Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Every year the American Library Association, schools, publishers, libraries, and bookstores around the country year Banned Books Week to draw attention to censorship and challenges to freedom of speech. Every year hundreds of books are challenged by people who have (hopefully) good intentions but think that their good intentions outweigh others' ability to make decisions for themselves. Long before I ever worked in the book industry I must have had an inkling of my future; I wrote my freshman high school research paper on the issue of censorship even as my high school refused to teach I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Because this is Banned Books Week, I think it's appropriate to feature the most divisive book I've encountered in quite awhile, Merritt Tierce's debut novel Love Me Back. If it's not being challenged yet, wait a year.

I don't think it's possible to read Love Me Back and not react powerfully. Reviewers have described it as "raw," "blunt," "dark," "uncompromising." It's compulsive reading even when you don't want to follow where it's leading. Sometimes it hits too close to home. Often the book is harrowing. Divisive books, though, are the ones that push us to grow individually and as a society. I thought it was brilliant (and disturbing); I have colleagues whose opinions I value who were repelled.

Here's the deal: Love Me Back is the story of Marie, a waitress working through a series of restaurants in Texas until she lands at a high end steak house in Dallas. She's incredibly good at her job, mechanically serving celebrities and businessmen and sports stars each night. She's also a girl (and I deliberately use "girl" instead of "woman" because Marie seems emotionally stuck after events derailed her college plans) with demons and prone to dangerous behaviors.

Merritt Tierce
In scattered chapters throughout the book, we discover Marie's back story. A good Christian girl growing up in a good Christian home, she participates in a youth mission trip to Mexico. While there, she sleeps with a boy on the trip, and--let's just assume she received the Texas school sex ed--she becomes pregnant. Instead of going to college and fulfilling the track of good white girls from good Texas church-going families, she stays home, marries the boy even though she barely knows him, and has a baby. She's set adrift by the abrupt turn her life has taken and, unable to right the ship, she accepts the restaurant culture of booze, drugs, and sex. Marie is a fractured person, but she still manages to function enough to keep from either breaking down completely or finding help.

Merritt Tierce was named as one of the 5 Under 35 authors to watch, a big deal in the publishing world because it signals that here is a new voice that will challenge readers and the state of books. It's like being named ESPN's #1 high school football recruit with the expectation that the player will become the next Peyton Manning. This recognition will guarantee that critics take Merritt Tierce seriously. She's talented. She deserves that respect. However, what more impresses me is that she is a talented woman who's written a fairly autobiographical novel that challenges a ton of the controversial topics that mostly people attempt to ignore, particularly in the mannered South and Texas.

Photo credit: Getty Images
What is Marie's story if she lived in a place with easy access to birth control and accurate sex ed? What is her story if she lived in a place where sinners aren't shamed and condemned? I think Love Me Back digs in and addresses those questions in a way that hasn't been attempted in a long time. Marie reminded me of girls I knew in high school, girls I knew in college, the women I worked with at almost minimum wage after I graduated and didn't have a career trajectory and felt lost myself. Are there really so many steps from my life now as a moderately successful woman with a house and a cat and a pretty good job and a handful of amazing friends and the Liz that could have been? I worked a crappy restaurant job one summer (fast food, Sonic carhop, no roller skates), and apart from the high school girls working part time for gas money, my coworkers were women in their 50's who'd each had numerous marriages and multiple kids in and out of wedlock and their daughters were then pregnant with their first babies and you could look at them and wonder what they'd dreamed about doing when they were good kids in high school.

Love Me Back is a restaurant book. Merritt Tierce actually worked in the Olive Garden in Abilene where Gianna once locked my keys in the car. Fans of Kitchen Confidential will recognize types like the managers and owners and cooks and wait staff. Love Me Back is a Texas book, rooted in the traditional values of religion and shame. Love Me Back is a feminist book that doesn't flinch from the label. Love Me Back is the kind of book that censors love to hate. Love Me Back is powerful, compulsive, obsessive reading that dares you to flinch. Is this a book that everyone will like? God, I hope not. I think it pushes buttons that need to be pushed and that's going to upset a lot of people. But Love Me Back is also a book I champion. I want it to upset people. Maybe upset people will see the invisible Maries of the world and question how they came to be.

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