Book Review: Pretending by Holly Bourne
I stayed up late last night reading this book and I’m still in a bit of a state of shock, because it was so very much not what I expected. From the blurb, I expected a sort of darkly funny romantic comedy. What I got was a searing mental health journey of a rape survivor trying, somehow, to process what happened to her, move on and find a healthy relationship with a man she can trust. Even though she’s pretty sure no man is worth trusting.
There are major triggers here for anyone who has survived rape, sexual assault or domestic violence. There are just so many events in the book which could be triggering - ones which the protagonist, April, is negotiating daily as she works at a charity which counsels survivors. Disillusioned after a string of failed relationships (including the one where her boyfriend raped her) April decides to try a new tactic, inventing the persona of Gretel, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who takes no nonsense from any man. Putting on a confident facade, April/Gretel meets up with Joshua and… I wasn’t precisely sure what the plan was, but it seemed to be to get her own back on men in general, by making Joshua fall for her and then callously dumping him.
Joshua’s not perfect - he definitely does a few things which made me side-eye him and which April clearly actively disliked - but he’s a basically decent guy and April eventually comes to the conclusion that she has to come clean if they have any chance at a future. And this is where the story lost me because she does it in the most stupid possible way, inviting him to be her plus-one at a wedding where, of course, nobody is going to call her Gretel and Joshua is going to discover in a very public way that he doesn’t know who she is at all. It’s basically setting herself up for a huge public confrontation and humiliation and I hated it, because it really didn’t fit with April’s non-confrontational style at all.
This does, sort of, deserve to be classified as a romance because there is an HFN (Happy For Now) ending, but it’s really April’s mental health journey, and an extraordinarily painful one at that. I didn’t find much humour in it, though I did nod in agreement so many times as April once again despaired; any woman who’s ever discovered a man was massively over-selling himself or just flat-out lying in order to get sex will definitely painfully relate. It’s raw and honest and cathartic and possibly quite therapeutic, though honestly if your state of mind is anything even approaching April’s, you should definitely get therapy (as she finally does, thankfully - her creation of Gretel appears to be a dissociative personality and very close to schizophrenia manifesting).
Even though it’s not what I expected, it’s excellently written, with the exception of April’s weird choice of when to come clean with Joshua. It’s sharp and real and painful and it definitely won’t be for everyone because there are a lot of women for whom it will just be too confronting and triggering. Approach with caution, but it’s definitely worth the read. Four stars.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.