In Violet's Wake by Robin Devereaux-Nelson
I often catch myself fantasizing about being the woman. To speak from the embarrassing part of my heart that has the aesthetic of a 500 Days of Summer chick flick, there seems to be one woman in every straight male's life who is unexplainably irresistible and unapologetically unattainable. Through many men's lives, this woman passes in a whirlwind, decked out in Zooey bangs and high-rise capri pants. In Robin Devereaux-Nelson's debut novel, In Violet's Wake, Violet is this unstoppable woman, but like every tragic manic pixie dream girl tale, none of the novel's characters or readers can exactly figure out why. The title character, Violet, leaves everyone in her path of destruction standing speechless, scratching their heads in confusion.
Devereaux-Nelson begins the trail of tears with Marshall VanDahmm, who is sadly but charmingly woebegone. He is the most recent of Violet's five ex-husbands, left alone in their messy home with little to do but drink. To open the book, Devereaux-Nelson writes, "She'd left a half-empty bottle of tequila. She'd left a lot of other things too, but right now Marshall figured the Patrón would serve him better than mismatched dishes, odd socks, and the wedding ring lying in the ceramic dish at the edge of the kitchen sink." The immediate tone of baffled and bewildered Marshall carries throughout the book, and then is multiplied by five. Rather than sulking in his sorrows, Marshall takes on a journey to meet all of Violet's ex-husbands, until all five heartbroken suckers are together in one vehicle trying to decode the mystery that is Violet.
So, what is the deal with Violet? Devereaux-Nelson gives the reader little information as to why exactly the woman is so enthralling. Simply put, Violet is a sexualized character. Even in descriptions of her in stationary positions, she seems a little too delicious. She is described meeting for dinner with one ex-husband, Owen. "As always, Violet looked fantastic. Her black hair was tousled and sexy, making a perfect frame for her face. She wore a pair of gold hoop earrings that caught the light and an off-the-shoulder sweater in a deep red that accentuated her ivory skin and dark eyes." In my life, I have met no women who attend dinner with hair that makes a perfect frame for their face. And if I did know some, I doubt any of the men in the room would notice. This is where the style of In Violet's Wake gets complicated. Devereaux-Nelson is a female writer telling a third person narrative primarily through the lens of five men. The descriptions of Violet are luscious enough, but lack authenticity. In contrast to the way the other characters are described, Devereaux-Nelson tries to make Violet seem like a goddess. I venture to say she would have come across a lot more like a goddess without such airbrushed physical descriptions.
But there are also elements of Violet that make her distractingly less attractive. The novel's construction is a mash-up of the current perspectives of the ex-husbands, flashbacks from Violet's past encounters, and documents of Violet's progress in therapy. With six ex-husbands (one dead and five divorced) and the pursuit of high school sweetheart, Jake, who won't return her affection, Violet's character oftentimes reads as needy rather than alluring. And while I would love to be infatuated with the smoldering, mysterious woman who attends regular therapy, I can't help feeling put off about certain descriptions of her. No matter how exquisitely beautiful she is, she is the cliché of a woman who has become dependent on temporary pleasures to numb lifelong sadness. Rather than seeking permanent solutions, Violet lacks empathy and becomes vacant, relying on Xanax, Ambien, counseling, sensual pursuits, glamour, and breaking hearts to ease her woes. As described in one of her therapy progress notes, "At first impression, Violet presents as slightly narcissistic, with a need for admiration and inflated self-involvement." As someone who appears narcissistic at first impression, it is curious that Violet has a cult of wounded lovers. As a reader, it is difficult to pinpoint why I stayed interested in Violet for so long, but Devereaux-Nelson does an excellent job of establishing a queen-bee effect wherein the topic of Violet becomes addicting. Because the infatuation of Violet throughout the story is so profound, I became infatuated with her, too. Her lack of presence in the actual story made this all the more fascinating and fun. The greatest moments of Violet were the moments in which Violent was absent. When she isn't being discussed, there is a hovering tension in the characters because they want to bring her up again. In this way, she acts as a poison that everyone is fixated on. This Ke$ha-esque "Your Love is My Drug" attitude of all these different kinds of men toward Violet, although sometimes corny, is the most entertaining aspect of the story.
Something I really enjoyed about the novel is the structure of anti-romance, where a group of men who would otherwise be enemies fall in love with one another and form a romance-replacing bond. Because Devereaux-Nelson's womanhood is poignant in narration through feminine stereotypes that seem sweet and fashionably flowery, this novel cannot be considered a bromance. The strengths, however, do come in the message that the stronghold of friendship can outstand any temporary ties involving romance and sexuality. Comically and thematically, the novel is fresh and simple. It discusses the confusing appeal of neurosis without being too neurotic. It discusses the importance of friendship without being too "don't judge a book by its cover" (although there is some of that).
More than anything, it is a fun stew of dysfunctional events and dialogue that made me not only roll my eyes but also wish I were a part of the story. As badly as the reader will want to hate Violet (she is, after all, "one of those girls boys dreamed about but seldom dated"), she is impossible to hate. Because ultimately, even though we have no clue who she is, she is "constantly reading, her smoky eyes behind a pair of funky glasses." And while established journalists and bloggers can sit before their computers night after night and rant about their disgust for the manic pixie dream girl, the manic pixie dream girl is still sexy. Violet, no matter how volatile, still wears off-the-shoulder tops and funky pairs of glasses. We hate to like her, but for whatever reason, we still do.
In Violet's Wake by Robin Devereaux-Nelson
Soft Skull Press