Monsters: A Love Story by Liz Kay

G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016. 368 pp.

 

Monsters: A Love Story is an exploration of loss and the ways we manipulate relationships to patch the tears in the fabric of our lives as we traverse the path of grief. The protagonist of Liz Kay’s debut novel is Stacey Lane, a lonely widowed mother of two, frustrated writer, and wine enthusiast. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader follows Stacey as she falls for philandering actor Tommy DeMarco and discovers the road back to living.

It is through the relationships between herself and the other characters that Stacey ultimately lets go of her grief and moves forward. The most profound moments in the book are not scenes between Stacey and Tommy, but instead the moments shared by Stacey and Sadie, Tommy’s teenaged daughter. Kay uses Sadie as a younger reflection of Stacey, which develops Stacey’s character without excessive exposition; this is a fast paced, dialogue-driven book. The subtle allusions to Stacey’s struggles with food are tucked in with her reactions to Sadie’s eating disorder. This and other shared experiences make Sadie open up to Stacey and gives the reader a sense of Stacey’s warmth and compassion, which are somewhat lacking in her other interactions.

The bond between Stacey and Tommy does not contain such an emotional connection. Instead of the empathetic compassion she and Sadie share, Stacey and Tommy lack respect for one another’s boundaries and emotions. The turbulence of their union is symbolic of the inner conflicts both try to hide beneath such crude and harsh interactions. It is not until the final fifty or so pages of the book that Kay shows any real tenderness between them. But, by this time, the reader understands Stacey’s grief, and thus her resistance to a real relationship with Tommy.

The other relationship that lacked an emotional charge was that between Stacey and her deceased husband, Michael. Throughout the novel, Kay sprinkles vignettes of their lives together via Stacey’s memories. Each of these passages leaves the reader feeling less certain about Stacey and Michael’s marriage. For example, Stacey’s memory of the morning Michael died: “I narrowed my eyes at him, pushed my lips into a pout. ‘I hate you,’ I said, and then he did kiss me, but only lightly, not with any interest, and he said, ‘I know.’” Each time Stacey reflects on her and Michael’s relationship, it is similarly cold or detached. This is deliberate: the detachment is symbolic of Stacey shedding of her old life with Michael in order to be able to move forward. Beneath the love story veneer, this is ultimately a book about loss, grief, and recovery. Although subtle, and often hidden behind snappy dialogue, fights, and sex, the lingering and often overwhelming sadness that follows a loved one’s death is really what holds Monsters together. Kay’s characters live in those moments—when slivers of compassion, empathy, and love weave together to patch over the holes left by their sorrow

Jessica Swearingen

Jessica Swearingen has a MA in English and Writing from Mount Mary University and a MFA in Fiction from the Solstice program at Pine Manor College. She teaches in the Humanities, Social Science, and Communication department at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published by the Sheepshead Review, Door is a Jar, Common Ground Review, Hidden Timber Books, and Litbreak, and she was a Wisconsin Writer’s Association Jade Ring Award winner for non-fiction. She spends her free time reading and running many, many miles—she and her husband are trying to run a marathon in all fifty states.

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