Ani is the new girl. She's a bit challenging -- not exactly "nice," not exactly "pleasant," and not exactly the kind of girl boys go wild over because, well, she's hard.
Ben is the kind of guy who could be with any girl. He's charming. He's attractive. But Ben wants to be with no one other than Ani. Her tough exterior is exactly what he finds attractive. Sure, at first it's almost a bit of a game to him, but it's quickly much more than simply getting with the girl who seems too hard to be won over. He finds himself really loving Ani and wanting to spend as much time with her as possible.
But after the party -- one Ani went to and Ben did not -- things change. Ani isn't the same girl she was before. And Ben can't do anything right anymore. He can't make her better, despite how much he desperately wants to.
Fault Line is Christa Desir's debut novel, and it takes a hard topic head-on: sexual assault. Or maybe I should be clearer. This isn't necessarily a book about what happens to a girl after she's raped. This isn't necessarily about who is the perpetrator or who is the savior. It's a book wholly about what it means to be a victim of sexual assault and sexual violence, and what it means to not know. Because this book isn't told from Ani's point of view but Ben's, we get the story through his perspective as the boyfriend of the girl who went to a party and woke up the next morning in a hospital.
Ben is the boyfriend of the girl who had a lighter found inside her body after the party. After the party where many heard her talking about how she was going to "get with" a bunch of boys and ended up in a room with one -- maybe more than one -- boy. After the party where her drink may or may not have been spiked. After the party where she may or may not have given consent for what happened to her and where she may or may not have been the one to insert a lighter inside her body.
And all Ben wants to do is make Ani feel better.
When he arrives at the hospital the next day, he's met by a victim's advocate, who runs down what she knows of what happened, but more importantly, what next steps he needs to take to ensure Ani is able to best recover. Be there for her, but don't push her. Don't beg her for details. And most importantly, never, ever blame her for what happened. She was the victim. What happened to her isn't her value, and it isn't what judgment of her as a person should be based upon.
Desir's novel about sexual assault from the perspective of a male voice -- one who did not initiate the incident -- is compelling and honest. It's brutal and what happened to Ani is incredibly difficult to read, not only as a woman but as a person, period. As much as he wants to protect her, Ben knows there is really only so much he can do. He can BE there for her, and he is. He tries, and even though many reviewers have faulted him for trying too hard, I disagree. Some reviews saying, for example, that his attempt to have sex with her in a very positive, very loving and caring manner, are his attempts at assaulting her himself. When she says no, he stops. He's not aggressive. He's trying so hard to offer her the safe and loving feelings she has allowed herself to forget about because those things -- those safe things, those good things, those truly intimate things -- are what were taken from her and what she believes she does not deserve anymore.
This book should be talked about for what it covers and how it covers it. It should be talked about because it does offer a lot of tricky territory to talk about. Did Ben go too far in trying to have sex with Ani when she wasn't ready? What signs did she give him to indicate what her feelings were?
Beyond those, though, there's the invaluable discussion to arise here about blame. If a victim can't remember what happened or was too intoxicated to give proper consent, is what happened to her her own fault? If there aren't readily named assailants, who is at fault? As the title suggests, what ARE the fault lines with cases like this? Because no date rape drugs showed up in Ani's system, who gets to make the call of whether or not she had been drugged before she was in a room alone with people? It's not just a timely story -- it's timeless. These are questions we wrestle with all the time, and they are questions we should wrestle with because the more we open up discourse on topics like sexual assault, on victim blaming, and other heavy hitters tackled in this book, the more we're able to be better about discussing them. The more we're able to understand when we're intentionally or unintentionally perpetrating problematic beliefs and ideas of sex and sexuality. The more we're able to understand why it is so damn problematic that we look at the girl (or boy!) as the person who was asking for it, rather than the one who became a victim of other people's inability to control their urges.
There are many problems with the writing in Fault Line. At times, this book's agenda is far too obvious. It's important what messages are conveyed here -- don't blame the victim, be supportive, listen to them -- but the way it's laid down from a volunteer counselor in info dumps is overwhelming and diminishes the characters. Ben is a good guy. He wants to be good. He loves and honors Ani. But he doesn't get the chance to do that or be that for her because the counselor takes over and tells him what to do, point A to point B. He scoffs at it, even though he follows it. But why can't he do this and figure it out himself? Why is it handed to him and by extension, handed to the reader? If we want to start a conversation and start thinking about these issues heavily, we need the chance to see them, to absorb them, and to make the sorts of connections we need to individually. In other words....we aren't living in a world where that sort of clinical speak gets through. It's through our own actions and cognitive skills we put these things together.
It was the easy way out.
My other big criticism: why do we need the prologue? Why is it the most crucial scene in the book, the one that ultimately changes Ben's actions, is what we lead with? It kills tension, it kills growth, and it kills the impact of the story when we get the apex to kick off the book. We know almost immediately that Ani's story isn't going to have a positive resolution, and by leading off with this, Fault Line manages to simply shock. Where others have found the lighter to be the shock value moment in the story -- and I never did because it felt real and authentic and absolutely gut-wrenchingly awful -- for me the teacher scene opening the story was the shock value moment. Had it been left only at the end, I'd have felt much differently. It was resolution and closure, however uncomfortable. But opening? It was just there to shock.
This book would make for a killer pairing with Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys in talking about sex. Neither book is shy. Neither book is afraid to put the characters into positions that are uncomfortable to read and uncomfortable to think about or talk about. But they both are important in advancing conversations we need to be having. Obviously, this is a book to also pair with Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and maybe even more so, Chris Lynch's Inexcusable. This is a book many people will be divided on, and I suggest spending some time reading the low-rated reviews over on Goodreads because they're eye opening.
I . . . have to talk about the cover of this book because it is perhaps the most upsetting element for me as a reader. And not just as a reader, but as a person who is exceptionally careful about and sensitive to discussions of rape and victimization, and as a librarian who understands full well the intentions behind the image choice here. It's a striking and appealing cover, isn't it? It's gender neutral, and I'd go as far as to say it does an excellent job of appealing particularly to male readers because it features a lighter, a catchy title, and the author's name isn't obviously feminine. The tag line "Who do you blame?" is enticing. The entire package begs to be picked up, particularly to male readers. Going to the back cover, too, readers will know the story is told from Ben's point of view. It's a male voice with a male-driven cover.
But I take mega issue with the lighter as the image choice.
That lighter was an object that violated Ani's body.
Fault Line isn't Ani's story -- it's Ben's story. And Ben's story only exists because of what happened to Ani. Her story becomes his story. That's fair and realistic and I think it's what makes Desir's book stand out in many ways. We get to hear what it means to be the one who is helpless and what it means to stand by someone who has been victim of something horrific.
That lighter was an object that violated Ani's body, though. Had the book been told through Ani's point of view, that cover would represent her reclaiming her body vis a vis the object. It would be her ownership of story.
But on the cover of Ben's story? That lighter represents the story he steals from her. It's there as shock. It's there to sell her story in an enticing way. That lighter is not Ben's. It does not belong to him. That part of the story is not his nor will it ever be. It's a lighter that traumatized Ani.
This cover steals her story as a means of selling his.
I'm really uncomfortable with that, and I really dislike that as a means of reaching a certain readership, that is the choice that was made. In many ways, that choice does precisely the opposite of not only what the story aims to say, but it does precisely what has happened in the high-profile sexual assault and rape cases we hear about everywhere. Steubenville is about the football players and what happened to their poor beautiful bright careers. It's never about the girl who they victimized. Her story is co-opted. It's not fair, and the longer I've thought about this cover, the more uncomfortable and upset it's made me. Because it does exactly what it should not be doing.
For me, the cover undermines a lot of the positive in the book, whether that's fair or not. To make the point the book attempts to make, the cover steals that away. And that's unbelievably unfortunate. While it might get new readers to pick up the book who may have otherwise scoffed at the idea of a "rape story," I certainly hope they reflect upon that choice. Because it reinforces a lot of what the story attempts to dismantle. We take a step forward in the story to protect the victim, to honor her and listen to her. But then we take ten steps back on the cover because this isn't her story, but we're going to sell the book with the object of violation. There's a disconnect.
Fault Line will be available October 1 from Simon Pulse. Review copy received from the publisher.