I can’t believe we’re into April already and on to the fourth Banging Book Club read! I was very excited when I saw that All the Rage, by Courtney Summers, made it onto the reading list (thanks, Leena!). Courtney Summers is the bee’s knees. Cracked Up to Be one of my best books read in 2015.
All the Rage is a quick read, thanks to Summers’ skillful prose, but it is also a difficult one. It’s not just the subject matter; it’s the way that Summers creates situations that force us to confront the presence of rape culture. With each chapter, your heart breaks a little more: it shouldn’t be this way; it can’t be this way—but it is. While this is obviously a story about rape and the ongoing trauma of victim-blaming, this is also a compelling look at the ways in which our society’s attitudes towards adolescence are contradictory and harmful.
Throughout the book, Romy refers to the application of makeup—particularly her red lipstick and nail polish. She explains in detail how to apply it, and adds, “My dad used to say makeup was a shallow girl’s sport, but it’s not. It’s armor.”
I love this line.
I love it for so many reasons. Makeup seems to be such a controversial thing: is it feminist to wear makeup? It’s a debate that’s largely academic for me and one that, by privilege of my gender performance, I get to opt-out of. Nevertheless, it is so easy for me to fall into the trap of thinking of makeup as a shallow or oppressive thing—but it’s not. That’s just makeup as seen by the male gaze; Romy is right, and she says it so succinctly. Life, for women—and even more so for teenage girls in high school—is a battle, which means makeup must be the armor.
Building on this metaphor, All the Rage might be retitled Romy Grey versus the World, because that’s what it feels like: every day, Romy armors up in her red lipstick and nail polish, and she prepares for the worst. She prepares for the taunts and insults and bullying of her peers. She prepares for the unprofessional, abusive treatment from the sheriff. She dons a waitressing uniform and smiles blandly at strangers at a diner, all the while shrinking inside herself and seeing herself as less than human.
This is the pain of being, the ongoing trauma of rape: whether or not one is believed, life just goes on. One is expected to keep living, keep going to school, keep working … as if nothing happened.
Romy’s youth compounds this difficulty, because naturally, she has less independence than an adult woman might. She still has to live at home, still has to go to high school. She doesn’t even have the prospect of escaping the small town of Grebe and going to a bigger city, where no one knows her—at least, she doesn’t seem to view college as a realistic destination. As a teacher, I have to smile at this passage:
After a while, Mr. McClelland comes in. He’s the youngest member of the faculty and he tries too hard. I don’t think I’ll be here the day that finally gets crushed out of him, but it’ll happen. It always does.
This speaks volumes about the atmosphere at Romy’s school and the attitude of the students. This is a small town, as we see from the scenes involving the search party, or Leanne Howard’s fear over losing her job. There are very few places that Romy can go where she won’t run in to someone who is not thrilled to see her.
Meanwhile, the very things that are supposed to be in place to protect her fail her. The police services fail her. Her parents fail her: Mom is sympathetic and tries to reach out to Romy, but she doesn’t know how to relate. Her idea of helping Romy out is buying Romy a “sexy” pink bra—it was fascinating and eye-opening, watching how Romy recoils from the thought of getting it for herself, rejecting the notion that she could be sexy any more.
Adolescence is a hard time, and in some ways, adults make it harder. We inconsistently grant teenagers latitude and independence, but it is a fleeting thing that we have the power to take away. Romy is exposed to all of the harsh realities of the adult world with few of the benefits of it. And the Wake Lake party, the way the adults turn a blind eye towards it as a rite of teenage passage, symbolizes all that is wrong with this paradoxical treatment of teenagers as adults-who-aren’t-adults. Because as painful as it is to see Alek or Tina or Brock treat Romy the way they do, it’s not like they came into those behaviours on their own. They learned them, from each other, from family, and from us.
All the Rage excels at depicting that anger simmering beneath the surface, threatening to boil over, but never quite finding a vent. It does so because Summers very capably writes believable teenagers, from Romy to her antagonists, as well as adults who represent varying levels of nominal and actual authority. In addition to this characterization, Summers’ writing is aching and raw without being melodramatic or over-saturated with angst:
Our beautiful blonde. They cry for her and twist their hands in a way they never would for me. This is what happens when a girl befalls a fate no one thinks she deserves.
I want to bury him. I want to burn a moment of helplessness into him so he can know a fraction of what I felt, what I feel, what’s followed me every moment since, so I You cover cover his her mouth mouth.
You know all the ways you can kill a girl? God, there are so many.
And then there’s Leon. Sweet, kind Leon. We see Romy wonder if he is like Kellan underneath, if he will take advantage and take liberties and finally just take. We see her surprise, almost lack of comprehension, when in fact he refuses to go any further because he thinks she is drunk. Every time she pushes him away, acts out, because she doesn’t feel worthy of his attention, he comes back—and not in a stalkerish, creepy, romantic comedy “I am the One and we are destined to be together” way either. There are misunderstandings, and he is always patient with her, but he also voices his disappointment when she screws up. He, too, is human, and this relationship is, like all teenage romance, fraught with mess.
But the very idea that a boy in a YA novel about a girl who was rape would utter the words, “I think I triggered you” endears Summers to me forever.
Then the ending, with the glimmer of redemption for Tina and the invitation to find that girl in Godwit—I don’t want to say it’s hope, because that is too strong a word. I think we all know the statistics on convictions, the seemingly insurmountable barriers that women have to climb just to have their voices heard. It’s not hope, then—but it is a direction. It’s Romy taking action. Whether she is successful is more up to us than to her.
Asking For It, the January read for Banging Book Club, was also a moving and intense book about rape. There is a great deal of overlap between the two books, of course. Whereas the events in Asking For It were more out in the open and acknowledged—but with blame apportioned differently—All the Rage is not so much about getting justice as it is just being believed at all. While I’m not pleased we need novels like this, I’m pleased that more and more of them are creating diverse depictions of the struggles that women, young and old, face. I hope that they amplify and stimulate conversation about how we can stop this from happening. Rape culture is real. It is not the responsibility of women to “not be raped,” and it is not the responsibility of girls to “behave” and “be good girls.” It is our responsibility to believe women, to listen, and to talk about empowerment and consent.
I’m getting a little soapboxy, but that’s what happens when I read a powerful book. Powerful books should change you, inspire you, motivate you. All the Rage has that in spades. Put it in your hands now.