A Review of Rebecca Rosenblum's So Much Love
Review by Naben Ruthnum
Rebecca Rosenblum’s So Much Love is a literary treatment of a subject seen often in thrillers, and in television and film: the vanishing of a young woman. In this novel, we also see the consequences of the vanishing for the residents of the small Ontario town of Iria from which the young woman was taken. Her professor, mother, husband, co-workers, and even a poet who met a sad fate decades ago in the same town make appearances as the protagonists of nested narratives within the book. So Much Love avoids the broad dramatic moments that one might associate with a kidnapping plot, and focuses on small, painful moments, such as Catherine’s mother’s trip to the drug store to find a mascara that will be able to stand up to the crying jags that may occur during her workday. For the most part, it works, but there are long segments of So Much Love in which the central story becomes abstracted to the point of being the wrong kind of mysterious: instead of slowly feeling their way into the emotional consequences and terrible gaps left by traumatic violence, readers may be confused by the very nature of the events themselves, even when they’re narrated in the present tense and focalized through the character who is directly affected.
The targets of the vanishings don’t fit a typical pattern: a high school boy, Donny, and a mid-twenties woman named Catherine Reindeer are taken by the kidnapper. The incongruity of this pairing of victims suggests that they’ll be players, perhaps, in some sort of perverse psychodrama he has planned. If this is the case, it’s never made quite clear. A critical problem in the novel is the very vagueness of what happens to Catherine and Donny. We do know they get beat up a lot, but not really why, and we know that their kidnapper is fiercely protective of his home.
Catherine’s husband, Grey, can’t bring himself to envision the worst case scenario of his wife’s fate: “There have been things he didn’t imagine—couldn’t, or wouldn’t. If she wasn’t dead and wasn’t with him, then she was somewhere else, but he never pictured where or how, any more than he pictured the insides of his eyelids.” Grey’s intense decency and sense of patience and understanding are believable and strong aspects of the novel, alongside Catherine’s deep reserves of strength and a courage that she doesn’t exactly recognize as courage herself—this is thanks to Rosenblum’s deft characterization, which she often accomplishes in short, perceptive sketches drawn by other characters as they reflect on each other.
Confined, Catherine finds a confirmation of “her terrifying theory” when she sees that she has a fellow captive – that she has been “Taken. Kidnapped, and not for any ransom or reason. Just taken, to be kept.” It stretches credulity to believe that any woman’s terrifying theory of what happens after a violent abduction doesn’t involve sexual violence. Catherine does speak of “dancing away from” memories, and this fear or fact of sexual violence may well be what she’s avoiding as a memory—but her avoidance of traumatic memories doesn’t explain the vagueness of Catherine’s present-tense narration of events in the basement. We do learn that the kidnapper, Dex, takes Donny upstairs to beat him periodically, and that he hits Catherine, too. “That was the thing that happened to me most at Dex’s house—a lot of things happened there, but always interspersed with the blows, the fear of blows, the huddled crying after.” Dex also forces his victims to play chase games where they pretend to be rabbits. What we do hear about Catherine’s victimization by her kidnapper, aside from the physical blows of violence, comes only from other characters, and could well be speculation, until Catherine finally directly mentions it in retrospect toward the end of the novel. While this may be an indication of her ability to finally process her trauma, the lack of clarity until this point makes the confirmation of sexual violence appear, in the narrative shape of the novel, as a jarring reveal.
Rosenblum has no interest, clearly, in repeating some tawdry or detailed SVU portrait of abuse, or a misogynistic, detailed power fantasy of the type too often seen in the bad kind of true crime book and lazy, nasty thrillers. This is certainly a good thing, but by making the course of actions unclear for so much of the novel, So Much Love tips into the wrong sort of ambiguity: it becomes difficult to parse what the characters are dealing with and how they are coming to terms with it. The reader is given little data, and misled into believing that the violence in the novel is possibly limited to the psychological and physical varieties, until being directly told otherwise as the novel is coming to a close. Part of the ambiguity in So Much Love appears to be the narrative’s resistance to tangling with the sickening, brutal actions and consequences of sexually perverse, violent men who hate and objectify women. While her violent male characters are drawn as villains with the potential for hidden complexity, the nature of Catherine’s ordeal is left to be puzzled together by the reader through her reactions to her husband and through suggestions from other characters.
By making the nature of Dex’s crimes and Catherine’s experience this vague for the bulk of the novel, the reader is left to speculate on events of critical importance to Catherine Reindeer, and her story is left mysterious in a way that it shouldn’t be. Giving readers access to her internal crises without having her depict the terrible circumstances that led to her pain is a misstep: clarity that doesn’t descend into graphic exploitation is possible. If Catherine wasn’t violated beyond being beaten, and the secondary characters are wrong about what happened to her, Dex’s motivations as a kidnapper who keeps people in his basement become near-unique in the annals of crime, and need to be explained a little better. If Catherine’s kidnapping does involve what her husband can’t bring himself to envision, then the novel needs to tell us so well before the end of the narrative, and especially in the present tense chapter in which Catherine details her circumstances and life in Dex’s basement.
Cara Hoffman, in So Much Pretty, her excellent and similarly-titled 2011 novel of a kidnapping that alters the social landscape of a small town, does show her reader the consequences of a kidnapping on the victim without being pornographically detailed or exploitative, and that’s missing from this book. Without having enough knowledge to piece together Catherine’s story, the divergences into the crises of secondary characters such as Professor Altaris, whose marriage is getting shaky, or Catherine’s co-worker Daria, who is encouraged by Catherine’s plight to act on her doubts about her boyfriend and life, begin to feel like distraction from a central story that hasn’t been completely rendered.
Rosenblum’s prose, her sentences and her details, remain as strong as they are in her short stories. Putting on a jacket that has become tight on him, Professor Altaris notes that, “The only comfortable way to position my arms is as if I’m offering a tray of drinks.” Revealing details about characters are often cleverly nested in chapters focalized on different residents of Iria, sometimes before we even meet the character in question. In one case, a central character’s vehicular suicide emerges in a casual line of dialogue near the beginning of the book, well before that character appears as the narrator of one of these chapters.
The flitting from narrator to narrator, which at times makes the book seem like a collection of connected stories, adds admirable detail and shading to this portrait of a town, but it also pulls the reader out of Catherine’s narrative – which is a fascinating one – containing one truly exhilarating moment of entirely justifiable, but still haunting, violence. As with all intriguingly-drawn central characters, the reader—at least this reader—wants to see more of Catherine Reindeer, and in So Much Love’s brief 288 pages, her portion of the narrative isn’t large enough, though she may loom as a shadow over every chapter.
Naben Ruthnum lives in Parkdale, where he writes literary and genre fiction. His Exploded Views essay Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race is forthcoming from Coach House Books in the fall of 2017.