Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

There is so much of her life she doesn’t understand. She knows what happened, but why it happened and what it meant, she doesn’t know.

My Absolute Darling centers around fourteen year-old Turtle and the world defined for her by her father’s making. The central character in her life, he has wrapped himself so tightly around her that he defines her thoughts and is the source of both her pleasure and her pain. Turtle is both everything (his absolute darling) and nothing (“kibble”) to Martin. Its only as others—a new girl named Cayenne and a boy named Jacob—enter Turtle’s world that the rot becomes obvious. Turtle struggles to escape—bound to her father by more than the physical isolation and difficulty of survival without him—until it becomes clear it is the only option to keep both Jacob and Cayenne safe.

I should never have finished this book. It might be unfair to say so…but I’m blaming this book for the slump I hit in the beginning of November and only managed to come out of a few weeks ago.   Suffice to say, I hated this book. It had all the hallmarks of a book I would love—complicated (to the extreme) families, a literary style, strong female protagonist, and (since I’m a snob) buzz from critics. And yet, in execution, this book not only fell flat for me, it dug a gigantic hole, fell into it, and dragged my reading life down with it. I finished it only so that I could review it—not sure I will make this mistake again since it had a larger impact on my reading generally that I anticipated.

My largest complaints with the book are two-fold: it was unnecessarily graphic and the word “cunt” was overused in the extreme. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book if I say that My Absolute Darling centers around a father-daughter relationship where the father has replaced his wife with his daughter. There are graphic descriptions of rape of 8th and 9th grade Turtle, along with graphic descriptions of Turtle reaching orgasm with her dad—this is all she’s known and her own body both obeys and betrays her in turns throughout the book. My issue here is that the descriptions go so far into these events that the descriptions of sex become pornographic and over the top. Tallent is showing off that he isn’t afraid to go there and can write these scenes. A better writer could still have made me hate Martin, could even have described some of the rape scenes and made the point about Turtle’s body, without the gratuitous showing off.

As to the c-word, Turtle has internalized Martin’s extreme misogyny—as evidenced by the reader’s view of her internal monologue, where every female Turtle encounters (and even Turtle herself) are “stupid cunts.” At some point, using over 100 c-words to describe women has gone so far past making Tallent’s point as to become, again, evidence of Tallent trying too hard. From his short biography at the back of the book, Tallent appears to have grown up rather liberally, raised by two moms, so this overabundance of the c-word seems less likely to be a product of Tallent’s own secret feelings and rather a symptom of Tallent perhaps not having spent time with any actual misogynists and, instead assuming they use the word “cunt” in every sentence. It felt cheap, it lost its shock value, and there were other, less obvious and more skillful ways to show Turtle has internalized her father’s deep hatred for women.

From looking at other reviews, these are the two main complaints. Some people aren’t bothered by these two elements and, as a result, My Absolute Darling has many five-star reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon. Indeed, if this is the kind of litfic you usually like and you can look past these two elements, this is a well-written book that you may really enjoy. I just couldn’t look past them.

Wild Coast
The setting in My Absolute Darling is so central to the book as to become here a character. The descriptions are lush and wild, reflecting back to Turtle and the reader the internal wildness Turtle feels and the barbaric way Martin is raising Turtle. I didn’t get as much out of these descriptions (they are legion) as I have in other books, though I suspect this may have been because my forays into the Pacific Northwest have been strictly limited to the streets of Seattle and the ferry to Bainbridge Island. Having no context or appreciation of either flora or fauna, the lengthy descriptions became a touch monotonous (I can’t tell an Aspen leaf from Maple, I just know I have to rake them all… so I’m not your girl here). For someone with any more appreciation of nature than I, the lush descriptions likely add to the overall feel of the book. For me, I know enough to know I didn’t know enough to fully appreciate these descriptions.

Outside of beautiful writing, the only elements that kept me going in My Absolute Darling were the female characters—Turtle and Anna. Turtle is resilience personified. I dislike what Tallent frequently did with her inner monologue embracing of misogyny, and she often seemed much older than fourteen (much older than even her forced life experiences would have made her). So she wasn’t perfect. But she was brave and she was fierce. Her internal struggles kept her from fully saving herself until it was clear the only way to save another was to save them both. She was sacrificial in unexpected ways and the last chapters of the book when she takes a stand are the reason I’m giving this book more than one star.  (That and it will be the rare book that would make me rate anything on the same level as Hillbilly Elegy). Even in her brokenness, I wanted to cheer for her. To encourage her to step out of her shell, even if that left her skin exposed and vulnerable.  Anna, as a minor character, is still well-fleshed out. You care for her as she cares for Turtle—pushing and fighting for Turtle, even as Turtle lashes out at her. For all the other flaws in the book, Tallent’s female characters—particularly these two—are beautifully thought out and presented with an internal integrity that makes them appealing, once you cut through the excessive usage of “cunt.”

Published: August 29, 2017 by Riverhead Books
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Date read: November 27, 2017
Rating: 2 ½ stars

2 thoughts on “Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

  1. Thanks for such an honest review. These are often the hardest to write, because you still have to identify the redeeming points of the work. I have thought about picking this book up, but have heard less-than-stellar reports on it. Your review has really decided it for me. I have no desire to read about child abuse/incest in repeated graphic detail. I recently read “The Child Finder” by René Denfeld, and would recommend it. Strong, lush descriptions of the landscape, which is definitely a critical part of the narrative. And Denfeld handles the topic of child abduction and sexual abuse very gracefully, without the gratuitous gore that would be so easy to slip into.

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