Object of Desire: A Review
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, violence
Content warnings (SPOILERS): apparent suicide (the story opens with it); murder (of adults; children in the past); mutilation; rape (off page, but it and its aftermath are briefly described. Character was drugged; the rapist taped the rape and later threatens the victim to expose it); mention of self-harm; harm to animals; a character is given sleeping pills without their consent; stalking; drug use; alcohol use; a number of characters, mostly female, have various mental health issues, and it’s dealt with poorly; bi antagonism (briefly challenged).
Please, note: this review contains some mild spoilers where it discusses the female characters.
In the summer of 1994, at the tender age of seven, one of my aunts thought it was high time that I be initiated to the entire available oeuvre of Mary Higgins Clark, which began a still-ongoing love affair with the suspense genre and crime fiction. Almost concurrently, my cousin and I started binge watching classic Italian gialli and British and American noir films (supervised by my father, also a suspense genre buff, whose favorite film director to date remains Alfred Hitchcock), and if my and my cousin’s relationship eventually soured, mine with the giallo genre never did.
So when I read the blurb of Object of Desire, it sounded right up my alley: a psychological thriller with a gay main character whose “adversary [is] always one step ahead,” and a second chance romance as subplot. Catnip.
The story centers on Tom Gray, a model who is believed to have something to do with the death of his boss, Catriona Haining. To try and clear himself of the initial accusations of harassment he is advised to hire a private investigator, the man whose heart Tom had broken two years earlier.
I opened this review with a flashback to my childhood to say that my being moderately well-versed in the suspense genre is often to the detriment of my own enjoyment of it.
Much like romance, suspense relies on conventions and narrative beats to which everyone who has been consuming it for a while is likely well inured. Having those conventions (a formula, if you will) doesn’t, contrary to the belief of snobby writers and readers, make it easier to write a story; if anything, it makes it more challenging, because most authors of those genres know that readers... Well, readers know their shit, if you’ll pardon my language.
If my personal reading history is anything to go by, I almost only find a suspense story as good and gripping as I find its characters to be. And I don’t mean that I need to like a character on a personal level. What I mean is that characters are the heart of it. I want deep characterization; I want to understand who they are, why the twists and revelations will play a number on them, shake their foundations.
I’m sad to say that I found Object of Desire to lack greatly in that and other areas.
From a novel that focuses on a model, I didn’t quite expect said model to be such a blank character; I suppose that’s the lone twist that caught me by surprise. (But if that was the intent, then, kudos?)
Tom doesn’t seem to have much more going on for himself than his physical appearance (and lest one ever forget how beautiful he is, it shall be reminded on every other page) and his “elusiveness,” which allow him to become an object of desire for anyone who has ever met him. He could be viewed as an antihero, I suppose, or even an “asshole,” but I don’t think he’s either. If he’s flawed and uncaring, it seems more a consequence of apathy than actual character traits.
What’s worse, though, is that he’s also unperceptive, obtuse, and too easily manipulated, which makes him the most reliable of unreliable narrators, and an extremely boring one at that.
The writing stresses this obtuseness of his not by leaving breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, but by hitting them on the head with whole (and stale) loaves. People and mannerisms, as well as events, are described or recounted in a long-winded, unsubtle, and frankly almost insulting (to the reader) manner, a street of flashing neon signs that say, “Here, the clue is RIGHT HERE!” and “Do Not Trust!”
From the first few chapters I thought it was crystal clear who the “adversary” was (and with each following chapter who else would present a threat), and the first Hitchcock reference makes obvious (if not entirely logical or well-executed) how the principal crime occurred. I wish I could say that other “twists” were at least somewhat riveting, but alas, I found them predictable and tired.
Such a shallow approach could be overlooked in favor of strong, layered, deftly written characters (which, as I said, I believe to be key in a psychological thriller), but the complete lack of depth, subtlety, or nuance permeates not only the mystery aspect of the novel but also its full cast, and the romance as well. Where Tom is an apathetic blank, I found Will, Nick, Pez, and the rest to be mere sketches.
The defining trait of the men in Tom’s life, with the exception of his father, whose short appearance serves as a window into Tom’s past and how and why he forms, maintains, or avoids relationships, which could be summed up with “Mommy Issues,” is their obsession with Tom, their own Helen of Troy (as a mythological aside, there is some weaving of the myth of Echo and Narcissus into the fabric of story, but, coupled with oversimplified psychology, it felt muddled at best, pointless at worst).
All these men, in different ways, go through such lengths to become Tom’s own object of desire. But not only do we know close to nothing of their personalities and inner lives, we have no idea why they should be so obsessed with Tom past his gorgeous exterior. Why do they want, if not love, him? Is it that the unattainable, the elusive, as Tom is described, always seems so appealing? (Again, it’s not that Tom is “unlikeable,” which when it comes down to it doesn’t mean much, but that there is very little to him, if anything.)
The only point of view being Tom’s, it may be understandable or forgivable not to know much about his fellow characters’ interiority, but, given Tom’s inability to really seepeople, their almost total nothingness is amplified exponentially, and it’s especially disappointing as far as his love interest and his “adversary” are concerned.
All that, and the fact that Tom remains a void right until the end (I wouldn’t describe his last-minute turnaround as growth, or in any way consistent, by any standards), make the resolution of the romance arc, too, feel unearned.
Tom’s position on romantic relationships—the reasons behind which are, well, also pretty trite—is more or less a direct result of his mother’s behavior, a woman who is as absent as my enjoyment of the book’s misogynist streak.
(Mild spoilers about the female characters in the following two paragraphs!)
It really is worth noting that, aside from Will’s breathy, kitten-like genius colleague Pixie—think Miss Moneypenny and all that entails—and also the only notable person of color in a book set in London, there are no positive or well-rounded female characters who have lines (Tom’s loyal neighbors April and Sonja, a couple who take care of Tom’s cat when he’s away, never speak).
All the prominent female characters in this book—who are defined, one way or another, by their relationship to the men in their lives—are either hysterical, pawns, “deranged,” or a frantic composite of those characteristics (and as a side note, this book does terribly with regards to mental health issues). This level of misogyny is in no way new to m/m fiction, but it only gets harder to ignore.
Ultimately, between the lack of suspense, a thriller that didn’t thrill me, characters I couldn’t care for, the misogyny, and the poor treatment of mental illness, there’s nothing in Object of Desire that would bring me to recommend it to anyone. And though I often ask myself whether I just “didn’t get” a book (which can absolutely be), in this specific case I actually strongly felt that the book was not trusting its readers’ intelligence (or at least, readers’ familiarity with the genre) at all, and that it was almost talking down to them. Which, as one’d expect, is rather undesirable.
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