Undone by John Colapinto (HarperCollins, 2015) 394 pages
* SPOILER ALERT *
Shall I tackle this book, I thought? This seemingly Lolita wannabe that is causing quite a stir? Forty publishers rejected the manuscript, I'm assuming, because the main character Dezollet is a predatory manipulator with pedophile tendencies. The topic made me uneasy but it also intrigued me. How would John Colapinto handle the issue of father-daughter "incest"? You will understand the quotes in a moment.
John Colapinto, a talented and respected, award winning journalist, is not subtle but he is, at times, proficient in creating drama and intrigue if you are willing to suspend disbelief regarding a number of serious plot points. I tried hard to eliminate the snark in this review but it was tough. And not entirely successful ... just hear me out.
Colapinto's work has the aspirations of a Lolita but the commercial appeal and technical proficiency of a Gone Girl. The writing is not beautiful but the plot does pull you along. However, you must accept the fact that a man, with incestuous thoughts, would or could act in the most reckless manner imaginable to, firstly, appease his lust and then, secondly, appease his guilt after consummating his lust.
Dezollet (known as Dez) - think desolate, dissolute - happens upon Chloe, his prospective Lolita, in a classroom in a public school where Dezollet is teaching, ostensibly to be closer to his objects of desire. She, too, like Lolita has a pesky, louche mother who conveniently dies. Chloe, friendless and lithesome, runs into the arms of her older lover. But Dez is not an "ordinary" lowlife. A trained lawyer who has worked on the Innocence Project with a "hanging judge" for a father, he has had a troubled background fighting with, and mostly succumbing to, his desire for teenage girls.
Dez hatches a plan, after a fortuitous glimpse of a literary celebrity named Jasper Ulrickson on a well -known talk show called Tovah in the Afternoon (obviously based on Oprah). The writer Ulrickson was the one time lover of Chloe's mother Holly when they both worked at a country club eighteen years ago. Her mother, Chloe exclaims, once thought that Jasper might be Chloe's father. Jasper is most famous for a memoir he wrote about his life with his wife Pauline who had survived a stroke to live as a non-verbal quadriplegic after giving birth to daughter Maddy. He is rich, famous ... and ripe for the pickings. Jasper convinces Chloe to approach Jasper and claim him as her father so that they might relieve him of his wealth.
Dez falsifies a DNA test and bribes a lab technician to conceal the true lab results. He is gratified to learn that the lab tech has fortuitously died in a motorcycle accident before Dez is compelled to kill him to conceal his evil designs.
Jasper, decent if somewhat self-absorbed, wants to welcome Chloe into the family. The only impediment is his wife Pauline's reaction to the news. Pauline can only communicate by blinking as she is in a frozen, locked-in state, and cannot communicate with Jasper in her post-stroke state. But Pauline has witnessed the intrepid Jasper extracting DNA with a swab from their sleeping daughter Maddy (to falsify Chloe's DNA test) and is unable to tell Jasper. Pauline is terrified at the news that Chloe will come and live with them.
On the long ride home after the hearing that grants Jasper custody of Chloe, Chloe uses all of her coquettish ways to ensnare Jasper, according to Dez's plan. This gives Colapinto pages and pages allotted to Jasper peering and drooling over Chloe's body. My good people, is there nothing more boring than the male gaze for the female reader? Chloe goes from a vapid, immature teenager in the first few pages to a full blown vamp - sexually manipulative and calculating - and not entirely convincingly.
Jasper stares at her, dreams of her, catalogues all her physical virtues and perfections.
These shoes, to whose height she was unaccustomed, also introduced a poignant teeter and tremble to her gait, which emblematized how her body so precariously perched between foal-like childhood and the full, fecund effulgence of erotically charged womanhood.Is there a quicker way of saying she was hot, do you think? Enough with the thesaurus! There are pages and pages of these descriptions, first from Dez then Jasper.
Dez's plan goes awry. Chloe falls in love with her new family and her new life - father, mother and younger sister - tout! Dez, desperate to see Chloe, contacts her and she confesses she is unable to go through with their plan. Through a series of improbable occurrences, Dez shows Chloe Jasper's erotic musings about her on Jasper's computer. Chloe, crestfallen, who has been making an honest attempt to fit into the family, is persuaded that Jasper will direct his bestial urges towards the younger daughter Maddy. In order to protect Maddy, Chloe determines that she will seduce Jasper.
Dez, posing as Chloe's psychiatrist (after pages and pages of psychobabble) urges the conflicted Jasper to demonstrate more physical affection rather than less towards Chloe to "purge" himself of these improper feelings towards his daughter. Jasper, desperate to come clean with his wife, tells Pauline of his illicit feelings towards Chloe which plunges Pauline into some sort of shock and then a coma. I ask you, what sort of idiot husband would do that to woman struggling with the horrendous medical issues that Pauline is suffering from?
That night Jasper, drunk and prodded on by Dez's urging "to be more affectionate" has sex with Chloe. This scene is the worst written scene in the whole book. I never want to see the words "inflamed member" or "savage desire" in print (except in an ironic context), ever. Sex scenes are difficult to write, very difficult, so it is best to leave more, rather than less, to the imagination or else you will end up with this little gem:
Rage, as much as desire, seized him, and in a spasm of fury and lust he tore away his short. He bent and wrenched off his pants and underwear, liberating the smarting prong, which stood out from his body at an almost upright angle not achieved since he was , himself, Chloe's age.
"Daddy!" she cried.
With an animal bellow that combined plangent mourning and savage desire, he collapsed upon her.During the night, Chloe disappears (who could blame her) and soon the law is at Jasper's door. The family is effectively destroyed. Jasper is charged with raping his "daughter" and goes to prison for a very long time. Pauline lapses into a coma and is hospitalized. Maddy is sent to live with her aunt. Chloe disappears with her lover Dez to NYC after inheriting a third of Jasper's sizable estate.
In prison, Jasper is severely beaten and loses the vision in one eye. After he is released, he happens upon a written message transcribed by Maddy in her childish scrawl in one of her old notebooks. Pauline had communicated her suspicion of Chloe and Dez by blinking her way through the alphabet. Okay Colapinto, pull the other one now. Jasper rushes to tell Pauline in the hospital that he knows the truth - this miraculously awakens Pauline who has been in a coma for eight years.
Jasper tracks down Chloe, living apart from Dez, disgusted by his substance abuse and womanizing (girl-izing?), and living in impoverished circumstances as she has walked away from the wealth they stole from Jasper. She confesses it was all a plot to ruin Jasper. Chloe's frightened roommates call the police and Chloe almost lets them take Jasper away but at the last moment confesses that everything he is saying is true.
In the last few pages, the family is reunited. Pauline is regaining her health, tenuous as it is. Maddy is returned to her parents. Jasper miraculously recovers his sight through another operation. And Dez is just a broken, substance abused disaster who gets his just desserts.
You can't have it both ways ... a salacious exploration of a man's lust for his supposed "daughter" and then make this man, in the end, the noble, victimized hero who stands by his impaired wife and young daughter, having forgiven Chloe for destroying him and his life (all his lust for Chloe has disappeared by the way). And Chloe makes four in this happy family, forgiven and reintegrated.
Colapinto makes coy reference in the acknowledgments to possible angry mail from readers. Instead I find myself irritated by the flimsy plot points: the ease with which the DNA sample is extracted from the sleeping child, switched for Chloe's DNA ... the DNA technician conveniently eliminated from the story line ... the ridiculous premise that Dez can walk in, unprepared, and impersonate a psychiatrist to an educated man like Jasper and then guess Jasper's computer password and reveal Jasper's secret thoughts to Chloe ... the silliness of Pauline transmitting Dez's villainy to Maddy by blinking out the message letter by letter ... the pathetic manner in which the writer tries to elicit sympathy for Jasper when he is almost beaten to death and blinded in prison for his perceived crime ... the idea that the prison would allow the near blind Jasper to just leave the prison without an escort ... the miraculous awakening of Pauline once she learns from Jasper that she has been vindicated in her fears ... the idea that the family could reformulate and include Chloe after all that has happened. I might be able to accept one or two of these premises but not all.
That coupled with the baroque language and sexual descriptions effectively quenched any thoughts of rage or revulsion.
Verbs repeatedly expressing emotion - gaping, chuckling - mar the text. During this interminable car ride from the court hearing (and a few times more after that) either Chloe or Jasper "gape" no less than three or four times. It is the editor's role to eliminate the repetitions that mar the reading experience. And it's also the editor's role to pull back on all the erotic fantasizing that merely becomes laughable and does not enhance the narrative. Is this a Harlequin romance or is this a serious novel?
The tale is so farcical and far-fetched, it elicits sighs of boredom and expressions of disbelief rather than rage. No topic is verboten in fiction. As a writer, I feel strongly about that but if you are going to tread into this explosive area - make it honest, make it real, make me think about the topic in an open and questioning way rather than want to throw the book down in disgust because it is salacious and poorly written.