Simon & Schuster, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-47111-503-5
Contemporary Romance, 2012 (Reissue)
Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster has been compared to her buddy EL James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey a lot, but these two books have actually very little in common, unless you count the column inches and flame wars generated by people trying to get the last word on whether these books mark the end of civilization or a renaissance of literature. EL James wallows in unremarkable mediocrity that contrasts severely with the hype surrounding her books. Jamie McGuire… well, let’s put it this way, if books are recreational drugs, I’d be happy to invest in her pharmaceutical enterprises. While I don’t do drugs, so to speak, I can definitely see why this book is crack to many, many readers out there.
The story is simple. Abby Abernathy is a goody-two-shoes type in college who hooks up with Travis “Mad Dog” Maddox, the bad boy on campus who fights for prize money. He’s violent, she’s tentative. He wants it now, she opens up to him slowly. The entire book is about their song and dance, and while I personally am most likely a bit too old and cynical to enjoy the whole thing as much as I’d have liked, I can definitely see why I’d be having the time of my life if I were younger. Ms McGuire hones in on every pornographic bad boy trope that makes women, young and old alike, sigh with rapture.
Abby is vaguely beautiful, but still a blank slate for readers to imagine her as hot as, or as plain as, they’d prefer so that Abby’s shoes fit them too and they can live vicariously through Abby. Abby never truly offends when her behavior, and in fact, she tends to react more than anything else in most situations. She doesn’t have to do anything to attract Travis – she just is, and that’s good enough to have him absolutely intoxicated on her from first sight.
It’s pure potent fantasy of taming the ultimate bad boy at work here, and Travis only accentuates the fantasy to deliciously new heights. He’s utterly jealous and possessive, and he flies into violent destructive rages whenever she’s not around, but that’s the beauty of this: Travis is a beast and a brute that beats the crap out of everyone else everything else but with Abby, he can only scream impotently that he belongs to her. He belongs to her! He’s a walking AWOLNATION album, and Abby is his All I Need.
Thus, no matter how toxic the relationship between these two may seem to be at the surface, the dysfunction doesn’t matter in the end, because the gorgeous, handsome, tattooed, violent bad boy willingly chains himself to the heroine and flies into rage whenever he believes that she has rejected him. Because his obsession of her prevents him from damaging her, he can only shout and yell in a way that reveals the desperation and vulnerability inside him. And Abby, in her magnanimity, deigns to love him back, because let’s face it, it’s hard for any woman to say no when she’s handed so much power over a magnificent savage beast that she and only she can tame and conquer.
That’s how this story works for me. It reaches out and grabs me by the throat, and damn it, it won’t let go until I reach the last page. Oh, I can say that there are things that I don’t particularly adore here. The nicknames of the heroine (“Pidge”) and her best friend America (“Mare”) can be unfortunate. There are many scenes here that feel like filler to me, dragging out things considerably and causing the momentum of the story to dissipate, especially at certain spots in the middle parts of the story. Also, the romance has very little build-up – the author jumps straight into the obsession bits and pile on the drama non-stop from start to finish.
Yet, the taming of the savage beast fantasy is well-spun enough to be most captivating, so much so that it’s hard to put the book despite the occasionally shaky pacing. Additionally, I like how the element of misogyny, which is inevitable considering that the author must show that the heroine is far more special than the hero’s other slags, is actually kept to the minimum, and it’s nice that the heroine can maintain a solid friendship with America without the usual element of jealousy. Even better, Mare seems like a genuine friend to Abby instead a character created solely to worship Abby. The characters of this book rarely live like genuine college students, but they behave in ways that feel real to me – they aren’t always smart, but they aren’t always dumb either. For the most part, they think and act their age – except for Travis, who is just a stalker who desperately wants to be the heroine’s doormat as long as she lets him chain her to him, but that’s the whole point of Travis being Travis anyway.
The only thing that I really don’t like is the way the author introduces an element that typically suggests permanence into the relationship by the end of this book. Abby is only 19, and I personally feel that no lady that age should tie herself down to a man without living a little and experiencing life outside her college bubble first, unless she is marrying a balding member of England’s royal family, that is.
All things considered, I am still puzzled as to why I don’t enjoy this book more. It should appeal to me, as I’ve a weakness for fantasies involving taming violent bad boys and making them my willing slaves, er, true love and all. I can only suspect that it’s because this story, for all its effectiveness in working that fantasy in a way that both Tyra and RuPaul would approve, is actually quite predictable. Nothing really catches me off-guard here. Perhaps if the author had really given Travis a genuine bad boy edge – making him a drug dealer would be, er, interesting – I would sit up and go into cougar mode more, but as it is, most of his most melodramatic displays of twisted obsession take place off-stage and I don’t get a good idea of how beautifully twisted he may be inside the head. Abby’s a perfect placeholder for the reader to experience the hero vicariously, but she’s quite boring, and since Travis is seen through her point of view, he doesn’t really become the magnificent bastard that I’d have loved to see him be.
Still, I’ll stick around for a while, I guess. As for Beautiful Disaster, it’s worth a look if you want to experience the messier aspects of obsession and revel in what it feels like to command the devotion of a savage monster of a hero. Needless to say, you may not want to come in here if you prefer your love stories to be on the sober, pretty, or healthy side. This one’s all about celebrating dysfunction.