Sometimes, I receive email pitches for books that are a bit outside my regular scope, but I say, What the hell, send me a copy. Sometimes, these are self-published books. I'm not overly snobby about the self-publishing route, as some of the better books I've read were brought into the world this way. However, sometimes, I know these books would not have fared well in an attempt at going the more "traditional" route because they're just not ready. The books may have a decent premise, but they needed several more rounds of editing. Rye by Sam Rosenthal is one of those novels.
The story concerns a video artist named Matt who begins a relationship with a genderqueer, biologically female person named Rye. He wants to finish his documentary about what it means to be genderqueer, and he is also a father who shares custody of his nine-year-old son with his ex-wife. Eventually, he also begins a relationship with someone named Rain. I can't really go on about many plot details because apart from the sex punctuated by unrealistic dialogue, there's not much to speak of. Also, this is one of those rare instances where I did not finish the book.
I've reviewed erotica before, and when it's done well, it's fantastic. All the good and steamy bits of sex, front and center? When I'm in the mood to read that, sign me up. Thing is, I don't want to be distracted by the writing. Because I certainly try to be fair with my reviews, rather than pretend like I never opened the book in the first place, I'd rather talk about why I had some concerns. It doesn't do writers any good to only hear, "You're great!" from your friends.
What piqued my interest in Rye was the idea of genderqueer, polyamorous characters being the central focus of an erotic novel. Because of the erotica review copies I've received before, I know that those sorts of characters are often in short supply. Certainly, people who identify this way exist in reality, and it's only right that they be represented in fiction. But people don't talk like this:
"[...] I didn't want to split and have Mischa's childhood turn out like mine, a kid of divorced parents. I wanted to give him a family, something my pop never did for me. But I'm not like Pop, I'm there for Mischa."
"It must have been hard losing what you wanted, and then having to stay connected with your ex. I dated this one woman, the last really serious relationship before you. It fell apart like yours did. I wasn't going to keep changing to please her.
He stops and sighs. I put my arm in his and pull him along.
"It would be excruciating if I had to see her all the time. Hey! Me and my ex. Boring!"
He grins a fiendish smile. "I'm thinking of something a lot hotter."
I paw at his body.
"Your hands make me feel safe," he says. "I trust you. It's hot subverting my feminist politics for you. [...]"
What? "It's hot subverting my feminist politics for you?" This is not Hey Girl, It's Rachel Maddow. And the "It must have been hard losing what you wanted," sounds straight out of therapy and not from a conversation between two people at the beginning of a relationship. Also, the whole conversation is just a device to give background information, and it doesn't work, the way it's written.
I never quite understood what was at stake at all, a third of the way into the book. Apart from some minor waffling where Matt sleeps with a guy and wonders what it all means -- he literally says What does it mean? What does it matter? Why do we need to label things? -- and some wondering about whether it's too heteronormative to want a family, I have no idea. He has a family, him and his son. His relationships seem to mainly be vehicles for more What does it mean? talking at each other. I guess I just don't understand this crisis of personal preference when one is so busy going on about just how unconventional they are by preferring androgyny and by attending an event called SexxCamp. The atypical characters that first had me interested were actually not all the interesting. I can dig androgyny, I can dig not feeling the need to label, but I need more than that.
Rye is not believable as a story based in reality, nor is it believable as fantasy. If it were just there for the fucking like other erotica, fine. Some of the sex in this was quite good, yes, but there's far too much hand-wringing to make it a fantasy. I'm not in the habit of fretting that much in my fantasies; are you? And because the dialogue doesn't feel true to life, because I don't know why we're here as readers, and because nothing made me want to stay and see where the story headed nonetheless, I put down the book. I have 90 unread review copies sitting here. Despite any reader's guilt I have, I also have to know when to cut my losses.