Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Book of You.
Reality is layered with the dark mythology of fairy tales in this novel of erotic obsession inspired by Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel Clarissa. Kendal blends the prescience of that novel, the inherent message of fairy tales and increasingly violent obsession of Rafe Solmes in his relentless pursuit of Clarissa Bourne. In Bath, Clarissa has become the object of Rafe’s intense desire. An accomplished manipulator, Rafe enters Clarissa’s life with intrusive regularity, his behavior suggesting a growing if unnamable threat as Clarissa finds a temporary escape from his unsolicited attention in a seven-week stint of jury duty in Bristol’s Court 12.
Traveling from Bath to the court every day, Clarissa cannot help but view the trial of a female addict brutally raped and abused by a gang as a metaphor for her own untenable situation. Though the victim, Carlotta Lockyer, is clearly disadvantaged and uneducated in comparison to Clarissa’s situation, the parallels in their circumstances are unavoidable. Each stands at the mercy of others who sit in judgment, their claims subject to scrutiny and disbelief. A romantic with a love of poetry, Clarissa has been emotionally devastated by an affair with a married professor with whom she attempted to get pregnant, in retrospect bearing the guilt of her selfish behavior.
Never remotely attracted to Solmes, a large, plain man who extends an invitation to his book reading once her affair is ended, Clarissa accepts only because of his insistence. Anxious to leave afterwards, she finds it impossible to get rid of the man, who likely has dropped something into the wine he foists upon her, rendering her helpless when he escorts Clarissa home. The memories of that night are hazy and disturbing, visions of sexual violence, her bruised body the only proof of the unpleasant encounter. Since then, Rafe has sworn his love and his unwavering certainty that their passion is shared.
Chapters alternate between diary entries that document Rafe’s aberrant behavior and her attempts to navigate increasingly harrowing episodes when he accosts the object of his passion. As instructed by leaflets for women at risk of domestic abuse, Clarissa saves every letter, every unwanted gift and photograph (the horror of that revelation!), fearful that, like Carlotta in Court 12, she will not be believed: “She was unsure whether Court 12 was helping her or paralyzing her.” Systematically separating Clarissa from her friends, announcing that he is her concerned boyfriend, solicitous in the extreme when others are present, Rafe’s true nature is exposed only when she denies him, a false mask slipping to reveal the ugliness of his rage.
The more he intrudes on her life, the more Clarissa’s thoughts are consumed by Rafe and the endless precautions of avoidance. She finds relief only at the trial, where she has struck up a friendship with Robert, the antithesis of the monster who has usurped her freedom and security. The situation with Rafe is dangerously close to becoming a folie à deux but for the calming influence of Robert, though she is afraid to confide in her new friend and risk losing his respect. Clarissa is the perfect victim: shy, reserved, a woman barely able to utter the details of her ordeal when she approaches the authorities with her evidence. Like a fairy princess, Clarissa is in need of rescue by a chivalrous man.
The tension builds as the end of the trial nears. Clarissa finally goes to the police, a spurned lover claims his innocence, authorities promise protection which is mired in a bureaucracy that creates legal loopholes. Tragic misstep, and a furious Rafe seizes the moment: if Clarissa refuses to belong to him she must die, the latent sexual threat of every fairy tale come to fruition in a moment of life or death. Kendal captures the horror, the helplessness, the stifling fear inherent in such circumstances. Whether cloaked in the lore of fairy tales or exposed in the bloody carnage of a crime scene, life offers too few princes, too many damsels in distress in a society that turns a deaf ear to their pleas for help. The Book of You is cautionary tale certain to cast a chilling pall on contemporary young women taught to believe in the magic of a prince’s kiss.