Friday, March 17, 2017

Audiobook Review: Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion by Marisol Murano

Oh, man. This book. 

I received Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion in audiobook form for free to review from the publisher. I didn't finish the book before writing this review. I got over halfway into it -- and I plan to finish it, especially since I also received the second one to review -- but I reached a certain point and had listened to everything I needed in order to form an opinion. 

So here's the review. Be advised that this is going to contain spoilers as well as discussion of racial and ableist slurs and language, and rape. I'd flag these things so you can skip to the next section if you want, but you'd literally have to skip this whole fucking review. Still, I've tried to be like "heads up slurs incoming."

Well, that made it sound like a super-heavy issue book. It's not. Well, not really. The genre is humorous fictional life story or maybe what you'd call women's fiction. It was pitched as edgy and shocking in voice -- with a frank narrator -- so I did expect that part of things. Just...well, I'll explain. 

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[Image description: Latina woman in a pink shirt gives
side-eye to something offscreen, one hand on her hip. Text
reads Valentina Goldman's Immaculate Confusion,
Marisol Murano, a novel.] 

Interesting Premise

This book is Valentina's first-person story of her life, as told to her stepdaughter Emily. Valentina was born in Venezuela before, as she puts it, moving to the U.S. and "marrying a series of losers." (Paraphrased. That's the trouble with audiobooks.) She has a pretty interesting life getting her degree, getting a divorce, dealing with family drama, tiptoeing around being undocumented and working after her divorce, meeting Emily's dad, and more. 

The amusing thing for me was that Valentina has -- and pretty much has always had -- an aversion to motherhood of any kind. She was even horrified to be named a godmother to someone else's kid. The narration was spurred by Emily calling Valentina "my stepmother" in public. Which, obviously, she is, but which also activated Valentina's insecurities around motherhood. So while she had thought of Emily as just a friend before -- a friend who already had a mother -- this incident triggered a crisis of "OH GOD RESPONSIBILITY." She wants to explain herself to Emily so that they understand each other better.

Emily isn't in the book at all beyond Valentina's occasional addresses. It's just her talking about her life. This narrative technique works really well; the stories and slices of her life are organized expertly and the structure is probably the best part of the book. It all flows very naturally. 


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Pretty, soothing picture of a "naturally flowing" river in sunset. (Source.)

The Main Character 

To be honest, Valentina annoyed the hell out of me. You are supposed to see her as obtuse about certain things -- especially when it comes to the whole "Maybe you should have thought about stepmotherhood before marrying someone with CHILDREN" thing. She's a good storyteller but she has a lot of prejudices which are a) more or less never challenged and b) make her hard to like. 

Speaking of Prejudices, Race In This Book Is...Idk, Interesting

The very first line of the book starts off with a racial slur: "Marriage is a g*p, marriage is a g*p!" This is something Valentina's sister says. A lot, apparently. So...when your opening line is a racial slur, that...sets a certain tone.

Yet, this is an #ownvoices novel in regards to race, and the author's work in general has received Original Voices awards, Amazon "Book of the Month" picks, and a "Latino Book of the Year Award." I'm also reviewing this as a white person, so you can assume a certain level of cluelessness on my part. I didn't want to immediately judge it. 

Still. Racial slur. First line. Still bears mentioning because a ton of people have no idea that g*p is a slur that comes from g*psy -- I didn't used to -- which enforces racist stereotypes about how Roma people are cheaters and swindlers, stereotypes that were used to justify literal extermination of said people.

It just makes a contrast with how the book deals with race later on. It definitely plays a part in the novel. For instance, Valentina bemoans the difference in how men treat her vs. her light-skinned sister. She says her white stepdaughter shouldn't be allowed to rap because it's cultural appropriation. She explains that when she first heard the slur "sp*c," as in when her racist coworker ranted about "n*****s and sp*cs," she thought it was from "spick and span" -- a compliment about being clean. (Though, for whatever reason, she doesn't comment on her racist coworker's use of the n-word; it also doesn't clue her in to the possibility that sp*c is a slur, too.) She has observations about accents, perception, and learning languages. She also laughs at white people who dance the "flamingo" (instead of "flamenco") and is pretty aware of how race and ethnicity affect people's everyday interactions.

But then there's the casual use of racial slurs in the opening line, as well as casual racism towards Middle Eastern people, as well as racism with some creepy sexual undertones when she's discussing which man of which ethnicity her sister should pick to lose her virginity to.

People are racist! And characters are racist, because books reflect life. People center their own worldviews; it makes sense that a Latina character would be more aware of prejudices towards herself and yet still throw around casual racial slurs and prejudices about other racial and ethnic groups. 

I suppose it adds irony to the book -- but I also dislike this character for a multitude of other reasons and this didn't help. She says some good shit about race but her bad shit is never challenged or acknowledged.

So This Book Is Ableist As Fuck

I don't want to sound like I'm throwing -isms around here? But. It really is. OK? I'm used to authors using loaded language like "crazy," etc. casually because it's so ingrained. That is not the kind of thing that makes me label a book as "ableist as fuck." I flagged some of that in Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow but I still gave it five stars. I suppose that, like above, characters can be prejudiced without the book enforcing bad stereotypes about groups of people. Especially in novels with biased narrators or stories which invite the reader to critique the character. 

However, this book is ableist as fuck, and it's SUPER WEIRD to me because Valentina is supposed to have been a Psychology major. Whose mom was a psychiatrist. You'd feel like she should know better? But she 100% does not. 

A lot of the people who Valentina dislikes get armchair-diagnosed because she doesn't like them -- so they must be "crazy." But she doesn't just describe annoying in-laws as "crazy" or "nuts," she gives them specific diagnoses of mental illnesses and/or personality disorders like narcissist, etc. It just further added to my impression of wow. You don't like your in-laws. You're clearly the first person EVER to not get along with your in-laws. Clearly they must have mental and personality disorders for not liking you. You must be SOOOO put-upon. 

It's pretty consistent with her character in terms of the language she uses throughout the book and her inexplicable diatribes about disability and mental illness. For instance, she randomly complains about how Ritalin use in the U.S. is evil and turning kids mindlessly obedient. She uses a relative who appears to be neurodivergent as another opening into a rant: Ritalin is evil and diagnosing things is BAD. 

There are probably some cultural differences going over my head in terms of how people in the U.S. vs. Venezuela perceive these things. Valentina even points out these differences in perception. Still, Ritalin has helped a number of people and I'm fucking sick and tired of seeing antagonism towards medication and towards disability in general (like being diagnosed with a disability = bad, because disability itself = bad) EVERYWHERE IN FICTION. STOP IT. OK? STOP IT. SOME OF YOUR READERS MIGHT BE ON THE DRUGS YOU ARE BASHING BECAUSE THEY NEED THEM. ALSO BASHING THESE THINGS MAKES IT HARDER TO GET MEDS YOU NEED BECAUSE THERE'S SUCH A HUGE STIGMA. SERIOUSLY. STOP STIGMATIZING DISABILITY AND MENTAL ILLNESS AND SHAMING PEOPLE WHO SEEK TREATMENT AND MEDS. WHAT DID THIS EVEN HAVE TO DO WITH THE PLOT OR CHARACTER? NOTHING. IT ADDS FUCKING NOTHING.

She is, if possible, even more antagonistic towards people who are diagnosed. Her sister, for instance, is anemic. This lands her in the ER several times. Valentina refuses to believe it's a really serious thing and thinks her sister is just a hypochrondriac.

I actually related to her resentment of her sister growing up. To Valentina, it seemed like every personality quirk or hobby of her sister's, every exception, was explained away by her being anemic. It seemed like she got "special treatment." I "got" this because my parents tended to treat my brother with kid gloves and let him get away with ALL the shit -- partly, as well, because he was younger and male. The younger sibling gets special treatment anyway, and to Valentina, it seemed compounded with how her parents treated her sister for being anemic. Looking back where I am now, I also realize that many of the things which seemed unfair to 8yo me made sense. 

Valentina, on the other hand, rattles off a list of things her sister was excused from or allowed to do -- which also include a ton of perfectly reasonable accommodations. So she's still pissy, 20+ years later, that her sister was given reasonable accommodations to protect her health and life as a child.  As an adult in her thirties, she still hasn't realized this and thinks everyone just spoiled her sister. The narrative does nothing to challenge this. The sister is portrayed as a spoiled, special sensitive snowflake who just wants all the attention all the time and who annoys Valentina. So even the character development of the sister supports Valentina's ableist opinions on what was and wasn't a reasonable way to treat a chronically ill child. 

Her first husband also develops clinical depression and cheats on her. Valentina blames the cheating on his depression. Actually, she says that the only thing to do with clinical depression is to have an affair. So, yeah, all depressed people cheat, apparently. How about that.

[Side note: I hate how she says it like we're supposed to agree with her. Like it's just a fact of life or her nasty attempt at humor. She's inviting well people to laugh at sick people and making it very clear who the audience for this book is.]

Also, her husband's first wife has a serious mental illness, which Valentina describes in pejorative terms. 

The sister also has a thieving maid who is hard of hearing. The maid ate the kid's snack, and didn't hear the admonition not to do that anymore. So, she kept eating the snacks and got fired. Later, Valentina's sister fires another maid because she has venereal disease. When they get a trustworthy maid, Valentina celebrates that she's an older woman, not like these "young, unstable women with STD's." Valentina also explains that you can't trust any poor maids because once they start working for people who are better off, they'll just realize they can steal from you and can't be trusted. So, she ends up concluding that the maid who was hard of hearing (who was fired because she literally didn't hear the warning about not eating the food) just stole because she was poor and untrustworthy. And basically all or most of the "help" you can get is untrustworthy. Or "unstable."

Pretty much everyone bad or annoying in this book is disabled -- the first husband, the ex-wife, the sister, the thieving maid -- even the neurodivergent uncle is very strongly implied to have molested Valentina's aunt Lupita. Lupita, who's just a few years older than Valentina, is asked why she hates him since he seems harmless. Lupita says, "The older the boy, the younger the toy" and "looks darkly" at him/the ceiling/the middle distance or some shit. We've also got a sometimes-not-all-there grandma who's described as being perfectly aware of the abuse by her son(s) and who refuses to do anything about it. People who aren't explicitly identified as disabled are slapped with a diagnosis by Valentina because she doesn't like them. 

All of this pissed me off, but after that faded, I was left wondering: why on earth did this character get a Psychology degree? She clearly holds a shitton of prejudices about mental illness, doesn't believe in medication, and doesn't seem interested in any accommodations or compassion even for her relatives. Did she get a Psych degree just because her mom was in that field? Did she get it so she could better armchair-diagnose people? What?  

This Section Is About the Rape Scene

I was disgusted by how the book handles this scene, but also felt it helped me understand Valentina a little better. In the beginning, she talks about how shocking it is that her sister is still a virgin in her twenties. She's a little obsessed with helping her sister lose her virginity. Her sister, being anemic, is afraid of an adverse reaction when she has sex. (Rightly so; she ends up in the hospital. But I digress.) 

In the beginning, I was annoyed by this because a) being fascinated by your sister's hymen seems creepy; b) it's perfectly acceptable to be a virgin in your 20's; c) what if her sister didn't even want dick? d) her sister preferred celibacy because she was afraid of an adverse reaction due to her anemia e) again, why is your sister's virginity a topic of such fascination? STOP MAKING IT WEIRD f) there's a lot of sex-shaming in the sense that Valentina makes being a virgin at X age seem like an unthinkable failure.

However, when I read later in the book about what happened to her, it made me understand this weird fixation on her sister's virginity a bit better. To explain: I'm going to go into detail about what's in the book, so this is your last chance to skip this part. 

When she was 18, Valentina's parents set her up to be raped. 

YEP. That happened. 

She had never had sex; she had never even used a tampon and her hymen was still intact. She was engaged to a guy her parents didn't like (the one who eventually cheated on her). They had bad feelings about the marriage and tried to discourage it. Valentina was so naive at this point that she didn't even know what her options for birth control were and had never been to a gynecologist; she was raised Catholic; the family didn't talk about these things; etc., etc.

So, her parents set her up an appointment with the gyno, and even go with her. She thinks it's just a routine appointment (but still has next to no clue what that means). When she lies back in the chair, the doctor pulls out a scalpel. This is her first clue something's wrong; she asks nervously about it, and he assures her she'll just feel a pinch. 

When he cuts her hymen off without anesthetic, she screams, and then faints, and then he finishes raping her while she's unconscious in order to insert an intra-uterine device. She limps around in severe pain for two weeks afterwards.

I just...this is so horrifying on so many levels. Not only did she go through medical rape, she was set up for it BY HER OWN PARENTS. Her own parents. Thought she should be raped. For her own good. Because they didn't like her fiance and didn't want her to have children with him and be stuck with the loser. So THEY decided to make her reproductive choice for her. 

I just want to emphasize: She did not in any way know what this procedure would entail. She didn't know she was having her hymen removed or a device implanted. She did not consent to a medical procedure. She was 18 and her parents just...set it up for her and LIED to her about the nature of the visit. 

To contrast: when I went to the gyno at age 18, she was like, "Well your hymen's pretty eroded, but if you want we can remove the rest surgically. Or you could use tampons; it will finish disappearing on its own eventually." And I was like, "Thanks, but I'm good." Because doctors are supposed to discuss medical procedures with you AND NOT RAPE PATIENTS. Or at least, STOP raping them when the patient is literally screaming in pain to the point of passing out.

I mean, what the fuck? They couldn't write her a prescription for the fucking pill? 

So, that was horrifying. But you know what? I'm not of the opinion that rape should never be written about. I'm of the opinion that it matters more how you handle it. 

This explanation actually helped me understand Valentina's issue with her sister's virginity. If she had her own virginity stolen at the age of 18 by a doctor's scalpel and a thin copper tube, I can see where she'd be resentful that her sister got to pick and choose the time, place, and penis to lose hers. She'd be resentful that her parents set her up for rape while her sister got to keep her hymen (she talks a lot about the hymen itself, not just virginity) well past 18 and into her mid-twenties. Having been set up herself, Valentina's a little fixated on helping set her sister up with a guy. She might even be vicariously living through the sister because she has some internalized baggage over this. 

In that way, it illuminated something about the character. In another way, I hated how it was handled. The book shows that this was a traumatic event for Valentina, but eventually concludes that Mother and Father knew best. YEP. Since the guy turned out to be a cheating ass, and Valentina turned out to hate motherhood, it's said it was all for the best and all justified. Yep. Setting your daughter up for ACTUAL MEDICAL RAPE, lying to her, and stealing her autonomy over her own body are all justified if you don't like her fiance. 

Jesus. Motherfucking. Christ.

The Rest, And Some Good Things Actually!

Ironically, most of the parts that I don't like about this book are the parts to do with Valentina -- Valentina's petty bullshit, anyway. The other characters, scenes, and episodes are engaging and interesting. The family drama draws you in. When Valentina's not being viciously ableist or casually racist, she makes you laugh. She has funny analyses of religious figures like Peter. She's sarcastic and funny and even makes insightful or touching observations about life in general. I still don't like her, but she occasionally entertains me as a narrator.

She does care about the stepdaughter -- especially considering that she's taking the time to go through this and make sure Emily and herself understand each other. At the same time, I'm amused in a bit of a schadenfreude way because several of her anecdotes relate how much she hates the very concept of motherhood. It's awkward since she's talking to her stepdaughter, but also kind of funny. There is something to like in a character who gives so few fucks as Valentina -- but I'm also unsure of whether she gives so few fucks because that's her life outlook or because she's just THAT self-centered and clueless about when she's bothering or hurting other people. (After all, this is a character who married a man with children without thinking of the fact that she'd have to be a stepmom with responsibilities.) 

The episodes from childhood are some of my favorite parts, and are a key reason why I'm interested in finishing this book. I also like the discussions of what it's like to move from Venezuela to the U.S., have families in both countries, visit back home, and live in dual cultures in that way. There's some tension between what Valentina considers home and what (and where) her family thinks home should be. 

The structure deserves another shout-out. The reader is put in the position of being Emily, the stepdaughter. But since we're not Emily, it often feels like Valentina's talking to a trusted confidante -- us. It certainly doesn't feel like she's editing or softening anything for her stepdaughter. Valentina is very frank and clearly doesn't believe in sheltering Emily.

Overall: 2 stars

Usually, 3 stars means that it wasn't for me, but it might be a good fit for someone else. I can't give that to a book which has so many flaws (cringey racial stuff! all the mentally ill and/or disabled characters are bad!) and handles rape in such a horribly clumsy fashion. 

Like. You can have a book with a frank, blunt narrator voice and a woman with baggage about being raped and STILL not have that book endorse the rape. I've read several books where rape features in a character's backstory or as a plot point and, while they might be reductive and cringey, they at least clear the VERY LOW BAR of saying "rape is not OK." I'm genuinely not sure if you're supposed to be disgusted here by what her parents and doctor did to her, and the book suggests that in the end it was OK because it all worked out, and just...

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[Image description: gif of octopus crawling rapidly across the sand. Text: Nope nope
nope nope]
Hella nope.

It has good qualities which make it better than 1 star, and even the bigotry in certain areas isn't quite as bad as something like this flaming-poop-wrapped-in-newspaper-on-someone's-porch of a book. (But again: being better than that book is a very low bar to clear.) I won't go around blasting it. But I wouldn't recommend it and, if a friend has issues related to certain things covered above, I would actively recommend against it. 

But I wanna know how it ends, so I'm finishing it. And then on to the sequel.

Audiobook Review: 5 stars!

Ginger Roll does a GREAT job narrating this audiobook! Everything was clear, understandable, and infused with expression -- which is essential for a first-person story. 

One thing which made me wonder about the directing/producing choices was when Valentina refers to her accented English, yet speaks with the "typical" East-Coast-ish American accent. She wasn't born in the U.S., but she does have a U.S. accent as read in this book; however, her Spanish-speaking family members are read with Latin American accents. I wasn't sure at first why the reader chose to do accents sometimes but not other times. The only thing I can figure is that accented English is meant to signify when a character is speaking Spanish, whereas unaccented English was used for Valentina's narration because she was speaking to Emily in English. I'm not sure quite what the differentiation was or why it was made, but it stood out to me when she was talking about her own accent, learning languages, and trying to understand Southern accents. (Different American regional accents are used, too.) 

2 comments:

  1. Eek. The content certainly seems like a reflection of what's real and out there in the world, but from the sound of it, the way it's written and portrayed, it's not helping to improve the situation.

    It doesn't sound like it's a book for me, but your review does make me think on my own writing (which your reviews tend to do for me). I do wonder about my story Happily Ever After in the Bit of a Twist anthology, and whether or not I did okay there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you did OK. :)

      For this book, I know in the past I've liked books with problems, as well as characters who are jerks or even evil. Often, though, the good messages in the book will outweigh the bad, or the book displays the actions of a bad/evil/grey character in a light which makes you critique them or which doesn't reward them for their bad actions. Not that books about jerks can't be good or anything, but...there was something hostile on --every page-- of this one. I got to her lecture about how much poor people suck and I was like, nope, done.

      I did end up finishing this one (well, skipping ahead to the end and listening to the last few chapters). There's a tragedy in the family and Valentina ends up counselling her stepdaughter not to go to therapy because she probably isn't --really-- depressed, and all psychotherapy/treatment is probably just a scam anyway. I kind of expected an ending like that, but it just made me dislike this book even more. I'm listening to the sequel now and it's a bit better so far, though.

      Delete

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