“Then I buried the story alive, making sure it was deep enough, a wolf wouldn’t smell blood on it and dig it up.”
I don’t really know what to say about this book, and I keep oscillating between a poor rating and a middle range rating. Part of the flipflopping is because I know this is a very popular, much loved, much praised book. The other part is that I’m just disappointed because this is a book I should have loved – I really thought it would be my last five star read of the year. The book? Tiffany McDaniel’s Betty (Knopf 2020).
The long and short of it? Betty is trauma porn that relies on visceral reactions from the reader to carry the plot – it’s not character driven, it’s trauma driven. And I don’t like that. I think it is gimmicky. And Betty is 465 pages of horribly traumatic events. If you’ve followed me for a bit, you know I don’t do trigger warnings; there’s nothing wrong with them, I’m just not the source to go to for that. But buckle up, buttercup.
*** Spoilers ahead***
Multiple attempted suicides
Incest – repeated instances
Child molestation – repeated instances
Rape – repeated instances – including a very vivid depiction of a 9-year-old and her father
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but if it’s a trigger, it’s probably in this book. (Note: Just because there are triggers, doesn’t mean the book is so-called trauma/misery porn. That is determined by how the trauma is used in the work.)
That said, the fact Betty is trauma porn isn’t the sole reason for a low rating; there’s an inconsistency in Betty’s voice that drove me bananas. Parts are very retrospective and show the maturity of an adult looking back, while in those same paragraphs, there are parts that are very “in the moment” and reflect her age at that time. There’s also a ridiculous amount of flowery language and metaphor stacking, and it’s simply off-putting. (I think this is common with trauma porn because it helps build that reaction in the reader.) It could have used a more cutthroat editor; she needed to “kill some darlings.”
Now for the positives. Betty reminds me of a bloodier and grittier The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere, and that’s a favorable comparison. Landon Carpenter is one of my favorite literary fathers, and the relationships he has with his children are the heartbeats in this novel. Betty’s mother is one of the worst literary mothers. I know she’s dealing with a tormented past and mental health issues, but she’s awful. But in the last few pages of the novel, I forgave her. When they’re taking Landon to the hospital, and she becomes focused on making biscuit dough – she was never more human than in that moment. And when she began to untie his shoes laces before the nurses closed the curtain, her grief was never more real. The last section of the novel redeemed the entire work a bit because the trauma wasn’t the driving force. And if you weed through the flowery language, you’ll find some beautifully crafted sentences.
Betty isn’t a novel I would recommend unless you’re a reader who enjoys trauma porn. For some people, the intense reaction to traumatic events in a novel is ideal. Personally, I prefer having a reaction to the characters and how they react to the trauma.
But that’s the great thing about storytelling – there are stories for all of us.
Never stop reading.