Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sinner (The Wolves of Mercy Falls)

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's culture, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily New Adult/Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

Maggie Stiefvater’s original Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy left me with mixed emotions. I was
impressed with how well she plumbed the depth of the teenage experience in her characters, and I liked how she used the werewolf genre to explore how people must fight the animal urges within them.

However, I was frustrated with how some of it played out in the end. I noted in my review of the trilogy:“This is a haunting story of one Grace more than a generous grace; of a beautiful Mercy that falls mostly on the deserving; of a woods populated with wolves both lupine and human, and of saints who rise from the ruins of their own lives. I must add the truth I wish could have been embedded more deeply: grace is for all, mercy exists for the underserving, and all of us can transcend the wolf within us and forgive the wolves around us.”

I was pleased when Ms. Stiefvater released Sinner, a follow-up story about Cole (my favorite character from the trilogy) and Isabel. Of all the characters in the original story arc, these were the two in which I had invested the most.

Sinner picks up in LA, where Cole is offered a role on a reality show and Isabel works in a downtown clothing store and pursuing an education. Cole is wound pretty tight, wanting to regain his career and capture Isabel's heart without reverting to the lifestyle that left a trail of broken lives behind him or becoming the wolf that robbed him of his humanity.

The producer of the show has a vested interest in seeing him fail – even Cole realizes that “the world likes us better falling down.” That might be easy in a city where “the girls were all legs, and the boys were all teeth.” In addition, Cole’s past haunts him. When he heads for supper in a local restaurant, the owner kicks him out for an incident that happened years before when Cole was at his drunken worst. Cole says, “It was a long time ago.” The owner responds, “Not long enough.”

Isabel is torn. She doesn’t trust Cole (and for good reason), yet she can’t seem to escape the connection she feels with him. When someone asks her what she is studying, she replies, “How to save people from themselves.” As Cole moves back into the spotlight and stalks his way into her life, Isabel wrestles with the reality of who Cole is – or at least who he has been until recently.
"It made me think about all the girls Cole said he’d slept with on tour. That had seemed like such an impossible feat to me, not because I disbelieved him, but because I couldn’t imagine letting that many people have access to me. It sounded exhausting, frantic. Now I suddenly saw it, though. How he turned people into objects, and how easily he could be done with them. Inside my heart was cool and dark." 
Though Cole tries to show her he cares, Isabel can't stop seeing what he does in light of what he has done. He keeps telling her he just wants a few simple things from her: “dinner, dessert, sex, life.” She tells him he treats her like “a living internet he summons to entertain himself.” It's not a bad analogy.

The differences in their pasts are huge. Cole notes, “Isabel had spent her teen years caring who touched her, and I hadn’t.” Now he wants to touch her – a lot – but she knows he has never cared before, and she sees safety in her rule cardinal: “Nothing was to touch me.” That’s not just a comment about her skin. She keeps her soul isolated as well. That’s why, when she starts to care, it’s a problem.
He dropped his head onto my shoulder, breathing into my collarbone. For once not moving, not needing, not asking, not doing. Just holding me, and letting me hold him up. It was the most shocking thing… And here was what I was most afraid of: that Cole St. Clair would fall in love with me, and I’d fall in love with him, both of us human weapons, and we’d end up with broken hearts."
Why is this such a fear? Because she sees how he continues to live. When she shows up unexpectedly at a party, she sees what she feared:
"In the dark of the lot, his eyes were bright and glittery, but there were bags beneath them. He was tired and awake. High and low. Going up and burning down. Turning people into objects and throwing them away."
And yet….
Cole rested his temple on the window, his eyes cast toward the cloudless sky. “I’m trying,” he said finally. “I’m trying and it doesn’t matter to anyone. I’m always going to be him.”
“Cole St. Clair.”It seemed on the surface like a stupid thing to say, but I knew exactly what he meant. I knew just how it felt when your worst fear was that you would be yourself.
Both of them have good reason to fear themselves. His sins are obvious; hers are more hidden. Yet the more they know each other, the more they wish to find and give love even in the midst of their brokenness. There are no pristine saints waiting in the wings to offer a fairy tale. There are, however, people who recognize that love offers a life in which people can learn how to be broken together.

I can think of several people I know for whom this story reads like a biography – not because they are rock stars or glamorous LA socialites, but because their inner landscape is so familiar. Ms. Stiefvater knows how to write a story that lays bare the souls of her subjects, and those souls can be found within or around us all (she did this equally well in The Raven Boys). To whatever degree Sinner offers hope that even the worst of us deserve love and can make the best of second chances, that’s a good thing.

But I put Sinner down with a sense of frustration as well. Wanting to save people from themselves is an appealing idea, but it leads Isabel to move into a closer relationship with Cole (and eventually a sexual one) when he has given her no compelling reason to think this is in any way a good idea.

Yes, he's trying to be a better man - he's trying not to revert to the addict or the wolf - but even he would tell you he's walking close to the edge of the abyss. So it's no real surprise that he eventually changes back into the wolf in front of Isabel, cutting a swath of devastation through her store, culminating with her screaming for him to never come back. And yet the next time she sees him, it is to kiss him, tell him she loves him, and give him the perfect ending to his reality show. It was an ending that felt strangely out of tune with the gritty honesty of the rest of the story.

That was my frustration. A story seeking to say important things about real life settled for a fairy tale. However, it takes more than love, longing and chemistry to rescue people from the sinner within and the wolves all around. In real life, I would tell all the Coles and Isabels to find counseling, experience healing, seek God, stop trying to be a savior, and implement healthy boundaries before trying to make a life together. It is within that kind of journey that people can find the hope and love for which this series so poignantly longs.

1 comment:

  1. Cole and Isabel. To have a story to read just about them, was something i was looking forward to, since i knew it's on the way. Of course a great storyline and beautifully written, like any other Maggie Stiefvater book so far.
    tria hair removal laser review