrative, you’d think that she doesn’t in any way love her husband, and really wishes her husband, Barney, to just go away and never come back. But, as we all can see throughout the plot, Barney seems to be loving and protective. When rain comes and brings along with it storm on to their house, he hugs her and comforts her, no matter how she behaves and what attitude she shows him. There certainly is a problem between them, a problem that the writer refuses to reveal even at the end of the story. So, how will they survive in the midst of the storm upon them? The second magnetic tale to capture my attention was Ro-Kok. A man is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend to stop smoking, or else she will end their relationship. By the look of the premise, this is a very common case in my society, but Tiojakin executes it in a way that no one would imagine before. The couple indeed go separate ways, but it is not, bewilderingly, because the smoker keeps smoking. And, among my top picks, Saksi Mata is the best one. Imagine total negligence spreads among human beings and sips through their thick blood, subtly yet dreadfully. When a young woman living in a complex of apartments is being attacked brutally by an unknown person, no one in that complex seems to care. They hear those faint voices, those hushed screams, those mumbled arguments, but they don’t get into action even to find out what’s actually happening. They either don’t care, or are just too tired to care.

All the characters in Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa have bizarre, unusual names, even for a foreign cultural background. They are no heroes, nor villains. They are, to my favor, ordinary human beings with human characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, familial backgrounds, and ways of thinking. As absurd as the stories they are in might be, they are not in the slightest depicted as something extraordinary, or something equally strange. This might strike the reader as odd, looking at the beyond-comprehension narratives, but I didn’t feel anything but comfortable with it. Moreover, the smooth plots, both linear and flashback, help the reader immensely in wading through all those tales. Don’t get them wrong, the narratives are not as hard to swallow as you might think. In fact, they are pretty simple. Bu it’s their basic ideas and how Tiojakin develops each of them that are guaranteed to get the reader frowning deep. They are not plotted in a usual introduction-problem-conclusion pattern, but only stop at the problem without any answer whatsoever. The style of writing with which those stories are being delivered to readers is also simple, with no embellishment, no trying to go slang nor pretentiously literary. Every diction chosen feels right, and the grammar is just how I expected it to be, though I did still feel a little sense of “Westernness” in Tiojakin’s writing. It might probably be because of her creative writing education abroad, or the reading materials she, I assume, mostly consumes. Whatever it is, I don’t really mind as long as it still sounds genuinely Indonesian, not like translated English. The only flaw I found during reading all the nineteen stories is the little awkwardness in some of the sentences and dialogues.

Overall, Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa is a riveting short story collection. From this book, I learned that fiction does not always have to be reasonable or logical. The important thing is that we enjoy them, and the meaning/basic idea will reveal itself.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh

the very first edition's cover
the very first edition’s cover

Science and fiction are two different fields of study, as we generally know, unless you want to take science fiction into account. But, what if it’s not science fiction at all? What if science and fiction are blended together to form a romantic story inside a story? Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh by Dee is the answer. Previously known as a singer/songwriter, Dee released this debut novel of hers in 2001 under her own independent publishing company. It has and continues to gain critical acclaim as well as popular response among readers. It’s heavily strewn with theories of psychology and physics and philosophy, and is guaranteed to force the reader to view this world from a different angle.

Ruben and Dhimas, a homosexual couple first met when taking their undergraduate program in the United States, finally decide to work on the masterpiece they’ve planned on and promised to do ten years earlier. Their intention is to fuse science with literature, a bunch of grand theories with a wave of romanticism, in order to produce a work of fiction interwoven with nonfiction facts. So they choose to pluck the characters of Ksatria and Puteri from a comic book, and make up their own story featuring those two lovebirds. Ksatria, a successful young man with a dull, monotonous life, meets Puteri in what seems to be a predestined encounter. They fall in love each other almost in an instant, succumbing to their lust and love regardless of her having already been committed in a marriage. Things appear to run so well in their secret affair, until their desire to be freely together feels more urgent than ever and their hush-hush feelings overwhelm both with no restraint. Puteri has to decide whether she is going to leave her husband for the one she loves, or stay in the marriage she never feels passionate in. And in the middle of it all comes Diva, a catwalk model/highly paid prostitute whose attitude towards the world is so bitter and cynical that the reader may find her too much self-righteous for a woman of her profession. It is her, the Bintang Jatuh, who saves Ksatria from his tragic fall. But she cannot stay and return his love, for it’s been her nature to go and shoot away.

There are several characters in this first book of Supernova series, in and out of the “story”. But there’s only one that captured my sole, vehement attention, and that’s Diva, the Bintang Jatuh or the Falling Star. To me, she’s like standing head and shoulders above everyone else, not for her divinity-wanna-be portrayal, but for her significance in stirring the course of events of the “inside story”. She’s described as cynical and sarcastic, bitter towards anything and everything, like nothing is right to her in this pathetic world. As a matter of fact, her self-righteousness made me feel cynical in return towards her. To her, selling her body is like selling any other commodity in the market, like selling our labor, time, our soul. The way she thinks made me see her as an ungrateful person, for instance: condemning her beautiful, straight, long hair when so many women out there would die for it. She is indeed a do-gooder, trying to “change the world”, but what she does is too small to compare with the bigness and complexity of the universe. Really, I’m being so cynical towards her now. What’s worse, she is created, by the authors (Ruben and Dhimas), to become an Avatar, a Cyber Avatar, who has a divinity of a monk. Dee, as the writer of this whole narrative, perhaps only wants to show to the reader, through this Diva character, that in being a human, it’s all about your thoughts and good deeds, not the label you have on your forehead. I cannot say anything to this but that I have mixed feelings.

Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh is an interdisciplinary novel not all readers would get. The writer seems to want to prove something to them, and it’s probably for this very reason she makes up a narrative in which order and chaos become its main focus and goes to such great lengths elaborating and mixing so many scientific theories into one. Her intention is, I believe, to present a fictional romance that brilliantly emerges from those theories. However, the result is, the way I see it, only an “ordinary” rectangular love story which is so simple and easy to read that you don’t have to bother dwelling on those fruits of science experts’ thoughts. Fortunately, the narrative is shrewdly constructed, subplot being layered upon subplot, proving yet another thing that there are indeed no boundaries in time and space. The whole plot is also dense, without so much as little ramblings about anything. It’s very complex, however, and has no predictable direction as to where the story will actually lead. It is amazing, technically speaking, but I don’t have a consistent opinion when it comes to the language being used. I don’t know why but I felt it’s like a “translation language”, awkward and unnatural. And when it comes to male dialogues, I felt it was a woman talking instead of a man. What’s worse, I found some misplaced diction and less than correct use of marks, especially those in repeated words. In other words, linguistically (if I may say so), it’s quite a mess.

On the whole, Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh is actually a pretty great book, though not as fantastic as I might have thought before. The basic idea is stunning, but the execution, especially that of the “inside story” used to embody all those theories, is not what the reader could hope for. The question is, why bother elaborating such grand scientific theories if you only want to tell something simple?

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Reflected in You

Indonesian edition’s cover

I was so caught in Sylvia Day’s Bared to You that it would be impossible not to read the next number in her Crossfire series, Reflected in You. To say that it’s better than the previous one wouldn’t feel right, but, on the other hand, I have to admit that it has qualities I deem magnificent: unpredictability and meanderings of a storyline. Horrendous, upsetting sex scenes are strewn all over it, a bit too much to my taste, but it has already been the characteristic any erotic romance has. As always before, its atmosphere emanates emotions and jealousy, and smells heavily of lust.

Reflected in You continues the story of Eva and Gideon where it leaves off. It opens with they arguing about their time together, ending with Gideon keeping an eye on her through a female bodyguard. Upset and irritated, Eva avenges it by putting a male bodyguard beside him. It may end their arguments over spying on each other, debatably out of concern for respective safety, but it doesn’t end the tension between them, with their never-ending fights and their sexual solutions. The real problem starts when Eva meets her ex-boyfriend, Brett Kline, a rising-star rock band lead singer, and stupidly returns his kisses in front of Gideon. The blazing rich man then punishes her with sex, the scenes being narrated making her seem like, if you’ll excuse my French, a slut rather than his significant other. The overuse of sex to express something unsaid also appears when Gideon has to avoid Eva for seemingly no reason and makes her think that they’ve already broken up and he comes back to Corrine. Up to this point, the narrative seems to me merely showcase two childish people with fervent desire for sex, not that I’ll blame it, looking at the genre. However, the conflict starts belatedly to feel interesting when Nathan Barker, Eva’s half brother, is found dead and Gideon comes under suspicion. The atmosphere suddenly turns from lustful to a little bit thrilling, and the author cleverly denies the reader the clear answer.

As the story gets more twisted, Sylvia Day describes the characters of Eva and Gideon in an even more twisted way. Eva seems more jealous, maniacal if I may say so. She has every reason to be jealous, but her overreaction and manner make her look shamefully ridiculous. I personally don’t have any respect for her, and her willingness to stoop so low as to give in to Gideon’s rough sexual lust robs her of the strong, determined character she should have. As for Gideon, I can thankfully say that his character develops better. He may seem so quiet in some ways, unwilling to express what’s inside his mind except through his sexual prowess, but his change in action and behavior is very much intriguing. His mood swing is also attention-gripping, though not in a pleasant way. I cannot say I adore his character, but at the very least he’s not annoying. Day describes him greater than she does in Bared to You, I think, daring to make him look mean, antagonist, and truly dangerous.

Though basically it is still an average erotic romance book, Reflected in You brings up something fresh with it. I never though it could be twisted in a tangle of murder and jealousy. Despite its sex-strewn narrative, it has a storyline no reader wants to leave off, so compelling and nicely flowing. It has more twists and turns, more intricacy, more intrigue. It is something more than what we read. The emotions show more clearly and feel stronger, in spite of the fact that Gideon is portrayed more silent. The core idea of the story is still characteristically romance, but its side elements are more interesting. The second half of the book serves the reader with a bit of “suspense”, which somehow reminds us of a crime novel. The murder of Nathan Barker really makes Reflected in You richer and more colorful, although in the end it seems a little bit detective-wanna-be. The thrilling atmosphere is so dense and, oddly enough, it can somehow fit the entire second half narrative where the case starts. However, I still have an objection to using sex as a problem solution, a means to measure one’s love and seriousness. I think it’s just normal for an erotic romance to have vulgar sex scenes strewn all over it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to deliver such ideas above. Sometimes a book is an entertainment, and sometimes it’s an inspiration. And when it inspires the reader to even think the wrong way, then it can be dangerous.

All in all, Reflected in You is pretty much like what I think Bared to You is, a mere romance book, nothing more. I wanted to look at it differently, what with its fresh intricacy and character development, but the ordinary basic idea and Eva’s hatred-triggering portrayal got in my way. I can only say that I don’t really like it, nor hate it.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Bared to You

Indonesian edition’s cover

The book industry is currently being peppered with erotic romances. Not that the genre has never existed before, but I always have a feeling that we are now overwhelmed by it. I’m not into it, and I don’t know anything about it. But the hoopla brought me to trying to read one of its products, Bared to You by Sylvia Day. First published in 2012, it tries to bring up BDSM theme, which is so highly favored these days like you wouldn’t believe. Only it fails in some ways, leaving the reader wondering if it is truly what it claims to be.

The story is about Eva Tramell, who has just moved to New York and got a new job. In her workplace, she meets the handsome, sexy, dark and dangerous Gideon Cross. The man happens to be the owner of the building in question, unabling her to run for cover after he blatantly declares his fervent desire to get her into his bed. But lust at the first sight happens, as always in any kind of romance, and Eva cannot deny the fact that Gideon’s handsome and sexy figure haunts her everywhere she goes. Gideon keeps chasing after her and approaching her in any way possible to get what he wants, while Eva keeps running and resisting Gideon’s strong sex appeal. But she terribly fails to do that, so they agree to have sex with no strings attached, without any bond tying them. Problem: Gideon loses control, and he never loses his control. That goes to show that there’s something more in their relationship, even though it is so subtle that not any one of them realize it. However, slowly they start to feel bound to each other, and it’s just about time. But they’re so afraid of taking a further step, looking at what happens in their pasts and the trauma they both have to bear.

Eva Tramell is the embodiment of a pretty, sexy, strong career woman of today’s America. Her quick temper and jealous nature make her look a little bit childish, and her insecurity is unmistakable. It’s so normal, I think, to have such quality since most women have the same problem, be it in reality or in common romance novels. I will not say that her character is so usual, neither will I say that she’s so different from other romance heroines I’ve encountered in love stories so far. I can only tell that her character is very much annoying, making the reader feel not even one iota of sympathy for her. Her childish manner and upsetting jealousy are so unbearable. And I really wonder why many romance writers I know like to couple a woman like Eva to a man as stubborn as she is like Gideon Cross. And his character is even more common than I think Eva’s is. A handsome, sexy, gorgeous, intelligent billionaire, Gideon reminds me of any “romance man” I know of, at least so far. Therefore, I don’t think I will be talking about him further. What becomes my interest here in Bared to You is the character of Cary Taylor instead, Eva’s bisexual friend. Not only that he is a bisexual, but also he is a very troubled, damaged person. I like how he is described unable to decide what he really wants, confusing one thing with another, and plunging himself into an uncertainty of sexual taste. Taylor is definitely an interesting, quite memorable character.

Saying that all romances, and its sub-genres, are just the same would be too cruel, for I myself haven’t read enough romances to say so. But, to be honest, I don’t think Bared to You has offered anything new, nor been distinctively different. The plot, the characters, the love story, the whole narrative are all so typical. The fact that it’s bringing up BDSM issue doesn’t help any as well. Reading it only gave me a feeling that I read a romance, a typical one, that’s it. However, putting that feeling aside, I have to admit that Bared to You has a few good qualities: an intricately difficult relationship between the main characters, heartwrenchingly troubled pasts, and a superb style of storytelling. I can say that I enjoyed the book, not in a way I usually did other romance books, but in an unexplained, emotional way. I was drawn into it, unable to get out until I finished and closed the book. This is a new, strange experience to me. I’ve never felt quite like this before when reading a romance. It must have been Day’s smashing style of writing, or something about it. What so unfortunate is that Bared to You implies a very unacceptable idea: when you have a problem with your significant other, turn to sex. Making any comment on this would be very ridiculous because it’s a romance, an erotic romance, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a very narrow-minded notion, as if sex can solve everything, not only our unruly sexual hormone.

In conclusion, Bared to You is nothing but a romance book with many typical aspects, yet inevitably gripping. I have nothing more to say.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Almost Forever

I couldn’t, even now, find any reason for falling for this book, since every romance seems to have the same formula and I never have particular fondness for any kind of romance, be it historical or contemporary. I do read romances, occasionally, but I’m not specifically the fan of the genre. So when I found myself liking Almost Forever quite much, I decided that this book by Linda Howard must have had something about it. Although, after perusing it closely, I didn’t find anything special, Almost Forever could really leave me content and light.

It’s a contemporary romance about a dilemma of love and business. Max “Benedict” Conroy, a rich English nobleman who’s working for a huge American company, is dispatched to Houston by his employer to sneak up some very important, confidential information from their competitor so that they can take a step and acquire it. But he is about to do it discreetly, just so not drawing any unnecessary attention. This secret mission, unfortunately, involves the sweet and shy secretary, Claire Westbrook, a broken-hearted widow who’s been trying to mend her heart. It is just inevitable then that Max has to approach her, intimately, to get the said information. Only it’s too late for him to realize that what is meant to be business in the beginning, turns out more than a little private in the progress. It’s not only the information that he wants from her, but also her heart and body. As soon as he gets what he has to, his desire flares hot while the woman slips away from his manly fingers.

As far as I can tell, romances have explored many kinds of characters, but there is one particular trait that never ceases to exist in any of them: stubborn. Stubbornness, be it strong or weak, has been so common in romance stories that I start to think if it is compulsory to have a character labeled with it. While Claire’s insecurity till the end of the narrative can be thought to be unrelenting, Max’s persistence to have everything his own way can be misleading to the eye of certain readers. Fortunately, as much as I don’t like it, either, Claire’s character is blurred by her indecisive manner. She seems not to be able to say no, yet she won’t easily move on from her heartbreak to a new chapter of life. The whole characterization of hers is not something I, as a woman, would cherish. It just seems to me that her so-called “logical decision” is too made-up, being so merely to accommodate the run of the story. On the other hand, Max has that control freak behavior to add up to his package. He is a gentleman, no doubt about it, but he is too arrogant about what he wants and what he wants to, and has to, have. Though I cannot say that this kind of male character is embedded in every romance tale, at least those I’ve ever read, but it is quite common, so common even that I start to imagine if all those romance writers are of the same mind. And, to be honest, a rich, control freak man is not something I’d cherish, too, when I’m reading a romance. Max is undeniably driven by a strong feeling, either true love or lust, and some part of him is just adorable, but I still find him a little bit too much for a man.

What makes Almost Forever compelling reading is its lightness and sweetness. The narrative is, though I would rather not call it exceptional, very much engaging in its own way. The storyline is also not different from others in the genre, which ends happily ever after like any other fairy tale. There is something quite awkward, however, at the end of the book, which makes it seem that the author wants to put a barrier, for an indefinable purpose, before ending it in a more sweetly convincing way. I have to say that this choice of finishing scenes is quite disappointing, rendering it unconvincing instead and forcing me to arch my eyebrows while I was expecting to get a definite ending for an emotionally draining love story. It’s very much odd, really. It’s like driving a car and it’s stumbling uncertainly forward before halting to a stop.

So, in conclusion, I’m not going to say that Almost Forever is a great work of romance as a whole, but I liked the story and the sweet atmosphere shrouding it. It’s light, it’s nice, it’s lovely, despite the uninteresting characters and the simplicity of the plot and also its awkward ending.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Pride and Prejudice

MacMillan Education Ltd. edition, published in Indonesia by Gramedia Pustaka Utama

Everything starts with a belief that a woman needs a (rich) man to keep a roof over her head and a penny in her pocket. When you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts. Then perhaps you’ll understand, I recall Mrs. Bennet seeming to say. I don’t think Jane Austen merely created a Cinderella story to sell, with a poor woman and a rich prince charming. I somehow get this particular impression that Pride and Prejudice, no matter how the love story runs, is also about being a woman of middle class with lack of fortune, four sisters, and an uncertain future who is forced by the prevailing system of her society at that time into marrying a man to guarantee her life. As one of the most memorable classic romances, Pride and Prejudice has become a vivid prove of women’s financial dependency on men in their relationships, despite the gloriously glorified fact that love (still) counts.

Mrs. Bennet is all but in a fuss knowing that the rich Mr. Bingley has come to their country and stays at the Netherfield Park, a mansion not so far from Longbourn where the Bennets live. She believes that, for the sake of their future, she must marry one of her five daughters off to him. But then, she doesn’t have to make such a great effort to smooth her way, for Mr. Bingley seems to have already settled his choice on Jane, her oldest daughter, then and there in the ball arranged to welcome him and his friend and sister. And in this very party, too, Elizabeth, Jane’s closest sister, meets the mysteriously rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy, who falls in love with her almost immediately, although not properly expresses it. His rude comment about Elizabeth gets her burned with anger and decided that he’s the worst person she’s ever known. She hates him almost instantly, and, in a later occasion, forthrightly expresses it.

“From the very beginning, from the very first moment that I met you, your manners showed me your arrogance, conceit and your selfish indifference to the feelings of others. On this basis was built, by later events, an immovable dislike. After I had known you a month I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be persuaded to marry.” —Elizabeth Bennet.

Their love saga is then purely filled with mixed feelings of pride, on Darcy’s part, and prejudice, on Elizabeth’s part, becoming more complicated by the issues of family background, rank, money, and misunderstanding. At the end of the story, Austen convinces us that all those hindrances blocking their way can be solved only by love, pure and sincere love.

As we can already see along the book, pride and prejudice are attached to the characters of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy is naturally proud, what with his rank, wealth, position, birth and background. The little time he spends with others only adds to his awkwardness in dealing with especially a woman, a woman with stubbornness, a sharp wit, and a sharp tongue, too, like Elizabeth. Despite her lack of fortune and education, Elizabeth is not someone to look down our nose at. Unfortunately, her somewhat innocence brings her disaster, where the false account of Darcy’s bad behavior by someone whom she mistakenly trust blends with her false first impression of him to inflict hatred and prejudice she determinedly holds, which then blind all of her judgements. Pride has unquestionably stopped Darcy from expressing his feelings, and prejudice has firmly shut Elizabeth out of the truth about him. These two traits also what make them an unforgettable couple, the proud man and the stubborn woman who set the standard for the characters in any romance story today.

I thoroughly enjoyed Miss Austen’s style of writing, it’s romantic and nicely flowing. It’s sweet without being too much to bear, even for someone who doesn’t particularly like romances. I admittedly found myself smiling at every sentence, every dialogue, every scene like an idiot. This may not particularly happen to everyone reading Pride and Prejudice, but I have to say that this is what magnetic about the book. What’s more, it’s not, in my opinion, merely a Cinderella story created to spark some (false) hope in the heart of every woman that their status or position in the society will not prevent them from having a rich, handsome husband. This book is also implicitly about the difficult situation of women in a society which doesn’t allow them to be financially independent, forcing them to agree that marriage is the only way to guarantee their future and to escape from poverty. In this very book, Austen also straightforwardly describes, with much disagreement, how women in her time were not the heirs to the property of their own parents because they all would be left to the male heirs. Marrying for love was a rare thing, while marry money had been a must to survive. This is the point where I think that it’s not only Austen’s love story which lasts forever, but also the ugly truth about women’s problem she describes here to deliver the said love story. Unfortunately, all those great features have to be ruined by the dull sequence of events Austen plots along the book. I’m not saying that it ruins everything, it just didn’t attract me the way it should have. When I watched the 2005 movie adaptation, I felt more into the whole narrative.

However, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a beautiful work of classic romance, one of the great and deservedly memorable classics. It has almost everything to satisfy a reader and is definitely recommended for both those who pursue the works of English literature, and those who want to indulge themselves in romances.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

One Day

True love may be too much boring and trifling to talk about, or even to make a fuss of. But it is an undeniable fact that true love never ceases to arouse people’s curiosity and therefore keeps its unwavering position as the idol of the book industry. And, as much as it has been merely, and completely, rubbish for some skeptics, not many people, or authors, are capable of creating, and then developing in the process, a magical and sweeping, yet down-to-earth, tale of true love. David Nicholls is one of those few who could come up with a bright idea of a romance and manage to skirt around being cheesy in telling his creation of a love story. His One Day, first published in 2009, shows the reader the sensible way of love over the bumpy, twisting road of life and consistent changes of characterization. Its twenty years of range does not only encompass two people, but also the meaning of friendship and the normalcy of unpredictability.

The story opens with a graduation night the two people, Emma and Dexter, spend together cuddling up and talking and occasionally kissing. Despite the intimacy, they are not lovers in any way, putting aside the fact that Emma has been in love with Dexter all along since the days of her study at the University. The awkward night turns out to be nothing and ends up with them going separate ways. But their friendship persists, with Emma being stuck in England grieving over her despair, desperately unrequited love for Dexter, and a job she hates to do while Dexter is taking his time having fun, traveling around the world without thinking, or even knowing, about Emma’s feelings for him. This unbearable phase goes on until Emma can no longer wait anymore for Dexter to get aware of her affection, and then moves on to having a relationship with someone who really loves her.

The time passes by and once again Em and Dex’s friendship recovers, only it has to happen when Dex suddenly falls in love with another woman and, for the very first time in his entire promiscuous life, decides to get locked in a commitment. This whole complicated situation brings Emma to reluctance to be Dexter’s shoulder-to-cry-on when his legal relationship strays off the path. But later on, as divorce and a ruined career drag him to a whirlwind of desperation and lacking of self-confidence, Dexter realizes that he will always come back to Emma, the one and only woman who can be his best friend and give him unconditional love.

The characterization of Emma and Dexter is not a one-stage, one-whole portrayal. They change over time, affected by what befalls them and what uncontrollably happens to their lives. They are not basically honest people, and what they do or decide to do is mostly not in accordance with what they truly think. They are naturally deceitful, in some ways, neither evils nor angels in a fairy-tale sense of the words. And they are also uncertain, selfish, committing faults and defects. They both experience a sense of insecurity at some point, too. They are not perfect characters because they are perfect, but because they are humanly flawed.

One Day is a very well-told story. Its twenty years of range is cleverly divided into twenty or so chapters started on the exact same date every single year. That way, each chapter does not only see the run of the plot or the leisurely yet steady pace of the story, but also the significant changes of characters and the turns of road marking the development of Em and Dex’s relationship. Nicholls is not talking about the nonsense of true love here, but how true love is perceived in a rusty relationship maintained long enough only by the bond of a true friendship. Em and Dex do not love each other, and Dex is too promiscuous to be a romantic, devoted man who will do anything for the one he loves. He loves himself too much to do that, while Em, albeit her love for Dex never fades with time, knows where to stop and say no and then bumps into an undecisive manner. Truthfully, I can say that One Day is a natural (love) story, delivering only natural sequence of events with natural characters in it. It is well written, except that it’s sprinkled with too many unnecessary slapstick jokes and lacks an emotional atmosphere to make the reader cry, which is, I think, quite essential in a love story, however realistic it might be.

All in all, One Day is a great love saga, a great work of (romantic) general fiction, though perhaps not so enjoyable for some mainstream romance readers. Its ending doesn’t give us any satisfaction, either, but at least there is a trace of sweetness left on the last page. Thus, I highly recommend this book to everyone, to every reader out there.

Rating: 3.5/5