Publisher: Interlude Press
Release Date: July 12, 2018
Received From: NetGalley
Alexandra Graff, a Californian living in Paris, is a stained-glass artist whose synesthesia gifts her with the ability to see sounds in the form of color. When she’s commissioned to create glass panels for the new Philharmonie, she forms a special bond with the intriguing Halina Piotrowski, a famous Polish pianist. As their relationship develops, Alexandra shows Halina the beautiful images her music inspires. But when it comes to a lasting future together, will Halina’s fear of roots and commitment stand in the way?
SEXUALITY: bisexual, lesbian
ROMANTIC ORIENTATION: biromantic, homoromantic
TROPES: ice queen, height difference
TAGS: adult, contemporary, romance, queer romance, queer characters, Jewish characters, ownvoices, character with synesthesia, fat character, Deaf character
WARNINGS: biphobia, fatphobia, mental illness (anxiety, intrusive thoughts, dementia), queerphobia, ableism, queerphobic family, parental illness, cheating mention, child abuse, abusive parent, emotional abuse, cultural appropriation, racism, slavery mention, arophobia, slurs, gendered slurs, terrorism, transphobia, panphobia, slutshaming, menstruation, sexual coercion
To be completely honest, I am at a true loss as to how to review this book. It was BAD. So bad. Even with the reviews I’d seen beforehand, I was pretty unprepared for how awful it was. So I guess I’ll briefly talk about the one aspect I enjoyed, general issues, and then break down the larger problems within the book.
One thing I did enjoy about this novel was the way Alexandra’s synesthesia was described throughout the book and the ways in which it’s showed to influence her artwork. It was interesting to read how different sounds and tones translated to different colors in her mind.
As far as general problems with the novel, it was largely just really boring. Taking aside the offensive content that I’ll talk about next, there was just nothing all that exciting about the plot itself. The writing was pretty lackluster, and there were unnecessary information dumps, especially early on, as a means for us to learn about the characters, but they could’ve easily been incorporated into some of the dialogue later on and been effective. And speaking of the dialogue, that aspect of the novel was incredibly stilted. The usage of contractions throughout the novel was really rare, which made things difficult at times. Not to mention, it was a strange grammatical choice for Alexandra, who is supposed to be from California–Americans pretty much use contractions as much as possible. Also, the book was in third person and present tense, and while that can sometimes work for a novel, I didn’t feel it worked well here at all. Also, Tajedler puts every word from other languages in italics and at one point describes foreign accents as “exotic.”
And now, for specific issues I had with the book, which are broken down into four categories: ableism, racism, fatphobia, and biphobia.
***Note: These four sections will be heavy on quotes, so please read further with caution. Also, I am well aware that the bisexuality aspect of the novel is #ownvoices, and I am by no means saying the author has no right to write her own experience, but the abundance of it and the fact that NONE OF IT is called out until the last 50 pages or so are what I take issue with.***
For this category, I’ve only pulled out one scene, though there are several instances of ableism throughout the novel
“Why are you signing?”
“Zach has hearing loss because he was born prematurely,” Alexandra explains, still signing.
“I won’t mind if you say I’m Deaf, Lex,” Zachary says, and Halina’s eyes widen.
“Like normal people!”
I should hope I don’t have to point out how horribly insensitive this is, but for those of you who need to be told: this is really awful. It is immediately called out on page (by the teenage boy, not any of the adults, who include his aunt, Alexandra, and his mother, Alexandra’s twin sister), but there is honestly no acceptable reason for Halina to say this to him. She makes the excuse that she’s never met a Deaf person before, but whether you know any disabled people or not, it costs you nothing to treat them just like you would anyone else.
The examples for this section are little throwaway lines that still struck me.
From the corner of her eye, she spots the dignified [black] bartender gazing at her, a dark sunflower drawn to Halina’s starlight.
The only two people of color in the novel are bartenders that Halina and Ari end up hooking up with. This line is about the bartender who’s a woman, and while it’s potentially not a very noticeable line, it still rubbed me the wrong way. As if Halina is the light that can save the bartender, or something like that. It was just pretty creepy.
The other incident was a moment of cultural appropriation from Alexandra.
She orders a Continental Sour and subtly checks to make sure the kimono fold of her dress is not too revealing. Just the top of her cleavage is showing. Good. Her outfit marks her as the quirky American artist who can bring color to the lives of these people.
Aspects of other people’s culture is not something you use in order to be “quirky.” You can present yourself as unusual in some way without stealing pieces of different cultures, and repeatedly insulting them in the process.
Alexandra, one of the main characters of the novel, is fat. There are many references to her fatness that are not at all complementary, and in fact, most of the insulting comments come from Halina, Alexandra’s love interest. Due to the large number of them, I only include a few examples here.
Her eyes land on a short woman who dances by herself. She’s not spectacular in any way: short, dark hair stuck in curls against darkish skin, compact and curvy body wrapped in a black dress with no regard for the fashion rules for her body type.
While she’s not usually attracted to that body type, she could be tempted by the dancing woman is she doesn’t manage to seduce the [skinny] bartender.
The first time Halina sees Alexandra–not knowing who see is or that she would see her again–is in the club she visits, and this first moment can be summarized as “how many times can I insult this person while acknowledging they’re attractive” and/or “I’ll settle for the fatty if the skinny person doesn’t bite.” Fat bodies are beautiful the way they are, no matter how the person dresses, and it’s no one’s business what we wear or how we look. Additionally, we are not last resort options that you only fall back on if skinny people don’t want to sleep with you. We deserve all the love, respect, and seduction (if the person is into romance and/or sex) that skinny people would get. As this scene happens really early on, I was already rooting against Halina.
Then later on she says this:
Oh, but this is delicious. I should have tried different body types before.
We’re not fucking food for you to taste test and determine whether you like us or not–either you do or you don’t. Also, at one point, Halina describes Alexandra as “sexy-against-all odds.” What odds? The fact that she’s fat? Being fat and being sexy are not mutually exclusive! Fat people can be sexy!
This section is going to be longer than the previous ones, because there is far more biphobia in the book than anything else. There’s little digs here or there on practically every page of Halina’s point of view. And as I mentioned earlier in this review: I know the author is bisexual and she’s writing from her experience here, but to be quite honest, I am very hard-pressed to accept a romance in which one of the people are completely, willfully ignorant about the other’s identity and makes no effort to change that upon getting to know the person. There are exactly ZERO instances of Halina’s, and Ari’s, extreme biphobia being challenged on page until somewhere in the last 50 pages. And considering the way Tajedler slides right past biphobia and goes into outright anti-bisexual hatred? That’s a huge problem for me.
But onto the examples.
“And I didn’t expect someone of her type to be…hardworking, so to speak.”
“Her type?” Halina repeats, her voice betraying an anger on behalf of Alexandra she didn’t expect.
“Oh, come on, Lina,” Ari says with a small, uncertain laugh. “People like her, yeah. Didn’t you say she is bi? And she’s a fatty too. Neither have the best rep.”
“No, I can’t let you say that,” Halina cuts them. “Sure, she is nothing like the size zeroes I banged around the world, but I wouldn’t want her to be thinner[…] and I was an idiot for not giving bigger women a chance sooner.”
This example fits in both with this category and the fatphobia section above. The mindset that Ari and Halina share is incredibly damaging to bisexual people–perpetuating the myth that we’re all greedy bisexuals who do nothing but have sex with everyone alive (which is rich, considering how many people Halina talks about having slept with). And this would’ve been a great opportunity for Halina to tell Ari to not talk smack about Alexandra, but she doesn’t really say anything.
“Not sure you’re as picky as I am.”
Choices need to be made, and one thing cannot fit in two boxes at once—a pasta dish cannot be a dessert, a dessert cannot be a pasta dish, and one cannot be attracted equally to different genders. She’s certain she would be more comfortable in this relationship business if she could be sure of Alexandra’s preference.
This part is from the narration in a Halina chapter, in which she ignorantly explains away Alexandra’s sexuality and says bisexuality and pansexuality aren’t possible. Also, in this excerpt, she does something that she does multiple times: she centers herself in all discussions of Alexandra’s sexuality and how uncomfortable it makes her that Alexandra can be attracted to other genders.
Why anyone would want a man when they could hold a woman is beyond Halina’s comprehension, and she intends on convincing Alexandra of the same.
This idea is really gross. Whether or not Halina can fathom being attracted to men doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Alexandra can, and the way Halina intends to essentially try to force her to change her mind is uncomfortable at best and mentally and emotionally damaging at worst.
On their way, Halina doesn’t miss the way some patrons gawk at them. She stomps on an irrational need to put her hand, her mark almost, on Alexandra. Alexandra is hers, and these men don’t deserve to be competition. No one should be competing for Alexandra’s affection, but the idea of men as potential rivals is a sore spot.
Once again, the narrative perpetuates the idea of the greedy, cheating bisexual. Not once does Alexandra give any indication she would rather be with anyone else–in fact, she’s far more invested in the relationship than Halina is for most of the novel–but Halina continues to insist Alexandra would cheat if she could and makes men, who aren’t even on Alexandra’s radar, villainous when nothing has even happened.
“We are in resonance, if it makes any sense?”
“It does,” Alexandra says with a nod. “The same goes for Leo and me. We get each other’s art without needing to voice it.”
Halina twists her mouth for a split second, long enough for Alexandra to notice. “It’s not as thought I want to fuck the guy, though,” Halina comments.
“Neither do I,” Alexandra replies coldly. The last piece of spicy corn on the cob is rightfully hers now.
Alexandra is pretty sure Halina couldn’t drip more condescension and doubt.
“You can’t deny there is still something between you two,” Halina points out. “Friends don’t fuck each other. But maybe you do,” she adds with a condescending pat.
This one legitimately made me flinch. All Alexandra does is give an example to show she understands what Halina is describing, but because the person mentioned is her ex, Halina becomes unnecessarily cruel and condescending. Honestly, Alexandra should’ve dumped her right in the middle of the restaurant and strolled off into the sunset by herself.
“He cut you from his life for being a lesbian?”
At some point, the phrase “slum it up with the bi” came up, and she doesn’t need them to point out something she already feels tender about.
The more time they spend together, the more Halina wonders why Alexandra doesn’t accept the lesbian label to the fullest. As far as Halina is concerned, no woman could be so good in bed, so intuitive about her partner’s needs, and not be a lesbian.
These two instances happen in different scenes, but they, once again, show Halina trying to pigeonhole Alexandra into an identity she’s never claimed and doesn’t want to claim. She’s so incredibly obtuse and repeatedly refers to Alexandra as a lesbian because she can’t handle the fact that Alexandra has been with men. Bisexuals and pansexuals are frequently pushed by other queer people to choose the labels “gay/lesbian” or “straight” when we don’t identify that way, and this just continued to fuel my rage to read it in a romance in which I am supposed to be rooting for the couple.
She whispers in Alexandra’s ear, sucking on the lobe, “So needy, so insatiable. I’m sure you’d love someone else to join us, wouldn’t you, hmm…”
Halina only means to tease Alexandra as foreplay before going down on her and maybe having Alexandra reciprocate, maybe, afterward, drinking some wine and settling down to bask in the afterglow with a good dinner and a movie…
She doesn’t expect Alexandra to freeze and lean back to glare at Halina, a very different storm in her eyes: a hurricane with the strength to destroy everything in its path.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Alexandra snarls as she stands and adjusts her shirt. She brushes her dark curls away from her face, but they bounce back.
Halina sits up stiffly. “I only meant that you are—you were—horny.” Her voice lists into a question as her defensive walls rise.
“Uh huh.” Alexandra frowns. “So this had nothing to do with what you think of me?”
“What I think of you?”
“Your perpetual condemnation, how I can’t be trusted? How you had to lower your standards to put up with our relationship? Pick one.”
“I do trust you, Xandra! I don’t judge you for dating men in the past; you probably didn’t know better.”
“I never said I wanted you to worship me.”
“But you would be more comfortable if I were a perfect lesbian,” Alexandra retorts, eyes piercing, unforgivingly so. Halina has never found her more beautiful.
“Do I wish I didn’t have to compete for your attention? She replies, letting her own worries out of the bag. “Do I feel like I will never be able to trust you not to cheat on me? Do I wish fucking Leo wasn’t still in your life, in more ways than you let on? Of course I do!”
Finally, this is the scene in the last 50 pages that finally pushes everything to a head and gets called out before the couple gets back together (though I personally believe Alexandra forgives Halina way too quickly and too easily). Within this scene, we get the whole gamut of harmful bisexual stereotypes–all bisexuals want threesomes (which is ironic since Halina is the one who mentions thinking of a threesome when Alexandra’s twin sister is in town); the greedy bisexual who wants everyone; the cheating bisexual because they just can’t help themselves; and all bisexuals being lesser because they don’t identify as gay or lesbian. This whole scene is a major clusterfuck and incredibly hurtful, and again, it is truly astonishing that nothing ever gets called out until this scene. No one ever says anything against Halina or Ari until this point, and I would’ve truly been happier with the ending if Alexandra had said fuck it and not gone back to Halina.
In addition to all of these offensive, harmful things, the characters were just incredibly awful people. Alexandra probably could’ve been enjoyable to read about in another book, by another author, and her sister and nephew weren’t terrible. But everyone else…yikes. As shown by all the examples above, Halina is just a generally awful person who really only cares about herself. There was very brief mentions of her being emotionally abused by her mother when she was a child, but that never went anywhere besides a throwaway comment, so I didn’t develop any kind of sympathy, and she just got progressively worse as the book went on.
And then there were Ari and Leo who were both incredibly rude, hateful, and ignorant in their own rights. The hatefulness spouted by Ari was especially disturbing, and to be quite honest, I took personal offense at their characterization. They are one of the characters at the forefront of the Bi Hatred Brigade, and it was so perplexing to me. As a nonbinary person (I assume, as they used they/them pronouns but it was never specified), Ari should’ve understood that things aren’t binary. Gender isn’t and neither is sexuality, and so I would’ve thought they’d have been more open to and accepting of Alexandra’s sexuality, but instead, they were one of the most hateful. Leo, though, was a weird character, who was practically unnecessary. He was hardly ever on page except to make threats and be aggressive to Halina about Alexandra, and the plot would’ve been better served if he wasn’t involved in the plot at all.
Born and raised in Paris, Art has always been in my life, one way or another. Through painting, restoring books or working in auctions, it is a predominant part of who I am. Writing became another art form I could use to express myself when I joined the fan community in 2009.
I love dogs with a passion, and you can always count on me for the best food addresses in Paris!