I Take You, by Eliza Kennedy

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

I recently read “I Take You” by Eliza Kennedy. There are many strengths to this novel. Sadly, there are also some real weaknesses.

(I also recently reviewed Jenna McCarthy’s book, Pretty Much Screwed, which makes for an interesting contrast.)

In my own writing, I lean heavily on dialogue, so I liked that aspect of the book. Many novels use dialogue as a bit of garnish on top of the real meal, but this book uses dialogue as the main course. And the characters all have a certain amount of wit, so a lot of the reading is pleasant. But the book also suffers at least 2 large self-inflicted wounds. Both of them appear early in the book, in this scene, which I’ll quote at length because this scene tells you everything you need to know about the book:

(For background, Lily is the main character, a young lawyer with a strong sex drive, Will is her fiance, Mom is her mom, Granma (aka Izzie) is the mom’s mom, the other women are other ex-wives of Lily’s father.)

Unfortunately Gran had been slowing down for a few years. She was crankier than usual. Forgetting things and making mistakes. Her law partners finally intervened. She wasn’t happy about it but she couldn’t deny the truth of what they were saying. So she very reluctantly stepped down

“I can’t imagine what life would be like without work,” Will says to her. “It must be hard a hard transition.”

Gran is touched by his sympathy. She hides it be jabbing me with her fork. “Elbows off the table! You’ve got the manners of a damn hillbilly.”

Ana reappears from the kitchen and sits down. She looks at her plate, moving the food around warily with her fork. “What are we eating? Chicken?”

“I think it’s pork,” Mom says.

“It’s fish,” Gran says.

Will says, “I love the rice.”

Gran says, “It’s polenta.”

“How is that possible? ” Jane murmurs.

Gran throws her fork down. “Goddammit! I used a cookbook this time!”

“Think positive, Iz,” Ana says. “Your kitchen skills could jump-start a new career. The legal professions’s loss might be the prison food industry’s gain.”

We laugh. “To hell with all of you!” Gran shouts, but she’s smiling.

“Seriously,” I say, “its’ s hard to believe I haven’t eaten this badly in thirteen years.”

Will turns to me curiously. “What?”

The chatter at the table dies away. “I, um, haven’t been back in a while,” I explain.

“In thirteen years?”

Everyone is watching now. “More or less. Since I moved north to live with Dad and Jane. I sure have missed Gran’s awesome cooking!” I give him a big, diversionary grin. It doesn’t work.

“You never came back? Not even to visit?”

Mom saves me. “We don’t give her a chance, Will. We’re too happy to come to her.” Gran nods in agreement, her fierce little eyes fixed on me.

“Tell us what you do, Will,” Ana says quickly. “Something with museums, right?”

“I work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” he replies with a touch of pride that’s totally adorable. “I’m an associate curator, in the Department of Greek and Roman Art.”

They look suitably impressed. At my urging he explains a bit more about what he does, some of the digs he’s been on and articles he’s written and exhibits he’s designed. They’re hanging on every word.

“I am astonished that we have b met before now,” Jane says. She turns on me. “Why haven’t you brought Will uptown?”

I frown apologetically. “I wanted to, but there’s that the new ordinance.”

“What new ordinance?”

“You can’t travel north of Fifty-Ninth Street unless you have a white-hot poker shoved up your ass.”

“Lily,” Mom says. “Your language.”

Jane just smiles. “Classy as every, darling. Still I expect to see you at my benefit in April. It’s at the Pierre.”

“Is it black tie?”

Jane looks appalled that I would even ask. “What other kind is there?”

I do like men in tuxedos. “We’re so there.”

I reach for another handful of potato chips. Jane catches my eye. “Remember, darling, marriages, come and go, but wedding photographs are forever.”

“Leave her alone,” Ana snaps. “She’s too thin as it is.”

“It’s those ridiculous hours,” Mom adds.

“She needs to put in long hours if she wants to be a good lawyer,” Gran says.

“Hello?” I wave at them. “She’s right here in the room with you. Feel free to address her directly.”

“When are you going to quit that awful firm?” Mom demands.

“When Ana hires me.”

Ana chuckles. “Good one.”

“We’d have so much fun! I want to be quoted in all the newspapers as Representative Mercado’s ‘trusted aide’ and ‘longtime political operative.'”

“Never going to happen, Lilybear,” Ana says. “You’d be a huge liability.”

“Exactly!” I say enthusiastically. “I’d distract the press from all your real scandals.”

Ana only laughs.

“Why would Lily be a liability?” Will asks.

There’s the briefest of awkward pauses before Ana says,”I’m only teasing! Great lemonade, Izzie!”

“Delicious,” Jane agrees.

I head into the kitchen to find the damn vodka myself. When I come back, Will is saying, “Did you renovate this house yourself, Katherine?”

Mom blushes. “Almost twenty years ago. I t was my first full restoration. That’s why it looks so awful.”

“It doesn’t!” Will protests. “It’s beautiful.”

She waves him off. “I was such a rookie. I just cringe whenever I look at the joinery.”

“Me too,” Ana says. “I always think, nice place , but what’s with the fucking joinery?”

“Oh, Ana,” Mom sighs. She tells Will, “We don’t usually curse this much.”

“That’s true,” I say. “We reserve profanity for special occasions. Like divorces.”

Will laughs. He likes them. And they like him, too — I can tell. He props his elbows on the table. “So, speaking of divorces…”

They all laugh — they’ve been waiting for this. “You want to know the batting order.”

Will points at Mom. “I think … you were first, Katherine?”

“That’s right,” she says. “Then, Ana, then Jane.”

“I was followed by Annette,” Jane explains . “But,” she pauses delicately, “we’re not close.”

“Henry is currently married to Ekaterina,” Ana says. “The mail order bride.”

“That’s cruel, ” Jane says. “You know he paid extra for DHL.”

They all laugh. “Trina is super sweet,” I tell Will.

“Lily!” Ana cries, “She’s three years younger that you are.”

“She’s so awesome! She set up my wireless.”

“Have you met Henry? ” Mom asks Will.

“Not yet. I’m a little nervous. Any words of wisdom?”

“Don’t get in a drinking contest with him,” Ana advises. “You’ll lose.”

“Don’t let the British accent fool you,” Gran says. “He’s as dumb as a post.”

“And whatever you do,” Jane tells him, “Don’t look too deeply into his eyes. He’ll hypnotize you. Like a snake.”

Mom, Jane and Ana glance at one another, then dissolve into laughter. Gran snorts contemptuously and stands up to collect our plates.

“You all get along so well,” Will marvels. “How did that happen?”

My mothers exchange another look, half proud, half bashful. “What’s the quote, Kat?” Ana says. “Something like, before we could call each other sister, we had to call each other a lot of other things first.”

Before the laughter came the tears, ” Mom agrees.

“And the lawsuits,” Jane notes.

“The restraining orders,” Ana says, “the reconstructive surgeries.”

Mom smiles. “Now we’re one big, happy family.”

So, a few things. First of all:

They all laugh. “Trina is super sweet,” I tell Will.

Telling the reader that the characters are laughing is most useful when the laughter is counter-intuitive. As a hypothetical example “He opened the door and discovered his parents had been stabbed to death, which caused him to laugh uncontrollably” — useful because the reader may not realize the murder is funny to the protagonist. But in the current case, this would have been funnier:

“Henry is currently married to Ekaterina,” Ana says. “The mail order bride.”

“That’s cruel, ” Jane says. “You know he paid extra for DHL.”

“Trina is super sweet,” I tell Will.

But that is minor.

The book suffer two self-inflicted injuries which could have easily been avoided:

1.) The Big Secret That Will Change Everything — one of the most over-used tropes of the last 20 years

2.) All the ex-wives love each other.

About The Big Secret That Will Change Everything. This is always a cheap gimmick, and serious writing should avoid it. It’s used to maximum effect in emotionally manipulative writing such as Nicholas Spark (They’re young! They’re in love! What’s her big secret? Omigod, she has cancer!). While there are many interesting experiments possible with fiction, the classic form, going back to the Greeks, involves a protagonist who goes out and learns something. The reader acquires facts at exactly the same time that the protagonist acquires facts. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Sherlock Holmes or Jane Austen or Milan Kundera, the reader learns about things at the same time that the protagonist is learning about things. That is good. What is bad is when the protagonist has a Big Secret That Will Change Everything and keeps that secret from the reader. That is manipulative and cheap.

Why didn’t Lily return for 13 years? We later learn that a boy had a crush on her and then committed suicide when she rejected him. Does this revelation, in fact, change everything? No, it’s a footnote, an aside, it could have easily been cut from the book. I have the impression that Eliza Kennedy first thought that she needed the drama offered by a Big Secret That Will Change Everything, but then as she edited the book she began to notice how cheap and stupid this trope is, so she began to revise the book so The Big Secret That Will Change Everything was less and less important. She de-emphasized this to the point that it could have easily been left out.

In this case, The Big Secret That Will Change Everything offers some spicy conflict with another boy, who Lily used to maybe have a crush on, when they were teenagers, but now this other boy doesn’t trust her, because he was around for The Big Secret That Will Change Everything. But I think the same level of conflict could have easily been achieved with something less of a cliche than a suicide. She could have stolen some money because she really wanted ________. That could have been something interesting, and not a cliche. What did she want so much that she was willing to break the law for it? Give us something original, that also teaches us something about Lily’s character.

So The Big Secret That Will Change Everything is one of the disappointments with the book.

The second self-inflicted wound is the lack of explanation around “All the ex-wives love each other.” It’s unusual, so if it’s going to be part of the book, there needs to be a reason for it. Remember Chekhov’s Gun:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Why does Lily have this complicated family life? How does it relate to the story? There is a brief bit at the end of the book where the ex-wives all admit that, even after all of these years and fights and divorces, they still have feelings for Lily’s dad. So it’s possible that Kennedy wanted to make some point about human love being confusing or promiscuous or uncomfortable or unbounded or surprising. Whatever point she wanted to make, she failed completely. She either needed to add another 100 pages, and really develop this part of the book, or she should have cut it completely. As it stands, it mostly just feels odd. At least to me. You’ve read the above scene. You might hope that the story eventually goes into more details than this:

Mom smiles. “Now we’re one big, happy family.”

But it doesn’t. Past that point, we never learn any additional facts about how the ex-wives came to their unusual detente.

These two issues could have easily been cut from the book, and the book would have been better.

There is a third issue with the book and it is more fundamental. Much of the book is devoted to Lily defending her sexual and emotional autonomy, and explaining why, therefore, she was a poor candidate for marriage. After all, there is so much more that she wants to do with her life, and anyway, when it comes to love, her heart roams free.

Okay, so couldn’t that have been demonstrated as part of some other story? The strongest scene in the book is where Lily is at a legal deposition and she demonstrates her skill as a lawyer. What about a story about this ambitious young lawyer who is unconventional in the court room, and who also has a wild sex life? God damn, I’d pay good money to read that story. I could see it as a whole series of books, different legal cases, and Lily at the center of each, maintaining some wild romances when she wasn’t in the courtroom. This book would have been amazing if it had been “How The Young Lily Wilder Established Her Career As A Lawyer.”

There is one scene in this book that is perfect, and it very much shows what the book could have been. Lily has to attend to testimony being taken for a huge corporate lawsuit. Her client doesn’t realize how bad their situation is. Lily needs to sabotage the proceedings and get the whole testimony delayed, till she can warn her client about the crisis it is facing. She uses her flamboyant personality to unhinge the opposing lawyer, till he sounds like a crazy, ranting lunatic. This scene develops slowly and feels believable and is well done. If the whole book had been like this scene, then it would have been a good book.

Disappointing. The protagonist is a very interesting character, but she needs to be set in a better story.

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