I was about to break my only New Year's Resolution at the Munich Airport book store (said resolution being not to buy any books that I don't need in 2015) when I saw this:
It looks darker in real like, the grey part is actually black and what looks black in the picture is shiny. I actually thought it was a horror book before assuming it was a mommy-porn kind of thing.
And at first I thought it was another "erotic" novel jumping into the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon. Then, paying closer attention, I realized that I'd seen that book before with a different look in bookshops in Barcelona, the Spanish edition:
Yes, that's the third volume, and there's a fourth one.
Doing some quick research, I found out they were both translations of Anna Todd's novel After, originally written on Wattpad, a platform similar to fanfiction.net only with more original stories, a sort of self-publishing platform. What began as a fun passtime, a fanfiction about boyband One Direction, has become an international bestseller. And I had to read it. And it's free on Wattpad! I'm not breaking my resolution!
But, oh boy, am I the wrong audience of this...
First off, my university experience suffered a very short period of disappointment after seeing how it had nothing to do with any of the American college comedies I'd seen, but also because I had expected it to be... different from what it actually was. I didn't live on campus and, as far as I know, the whole fraternity and sorority houses are not a thing in European universities. However, Tessa's being nervous before her first day as an undergraduate student is something I can relate to. I can even accept that she doesn't want to party at all because she wants to use her time in college to get an actual education. Even if she's completely narrow-minded and judgemental of other people based only on their looks, especially if they have tattoos. Everybody knows tattoos = EVIL.
But Tessa, our protagonist, is a proto-Mary Sue, a character whom EVERYBODY in the book likes. Especially the love interest's parents. Her physical appearance is barely described so you, the reader, can enjoy a hundred chapters of self-insertion fantasies. We do learn that she looks hot because several characters tell Tessa (and also us, the readers) so. And because everybody in the book likes Tessa, even the people who apparently don't, I guess we're supposed to like her too.
Tessa has a steady boyfriend, Noah, who is her age but for some reason one year behind her, and an overprotective mother. The three of them make an awesome trio of judgemental assholes upon meeting Tessa's roommate, Steph, who sports a half goth, half punk look. I think Tessa defines it as slutty a couple of times. Both Noah and Tessa's mom make our protagonist PROMISE that she won't befriend Steph because, with those looks, she can only be an awful person.
Among the EVIL people Tessa doesn't want to become friends with is Harry (or Hardin, if you actually paid to have a print copy of this, but because I read it on Wattpad for free, I'm going with those names). He never, ever has a nice word for Tessa, yet for some reason he is always wherever Tessa goes. Because Harry is the stereotypical bad boy with a tragic past that makes his abuse of other acceptable, and because Tessa dresses like a pilgrim on the Oregon trail, they develop a completely unhealthy relationship with lots of calling each other mean stuff, bullying, and confusing sexual innuendo.
Actually, their whole relationship is confusing, especially when they start feeling physically attracted for one another: they end up sleeping together because reasons, then they fight; they go to a lake and do some foreplay, then they fight again; she decides she doesn't want to go near him again and gets her actual, still boyfriend to stay overnight, she goes off with Harry because he's breaking stuff at his parents' home and she ends up sleeping with him (without sex, only sleeping), and then he gets all paranoid, she decides she's going to stay away, and Harry almosts breaks Tessa and Noah up EVEN THOUGH he doesn't want to go steady with Tessa.
Go on, I'm listening...
And the whole on-and-off thing goes on for... the whole book! But it's for a good reason, really. Tessa is the only girl who has so far managed to get the best out of Harry, his good side. And she is so attracted to him that she just can't act like a normal human being and tell him to fuck off after he hasn't managed to keep a coherent attitude towards her (you either love her or you hate her; just make up your mind already!). The sexual tension rises because Tessa is a virgin: she and Noah vowed to wait until marriage, and either way she's not that into him. But Harry stirrs something inside of Tessa and gives her (gasp!) her first orgasm. Which, comprehensibly, leaves her wanting for more and makes her understand why other people do that all the time.
Tessa realising that having sex before marriage doesn't turn you into Satan.
There is something that I particularly dislike about these sort of books, and that's the relationship that the lead female character has with the males that courtship her. One one side of the spectrum there's supposedly nice guy Noah, the official boyfriend. He is defined by Tessa as a reliable person, a very good student, popular in school...
On the other side, there's Harry, the rough, tattooed bad boy who treats everybody around him like shit because he has a tragic past. It is stated, as we've discussed in the above paragraph, that they represent two opposite views of sex: waiting for that special person and moment versus the promiscuity of one-night stands. The former is presented as the right thing to do, the latter is condemned by the main character, even though I actually like that Tessa finds herself in conflict with her beliefs and what her body actually wants.
What I don't like is that both boys, at different degrees, feel like they have a right to act parternalist towards Tessa. Noah often talks to her more like a father than like a boyfriend, scolding her for being out at a party or telling her with whom she should be friends with. He even calls Tessa's mom after she gets drunk and both Noah AND the mom drive to campus in the morning to tell Tessa how out of control she is because she had a sip. But he is so nice and Tessa is so undeserving of his affections...
I know in the USA you can't legally drink until you're 21, but... really?
Harry is more of an older brother kind of figure, but he also thinks he can tell Tessa to do things his way because he's right and she's wrong. And she does! Remember girls: your boyfriend always knows better, even when you know he doesn't.
Sorry, I couldn't help it. Bad use of your Snape right there.
And Tessa is a horrible person. I haven't (but I should have) been counting every time she slut-shames other girls in the book because they aren't covering every single inch of their body from head to toes (like she does) or because they are sexually active. But when you are the one showing flesh or cheating on your boyfriend with a guy who keeps playing with your feelings and is very obviously going to disappear after he gets your way with you, that's perfectly fine. Thank you, Tessa, for teaching girls that lesson.
There, I redeemed myself with one gif.
The sexy scenes are not that sexy, but I think that might have to do with the fact that I'm over stories with amazing-OMG-first times. I know this is a romantic novel, ergo sex IS going to be romanticised like in every other rom-com and it's going to be the best thing ever since the invention of the wheel, but... Way to lie to young girls who haven't had sex yet, authors. There goes your golden opportunity. But I'm being nitpicky.
Speaking of nitpicking... When does school start in the US? Because when they swim in the lake it's been a some weeks since the beginning of the school year and I'm pretty sure that it's not particularly hot in Washington between September and November. According to Wikipedia, the temperatures in September range between 11ºC and 21ºC, but I'm still not convinced. Also, there is one time they go to a Vancouver mall and I was confused: is it a mall in the Seattle area called Vancouver mall or do they actually go over the border to do some shopping in Canada? Although, according to Google Maps, Washington State University is nowhere near Seattle (it is close to a Moscow, though), it turns out there is a Vancouver, Washington. American geography is so confusing, sometimes...
Anyway, back to the actual problem of the novel: Tessa is made a sort of martyr that puts up with Harry's bullshit because, deep inside, he's not that bad and SHE CAN CHANGE HIM! Yes, girls! Did you know that you can change an abusive person by letting him or her be a complete asshole all the time as long as he or she shows that they really care about you and treat you badly because of that? I once dated a guy like that and he repeated the same pattern: he cried for attention like a 4 year-old, made me feel guilty about having my own life and not acting like a mother to him, he cried a lot, apologised, and we only had to wait until the next time that I decided passing my senior year to get into college was more important to me than being there for hin 24/7.
I really, really hate romantic heroines that act like mothers to their boyfriends, especially when they are expected to and congratulated for it. Unless otherwise stated, these kids already have parents and it's not a girlfriend's job to become a substitute for mom. I'm not saying that a girlfriend should not be supportive of her partner, but there's a difference between a healthy, supportive relationship and being a second mother. But maybe that's just me and I might be wrong (I'm not). But Tessa is so perfect over here that not only she manages to change Harry, she also gets EVERYBODY to like her.
I would strongly discourage people from reading this but I understand its catch: you can't put it down. The chapters are really short, some 3 to 5 pages each on average and most of them end in a sort of cliffhanger that makes you want to read the next and see how Tessa solves her love problems. However, there is better-written fanfiction out there with better characters and plot development.
This post needs more Ewan McGregor.