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Since You Ask Paperback – May 1, 2004
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Betsy Scott, a privileged private-school Manhattan teenager, is barely 16 when her reform-school boyfriend's shady boss takes an unwholesome interest in her. Surprisingly, Betsy willingly embarks on an affair with the 41-year-old. This relationship turns out to be only one of many inappropriate pairings that, along with family dysfunction and drug abuse, lead Betsy to a Connecticut mental hospital at age 24. Wareham's first novel is unsettling not only because of its subject matter but because the protagonist's simply stated but astute observations about her own compulsions force readers to rethink a lot of common assumptions about sexual behavior. Those expecting scathing indictments of what many would view as the sexual predators in Betsy's life will be sorely disappointed, as Wareham is more interested in examining what role Betsy herself plays in these situations. Although it ends on a hopeful note, this is obviously a very dark book--and potentially a controversial one--but Wareham has created a compelling character who earns her readers' attention. Beth Leistensnider
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"The truly important novel, as Tolstoi so passionately averred, is the adventure of a question; and the question, most often, is unhappiness. Ranging inward to a psyche's unsettled relation to itself, and out into the wilderness of family and love, Louise Wareham's "Since You Ask" is a sustained and sustaining adventure, passionate as Tolstoi would approve. Reading this novel, I saw the substance (and substances) of unhappiness transformed into something even brighter than courage. This is a splendid debut."
-- Donald Revell, author of "Arcady"
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"Usually, I was nervous around Ray, but I wasn't that day. Partly because I didn't live at home anymore and partly because Ray didn't bother me anymore."
A recent reviewer of the book commented:
"We soon realize that as a narrator, Betsy is a master of detached understatement. That 'bother me' actually means she endured years of sexual abuse by her drug-addled sibling."
The phrase "detached understatement" is itself an understatement that doesn't quite capture exactly what's going on in the way Betsy sees and describes the world.
The writing style, which often overpowers the content with seemingly amateurish preoccupations with trivial descriptions, takes a while to get used to. For example, almost every new character, place, or object is introduced almost solely in terms of details that do little to flesh out the person or thing being described. Short, matter-of-fact statements describe scenes with more detail than is necessary, but with less feeling than you'd expect to come from such overdescription. Color is often the most identifying characteristic in any given description. We learn that "the grass was long and green" or that Betsy was "drinking from green bottles of beer," but these descriptions seem both unnecessary and incomplete. At some places, such descriptive sentences just follow one another, creating what appears to be an unnessessary inventory of the colors in a given scene:
"His shirt is pale blue, with the smooth light sheen of part polyester/part cotton. His tie is navy blue and loosely knotted. Out the window, the grass is thick and green and dark."
The irony of such overdescription is that it actually doesn't describe enough. It reduces an otherwise rich circumstance, event, or person to a collection of superficial identifying characteristics.
This style becomes relentless and numbing, like the early stages of Chinese water torture, but the more you read the more you begin to realize that's the point. The style itself gets the reader into Betsy's head, which has itself been numbed by years of actual abuse, manipulation, anger, fear, and self-loathing. She sees the world with this cold, alienated gaze, in which surfaces hold more interest and less danger than the personalities inside. As a reader, looking to understand her environment on a deeper level, we're left constantly disappointed and made acutely aware that we're seeing exactly what Betsy sees, a world that might be colorful but that is far from pretty.
Ultimately, this style is a tough device to maintain and still offer a payoff in the end. Though resolving the novel's main conflicts without oversimplifying them would be inappropriate and rather insulting to the reader, leaving them unresolved makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Still, it's a brave ending. You realize that Wareham's goal is not to satisfy but to unsettle, and she definitely succeeds in doing so. The itch you go the whole book looking to get scratched remains tingling in you after you've put the book down. Since Betsy gets little relief herself, this seems fitting and fair.
A note on the design: This book's main handicap is its unfortunate cover. Based on this cover, I would never have even bothered picking it up at the bookstore, which would have been a shame indeed. Akashic would be wise to redesign the book before its first reprint.
Louise Wareham's first novel, Since You Ask, speaks out of a tradition of fragile women poetically captured, of women both idealized and in trouble, caught in some version of a downward spiral. Wareham echoes Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Lolita, and works with subjects more often found in memoirs of depression and mental illness. There is room, however, for a novel like Since You Ask, because it is earnest and beautiful, because the voice at its center shimmers with truth.
Betsy Scott has a wealthy and successful family, an exotic Antiguan background, a privileged private school existence. She's surrounded by rich friends, lush New York penthouses, silk, perfume, yachts and riding boots. Telling her story from within a Connecticut mental hospital, Betsy makes it clear that these rich trappings are mere gloss. At sixteen she has an affair with her boyfriend's 41 year-old boss; in her early twenties develops drug addictions spurred on by her older brother Raymond; throughout she teeters on the edges of health and sanity, unsure of every facet of her identity. Though long keeping it secret from her friends and family, Betsy early on reveals to the reader that Raymond molested her at age nine; the resulting conflicting feelings affect her every other interaction.
Such a story of secrets, dysfunction and self-destruction could easily degenerate into cliché. The characters surrounding Betsy are undeveloped, as if pulled from a pool of stock types. With the central events laid out for the reader from the beginning, the novel lacks narrative pull. It is Betsy and her own feelings that are the focus of the novel, however, and it is her voice that saves it. She feels `fragmented' and `broken'; Wareham's writing replicates these inner conflicts and emotions nicely, through the skips between paragraphs and time periods, the adding on of bits and pieces as the novel progresses. Descriptions that are sense- and color-driven, lyrical, soft, and reminiscing offset the darkness of the situations, adding to the complexity and giving us a clearer picture of the many factors involved in Betsy's personality.
Some quirks of Wareham's writing style do become repetitive - an overuse of certain metaphors, the very similar description for every character, an awkwardness of flow especially in the first pages - but these are admirable attempts at creating a voice for her character. The repetition creates a consistency, a smoothness of speech that holds the novel together.
Such factors make Since You Ask an easy read. Wareham's writing is uncomplicated, spare, perhaps even unsophisticated. These qualities do not work to dismiss its merit, but rather suit its purpose. Wareham has not set out to write a jarring emotional ride, an exposé of personality and family dysfunction; she does not aim for cheap shock. Her style, slow and quiet as it is, makes for a book quickly read because it is compelling. Wareham's Betsy is perceptively and sensitively drawn. The descriptions are often beautiful, and the emotions feel solid and true to the situation. Despite its faults - and in some cases, perhaps because of them - Wareham's novel has succeeded. This is a strong and promising debut.
I must admit that this felt long, despite being only 213 pages. I understand the patterned behavior. And, I get how many of the folks in this book are simply void of any decency...and that our lead character is drawn to these people. It's just kinda hard to read for 175 pages before you reach some semblance of humanity.