Quite simply, and at the same time not so simply at all, one of the most challenging, thought provoking, emotionally exhausting books I have ever read.
Catherine “Cathy” Stanwood has been happily in love with her husband Ben for eleven beautiful years. He’s funny, hard-working, considerate, kind, faithful, extremely good looking. Basically everything anyone could ever ask for in a husband. Unfortunately, none of those things can fix what’s wrong with Cathy.
She and Ben have been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby. Three times, by the time the story starts, they have had their hopes crushed and dreams dashed by brutal miscarriages. Faced with the brokenness of her own body, her ineffectiveness as a woman on a primal, instinctual level, Cathy is lost. So incredibly lost. It doesn’t help that whenever she raises the subject with Ben, he tells her not to worry, that it will be okay. What he doesn’t understand is no, it’s not going to be okay. Nothing is okay.
Sex is not a problem. Love isn’t either. I love Ben as much as the first time we said those three beautiful words to each other, but as each baby was taken away from my body by fate, by life, a part of me died and was buried with them in the cold-hard ground.
When she meets Arsen, the son of one of her work associates, for the first time she is lit on fire, much like his name suggests. Though she and her husband still have sex, it’s become more of a perfunctory arrangement, work. And it reminds her too much of the losses she’s suffered. Arsen, on the other hand is all about fire. On a basic level, she recognizes this and like a moth to a flame, is drawn to it.
At first, after the obligatory come-on by the New York playboy, she and Arsen become friends. Unlike her husband, sweet though he may be, Arsen listens to her concerns about the fourth child she now carries. She is absolutely terrified and basically hanging on to her sanity by her fingernails. She knows that if she miscarries this child, she’ll break. As will her tenuous hold on her marriage.
For a while things seem to be getting better. She’s found a friend in Arsen, she and her husband have grown closer. The possibility of finally having a child have proven to partially mend their broken spirits. Only she knows better than to put all of her hopes on her failing body.
When her tenuous control snaps and she turns to Arsen to numb the pain, she risks her marriage, her best friend, and the love of her life.
What follows is the blatant self-destruction of a woman who desperately needs to be healed. So lost and alone, feeling like she can’t turn to her husband, Cathy chooses Arsen to deal. This is the point in the novel that most, myself included, take a giant step back from Cathy. Up until this point, we’re on the sidelines, biting our nails, gnashing our teeth, just hoping that she doesn’t cross that line because Ben, dear Ben is really so sweet. But really, when one basically cracks, no amount of sweet will save you. You have to be able to save yourself. After her tragic loss, Cathy only wants to run. Away from her husband, her life, her grief.
It all happens at once. I close my eyes, my cell goes off, and Arsen slides all the way in, pushing me forward with the force of his thrust. A cry escapes my throat. Is it pain? Is it pleasure? Is it guilt? Maybe all three.
I experienced such an emotional turmoil after concluding Arsen that I didn’t initially know how I was going to rate it. Normally, I know right away how I feel about a book and at the advice of some fellow reviewers, I took the night to sleep on it.
When it all comes down to it, Arsen is undeniably expertly crafted. The audience isn’t supposed to identify with Cathy. By definition, an anti-heroine isn’t meant to be liked. She makes horrible decisions, things that absolutely disgusted me. The fact that I’ve seen such an overwhelming response to Cathy cements the rating in my mind.
I’m giving Arsen five stars because I feel, when it comes down to it, that it was one of the best, most challenging stories that I’ve ever read. I don’t really believe that you’re supposed to like it, which is a novel concept. How are you supposed to, really?
Perhaps, you’re even supposed to hate it. I mean, how do you really cheer for the bad guy? In a normal novel, more than likely, it’d be told from Ben’s point of view.
Everything would be neat and tidy. We’d know who the bad guys are, where to place the blame and could sleep like babies at night knowing the world fit in a nice little box.
But this isn’t Pleasantville and things don’t work that way. This may not be of popular opinion, but I don’t think Cathy was solely at fault. That doesn’t excuse her behavior one bit, but I don’t believe she was quite right in the head. Not crazy, but it’s obvious not only was she suffering from extreme grief and she felt she had no way to express that to her husband.
I loved that Asher shows the story from both past and present, as well as little slices of Arsen’s and Ben’s points of view. Not only do I follow the present relationship, I practically fall in love with Ben right alongside Cathy as she recounts their relationship.
The insight into Arsen is what truly cemented the rating for me. When the big blow up occurs and he does something completely out of left field, I almost DNF’d the book right then and there, but I was determined to pull through it. I’m glad I did because the epilogue completely broke me apart. This truly is a broken love story and though there is a slight happy ending (really, how can this truly ever be happy, someone is going to get hurt) no one ever leaves a situation like this unscathed.
If you’re debating this novel, which I completely understand because I was terrified. I’m going to tell you to take the chance. No, it is not your typical love story, it is very much a broken one. Don’t go into it expecting hearts and flowers. Expect fire. And heartbreak. And to have your very ideals come into question.