June 8, 2015

Review: Love is Red

Love is Red Book on of the Night Song trilogy
By Sophie Jaff
Available now from Harper (HarperCollins)
Review copy

The comparisons to NIGHT FILM and THE SHINING GIRLS drew me in.  Both were creepy literary gems, and if LOVE IS RED was half as good I was sure to love it.  I'm not sure that I do.

LOVE IS RED opens with a rape scene, which was not the best first impression.  Half the novel (maybe a little over half) is told through the killer's point of view using the second person.  The second person point of view was an interesting choice of literary technique and I thought it worked well to add a bit of tension to his sections, that such a killer could be watching you.  However, his sections were hard for me to read.  I liked that he focused on his victims' emotions over his bodies, but that aspect was still there.  And unlike THE SHINING GIRLS, I never really felt we got to see the victims as people in their own right.  They remain the archetypes the killer has marked them as.

The other narrator is Katherine Emerson, a young woman living with a roommate and her roommate's son.  She's recently met and started dating David, a perfectly nice man, but she's also started sleeping with his best friend Sael after a sexually charged encounter where they didn't realize they had any acquaintances in common.  LOVE IS RED does not hide that one of these men is the killer and that Katherine is his ultimate planned victim.  I thought which was the killer was obvious, which does mean Sophie Jaff was good at characterizing them clearly.  At the same time, it meant the book was jumping through some unnecessary hoops.

The fantastic elements of LOVE IS RED are rather quiet at first.  The killer describes emotions in synesthetic ways and believes he is reliving a grand purpose, but it takes awhile for the narrative to start showing that he isn't just delusional.  Ghosts start to show up, and more of the past is revealed (mostly through the device of excerpts from a manuscript between chapters).  I definitely felt like a lot of the worldbuilding was left for future books in the Night Song trilogy.  I had an idea of the concepts that were in play, but not specifics.  I'm unsure what the stakes of the story were, beyond Katherine's life.  If you're going to hint at a battle through the centuries, then I at least need some idea of what will happen if either side wins.

I did like that LOVE IS RED wrapped up the serial killer plot and left the romance at a reasonable ending point.  There are a lot of threads left dangling for the next book, but this one can stand alone.  I also liked the way the theme of motherhood became increasingly important through the story.  It is seeded at the beginning, so it doesn't feel unnatural when it takes a larger part in LOVE IS RED. 

Jaff's writing is often lovely, but it left me dry.  LOVE IS RED approaches feminist themes, the way women are discarded in particular, but never seems to have a coherent point of view to express about them.  The serial killer passages actively turned me off most of the time, and Katherine wasn't a much more compelling narrator.  The first moment between her and Sael is incredibly charged, but their chemistry throughout the book leans to hard on that single interaction to carry it all.  The relationship with David never has a moment half as magnetic.  Her job as a critic might as well never have been mentioned.  Her relationship with Lucas, her roommate's son, is cute.

But I kept waiting for Katherine to seize control of her narrative and stop being a victim in waiting and waffling between two not particularly compelling dudes.  I'm not sure that ever quite happened.


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