So! Many! Thoughts! About this one. I was so excited for Pretending, Holly Bourne’s second adult novel, after really loving How Do You Like Me Now?. My initial reaction to this novel was bemusement … I didn’t identify with April as much as I did with Tori, and for a moment I worried that would make me like this novel less. Indeed, if you pressed me, I would happily confess that How Do You Like Me Now? is my favourite of the two. Nevertheless, Pretending establishes that Bourne’s capabilities as a writer and storyteller continue to grow, and it provides a great example of how you can love and appreciate a novel even when you don’t identify as much with the main character.
Trigger warnings in this book and to some extent in my review for discussion of rape/assault.
April would love to find romantic love in a man, but all the men she tries to date turn out not so great. Her last long-term relationship was abusive and rapey. Each man she has seen since then gets turned off by some facet of her. Meanwhile, she works for a sexual health charity and often must answer anonymous frontline emails from people—usually women—asking if something was rape. This all takes its toll, and April is fed up. She decides she wants revenge. She decides she would rather be Gretel: an idealized, manic-pixie-dream-girl version of a woman. She’ll make a man fall for Gretel, and just as he is expresses his love for her, she’ll break up with him and ruin his life.
You can imagine, of course, how well that works. Up until this point (crisis email charity work aside), I would agree this sounds like the plot of a fairly standard Hollywood rom-com. If you’ve never read anything else by Bourne, you could be forgiven for thinking that’s all that Pretending could be. Of course, it’s much more than that. At the same time, Pretending might be the rom-commiest of all Bourne’s writing so far, and maybe that’s one reason it took a while for me to really wrap my head around why it works so well. I’m not sure how much I can say without going into spoiler territory, so let’s just say that this book ultimately isn’t about revenge or even about finding love. This is a book about accepting that you can change yourself and that it’s important to work to avoid letting trauma define you.
I struggled at first to identify with April mostly because, as someone who has been aromantic and asexual her whole life, I just don’t get dating. April’s constant refrain of wanting to be with someone, of not wanting to be alone … that’s not something I spend time thinking about. So for the entirety of the plot to revolve around that definitely made me yearn for Tori, whose more generalized adulting struggles were ones that I could recognize in myself. Yet I pressed on, because this is Holly Bourne, and her books are always worth it.
It’s really at the point where April is crying on the shoulder of her flatmate and best friend, Megan, and makes an observation that resonated with me, that Pretending lands for me:
“Are you OK?” Megan leans forward, her face the picture of concern and love and understanding. The sort of face it would be amazing to see on just one boyfriend, just one. If men could love women the way women love each other, everything would be terribly easier.
That last sentence. Wow.
If men cold love women the way women love each other. Yes. Wow.
See, having only recently, at 30 years old, realized that I’m trans and made the decision to transition and come out to everyone, I have been doing some intense re-evaluation of my life and re-examining my choices through the hindsight of my true gender identity. One thing that has always been true is that my strongest friendships have always been with other women. Always. And I always loved them, not in any romantic or sexual way, but in a deep and unconditional platonic way. For a long time, I just ascribed that to my aro/ace orientations, not my gender identity. But For the Love of Men triggered a little mini-crisis in me that ultimately led to my gender epiphany, and since then I’ve been doing a lot more thinking. Certainly, my sexual and romantic orientations have played a role in how I form my friendships—but so has, unwittingly, my gender. I’ve always been female, and deep down, I recognized that and sought out friendships on those terms, even if I didn’t quite recognize what I was doing. I’m not saying that every man who treats women honestly and with unconditional platonic love the way some female friends do is actually a closeted trans woman—but in my case, this was true!
Up until now, reading Bourne’s books has always been a journey for me to understand certain corners of feminism and female experiences that, growing up as a man, I did not have access to. I wanted to sympathize with and better grasp the intricacies of micro-aggressions that Bourne is so good at portraying honestly and comedically. And for a while, I think that the realignment of my gender identity made me question what I was hoping to get from Pretending. I’m a woman, but I didn’t grow up being socialized as a woman, and I lack a lot of the experiences that cis women and trans women who begin transitioning earlier in life have had. This doesn’t make me any less of a woman, but it definitely leads to moments where I struggle with how to situate myself authentically. I am a woman, but there are many of experiences of womanhood I simply can’t speak to—that’s true of all women, but most women have more ground to fall back on to reaffirm their own sense of femaleness. Mine feels shaky sometimes.
I’m no longer presenting as a feminist cis man reading these books. I’m still a feminist; that much hasn’t changed. But I’m a different reader from who I was a year ago, and that’s very interesting. So for me, Pretending was less about identifying with April’s struggles to date and find a man as it was a glimpse at how all women, regardless of how their gender identity has developed, struggle with the arbitrariness of femininity. April constructs Gretel because she has ideas about how “all men” expect your everywoman to behave on a date. Others, when they eventually learn of her scheme, rightly call her to task for this and point out that even if men have unrealistic expectations, those expectations are often varied. Similarly, Bourne reminds us how women are often the ones who enforce these expectations of feminine behaviour in larger social situations—a tense exchange when “Gretel” finally meets her man’s coworkers and their wives illustrates this beautifully.
See, Pretending eventually arrives at the truth that we are, all of us, regardless of our gender, bound up in these incredible social constraints and expectations on our behaviour. We construct our prisons ourselves, out of our beliefs and values, from what we are taught explicitly by parents and teachers and media, along with what we absorb implicitly from life lessons, big and small. For the most part, we enforce expectations of gender roles on ourselves, with a little help from our friends. Layer on top of that the trauma that April has internalized as a result of her abusive ex-boyfriend raping her, and you arrive at a truly perfect storm of an identity crisis.
I enjoyed Bourne’s exploration of April’s trauma and her healing. I can’t really speak to the accuracy of such events; I know that Bourne worked in a position similar to the one that April held, so she understands that part well enough. But I loved the survivor kickboxing class that April attends and slowly integrates into her life. The way she expresses her pain, and the advice she receives from her fellow classmates and survivors, is a good reminder that healing is never a straightforward, linear process. Healing isn’t something we can rush, or really control. It takes time and it takes work, and it took April a while to come to terms with that.
Pretending didn’t make me laugh as much as How Do You Like Me Now?, but it’s still funny. It doesn’t feature quite as big a meltdown as the other book, but it still has its trademark “Holly Bourne moment” at the climax. April isn’t as identifiable to me as Tori. These are all reasons I liked Bourne’s first novel for adults better, but none of these are reasons to call Pretending disappointing by any stretch of the imagination. It’s different. There’s more of an edge to it, certainly, which I appreciate. Bourne packs a little more bite with each novel she writes.
It’s funny, that: men write books about the anguish of their lives, and they get to be called tortured artists and authors of literary fiction. Women who write such books, on the other hand, are consigned to the “chick lit” section. That’s why, ultimately, whether or not I “identify” with April’s struggle (regardless of my gender identity and experience), is really irrelevant here: as long as we continue to deem women’s stories and struggles as less widely important or interesting than men’s, we’ll never have equity in our literature.
Pretending is a valuable story. Yes, it is a woman’s story, but it should not just be read by women. It’s valuable because it captures how abuse and rape, misogyny and patriarchy, macro- and micro-aggressions all contribute towards the stresses that many women experience every day in our lives. And in the end, if we can understand these things, and then work towards mitigating them and removing them in our society, we might all be better off.