Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Besotted by Melissa Duclos. (7.13 Books)
I recently listened to a podcast where the topic was “unreliable narrators.” I know of the famous ones (e.g., Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway) but I find myself being too gullible to question the honesty of a novel’s speaker.
So, I was suspicious when I started questioning nearly everything the speaker of Besotted said in Melissa Duclos’ novel. Then, I became annoyed because there was no way any of the subplot details could be real, but at the same time they weren’t necessarily interesting enough for the main character to make up. In the end, I was curious why Duclos made the choices she did and, while it was an entertaining read, I constantly found myself falling out of the story because I questioned the intentions of the author.
Besotted takes place in Shanghai where Liz moves to teach English. She falls into a group of expats who have all escaped the states for one reason or another. They work at a school together and meet up each week for happy hours. Through manipulation and luck, Sasha succeeds in her duplicity to get Liz to fall in love with her. Then there’s Dorian, a womanizer who is in the process of trying to buy property in China even though he’s not a citizen. He’s being made to jump through many annoying hoops, but, once he acquires a condo, he thinks Sasha will fall in love with him. Liz starts taking Chinese language lessons from Sam, but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s not interested in learning the language, she’s instead showing up to lessons due to loneliness. And so, we follow these four characters through a year in Shanghai while they try to navigate life outside their comfort zones.
One thing I noticed while reading Besotted was the population of shitty people. The characters are deceitful and selfish, and it felt like an early Bret Easton Ellis novel.
The shifting in point of view was like a bright flash in my periphery, and it was too distracting, preventing me from totally jumping into the story that was in front of me.
The one character who I thought was a good person was Sam. He showed up to exchange Chinese lessons for English ones, but found Liz wanted to be friends as opposed to study buddies. The problem? She can’t see outside her own life. She uses Sam to prop up her flimsy fort against loneliness and the one time he asks her for a favor she couldn’t move outside her own desires to show up for him. She instead embarrasses her friend and ditches him at a bar. Sam may be a good person, but the novel uses him to show how dismissive another character is.
Then there’s Sasha, who has rigged a whole hiring system because she wanted a new girlfriend. She uses the small amount of power she has from working in the school’s office to bring someone, who never should have been considered, into the system. She’s horny, lonely, and fell in love with someone’s application.
Then there’s Dorian, who wants to be seen as worthy of people’s attention—whether that’s from sleeping with women who don’t know better or flaunting a condo he had to jump through hoops to get—but he’s constantly stepping on other people to feel important.
In the end, I didn’t feel like I had anyone to root for.
Then, I started looking at the way the novel is written. We get so many details we can’t trust, and there’s the concrete facts that explain Sasha’s choices and motivations that are kept hidden. It’s intentional, but frustrating. The more we get from Sasha should make her more sympathetic, but her caginess makes her seem more like an enigma. How does she know Dorian stayed up late, staring out at Shanghai while he contemplated buying a condo? Or the brief moments Liz interacted with the woman at the front desk of the hotel she stayed at?
These are the details that are meant to round out characters and settings, but here they’re too boring for a different character to be fantasizing about. It’s like this first-person perspective was used when it was convenient and dropped when it wasn’t. Because of this switching, I had a hard time finding a tonal cohesion throughout the book.
The characters and the premise of Besotted is engaging and compelling, but it seemed like Duclos couldn’t quite find the right focus. The shifting in point of view was like a bright flash in my periphery, and it was too distracting, preventing me from totally jumping into the story that was in front of me.