I am a creature of obsessions—when I’m interested in something, I fail to moderate: curiosity becomes interest becomes preoccupation becomes fixation. It is not usually the case that I can read a novel, love it, and set it aside. Instead, I read a novel, read it again, talk about it ad nauseam for several days, read everything else the author has ever written, and then spend several more days tearing apart the seed of origin (the first novel) trying to “figure it out.” Part of the tearing apart usually involves listening to (or reading) every interview the author has ever given, particularly if said interviews concern the novel. In my defense, the process usually ends there. Aside from a long-term obsession with Joss Whedon’s Buffy universe, which lasted years instead of days—and which I attribute wholly to the peculiar agony of adolescence—when I reach the bottom of easily accessible media, I do finally (lovingly) set aside the novel.
The point of this unsolicited glimpse into my psyche: I’ve listened to entirely too many author interviews with Lisa Locascio and read entirely too many reader reviews of Open Me, the combined consumption of which will undoubtedly color this review.*
The major reviews—from NPR, New York Times Book Review, ZYZZYVA, etc.—more or less say what I would want them to say:
“Open Me is an intimate story of self-discovery in a foreign land.” (ZYZZYVA)
“[Roxana, the narrator is] sure of her physical needs and pleasures, [ ] wrapped up in a fantasy that keeps her strong and safe because it allows her to shape reality into something thrilling, even in the depths of boredom.” (NPR)
The best review, in my opinion, comes from Julie Buntin, writing for the New York Times Book Review: “Open Me spends nearly as much descriptive time on mucus, crotch odors and the grime that accumulates in the creases of an unshowered body as it does on the violent beauty of sex—a choice perhaps even more daring than the novel’s nuanced exploration of a teenage girl’s sexual imagination … Though the framework is familiar, Open Me explodes clichés of female sexuality.”
In interviews (which are years old now), Locascio expresses surprise at some readers’ reactions to Open Me. I’m less surprised than Locascio, which may evidence my comparative lack of willingness to grant most human beings the benefit of the doubt. That said, in this case, my cynicism is borne out. To avoid giving air time to reviews that I consider inarticulate and close-minded, I will say only this: if you are uncomfortable with female sexuality or would prefer to believe that sexual appetite in women begins after marriage (or at some arbitrary age you’ve already set in your mind), Open Me is not for you. If you think masturbation is “weird” or that any depiction of it is “graphic,” Open Me is not for you. If you equate sex and/or sexual interest with love, Open Me is decidedly not for you.
Locascio’s narrator struck me as vulnerable and refreshing, naive and real, young and brave. I felt that the atmosphere of the novel was sharp and claustrophobic—occupying Søren’s apartment was not always comfortable, but I admire any writer willing and able to push the reader into an uncomfortable place. Locascio does that. I did not always agree with or approve of Roxana’s decisions, but I rarely read to find characters who are carbon copies of myself.
As a final note, Locascio’s writing about the body and bodily experiences is gorgeous. She is bold without ever approaching bawdy, and I didn’t personally find any of the sexual content gratuitous. That said, I’m not uncomfortable with female sexuality; I think sexual desire begins much earlier than American mores are willing to acknowledge; I do not think masturbation is weird; and I do not think sex without love is amoral or irresponsible. I decidedly do not think sex and love are the same thing. Open Me was a novel for me—I loved it.
… I scooted to his sweat-slicked body, lay against his chest … [ ]
“Why are you crying?”
“I have to tell you—” I almost said it then, the sound already on my tongue.
Zlatan drew me closer. “Don’t.”
“What you want to say doesn’t mean what you think it means.”
“I know what I feel.”
He shook his head sadly. For the first time, he looked older than me. “The love you feel is for yourself, Roxana. It is your freedom speaking its joy to you.
It seemed too easy, and too hard. Too much and not enough, all at the same time. What I wanted was to attach, to give myself to him. But he was right. That wasn’t it, not exactly.
This is a performance, and because it is performed, it is more real.