Jamie McGuire’s “Beautiful Disaster” is the worst adult contemporary romance novel I’ve had the displeasure of reading.
I’m imagining I’ve raised a few eyebrows with beginning this review on that note. You might be thinking “Well, aren’t you being a little melodramatic, Rose? It’s just a book – it can’t possibly be that bad, right?”
*exhales slowly* Let me state for the record I’m a person who likes reading many different kinds of romances because I’m an avid reader and genres know no bounds with me, for the most part. I hesitated reading “Beautiful Disaster” because I was informed of issues with the book long before I picked up the e-galley and took the task of reading it in full.
Books that glorify abusive relationships, especially if it’s veiled abuse and doesn’t give proper context nor knocks down the manipulative behavior, do not sit well with me. Nor do those that champion misogynistic ideals and present women in a negative light.
Granted, as I mentioned before, I like a good romantic read. I also like books that deal with tough subjects and push the envelope when it comes to tackling a tough subject matter. I don’t mind those things, especially if they leave me with things to think about long after I’ve turned the last page of the book. Developed, rounded characters in the mix are a bonus as well. Prior to reading this book – what I’d read of Travis was that he’s a condescending, patronizing, controlling jerk who gets away with a lot in this book. (I could describe him in more crude terms, but I’m trying to keep that at a minimum in this reflection.) And it’s not necessarily knocked down by the passive heroine who actually does have another guy who cares about her and treats her well, but the portrayal is never equivocated because all the while, Travis comes up as the obvious horse in the love triangle race. If one could even call it a true triangle. And the heroine never focuses on the wrong that Travis does, but rather focuses on all the other external elements (other women, etc.) as being wrong.
I could open the floor and ask a simple question: why do people find personalities like Travis to be romantic? I ask that question sincerely in a manner of discourse, because I don’t understand the attracting factor of someone who would go to such lengths to control what a woman wears, who she sees, where she resides, and practically throw a fit if she deviates from those restrictions. People argue that Travis is not abusive, but there are more dimensions to abuse than just physical context (despite the fact that he tears up a room in response to the heroine’s actions in one scene of the book). What little I had skimmed in BD’s snippets and also read in other reviews had abuse of another sort – mental and emotional. The heroine keeps being drawn back into Travis’s influence, though it’s clear on several counts that there are moments when she wants to get the heck away from him, but then turns around and commends his behavior in implied gestures. It’s not made okay by the fact that Travis starts singing in the middle of a certain setting “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” or the fact that he buys her a puppy. He might have moments of good, but the larger impressions of the novel were that his influence is negative and the heroine desires him in light of that negativity.
That was the initial reason why I passed on this book for content rationale. My experience with McGuire’s first novel in her “Providence” trilogy didn’t sit well with me either. But curiosity has never let me lie in peace when it comes to a book. So when I saw this available as an e-galley, I decided to swallow my qualms and go for it.
The experience was worse than I’d initially believed it to be. There has been debate with this novel as a self-published work as to what genre it fell under, given its respective thematic and the frank content of Abby and Travis’ relationship. McGuire herself had stated that it was once a mature YA title (which I would adamantly refute given the strong language, sexual, and discretionary content of the book). It’s been since marketed as an adult contemporary romance.
There’s also a question that I think might raise a few other eyebrows that I’m going to explore: Is it really a romance novel? The knee-jerk reaction might be akin to: “Of course it’s a romance novel! What else would it be? It’s showing a dysfunctional relationship between two trainwreck lovers who are meant to be together and weather all kinds of hardships and such to ultimately be one.”
I’ll give a single initial argument though – just as food for thought. When the dysfunction becomes more than the love, where is the line drawn between it being a romance or a staged drama in prose form? It’s true that people do crazy things when in love and act in the veil of desperation – sometimes going through something akin to the five stages of grief before coming to terms with the heart of their true sentiments (and there’s plenty of that to go around in this book). Yet when it becomes so manufactured that the people inside the story don’t act in the way that the character would act given their personality traits and knowledge in the book, and the author’s obviously playing the puppeteer strings to skew it to a certain result, it can make the experience sour faster than week-old milk. And while I would say in romance literature, many may see the experience as escapist…manufacturing a storyline to milk its drama doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Which is why I wasn’t buying what “Beautiful Disaster” sold.
Abby Abernathy is a college freshman who meets Travis “Mad Dog” Maddox at a fighting match in which he’s a participant. To say their relationship gets off to a rocky start would be an understatement. Abby’s quick to push him away because of his reputation, perception of his tattoos, and perceived sexual promiscuity. And Travis, bad boy extraordinaire, can’t help but be drawn to Abby in her innocence and challenge to shove him away.
Their relationship is further drawn together since they know people in the same circles. Abby’s friend America (Mare) and America’s boyfriend, Shep, are just two examples. America has to be the most inconsistent best friend I’ve read, because she goes back and forth between passionately wanting Abby to be a part of Travis’s life and thinking Abby is the only one who can “right” him, and also thinking it’s best if Abby stays the heck away before she gets hurt.
Suffice to say, in the course of the story, Abby and Travis have a lot of on-again/off-again relations. That normally wouldn’t bother me in a romance novel. It happens even in real life. Given the context of this novel, however, I was horrified and made numb by it.
Abby is a passive heroine crafted in the guise of proactive by her incendiary attitudes towards Travis. There’s really very little to no background given on her to round her character. It took me five chapters to realize what she was studying at her college, let alone a good bit of the novel to know anything about her family (and when that comes to light, it’s fairly reminiscent of McGuire’s other, latter penned novel “Providence” – heroine has father issues, father’s associated with criminal activity, etc.) I think that disconnect was what made it hard to truly sympathize with her, aside from some harrowing moments where she’s desperately getting away from her relationship with Travis and facing some antagonism from other sources (a near rape, a fire, etc.).
Travis – again, I do not understand why he’s a desirable male lead. He takes on the typical “bad boy who’s hurting” trope, and while I actually do tend to like alpha males who are in pain and sometimes lash out for genuine reasons, Travis never has any kind of development to justify his actions, let alone does he face the repercussions of them. It’s clear he has issues like his boiling anger, propensity to hit anything that gets in his way or offends “his girl,” and some jarring examples of insensitivity to anyone but himself and his needs.
There are moments penned where it’s made to seem like he’s being cute, but the majority of the time he’s creepy, clingy, needy, and self-absorbed. There’s a false guise of self-awareness given in the book when he acknowledges to Abby that he’s “messed up”, but never seems to learn from his actions. There’s a part of me that wondered if he was suffering from (and I’m being very serious here) a mental disorder that made him as such. It would’ve been helpful if maybe McGuire had the insight to delve into that part of his character more, but it never shows. Not once. Travis’s actions are often glorified and made okay by Abby’s abrupt about face. No expansion given.
Examples? Here are some:
He walks into the bathroom one scene while she showers. Abby’s horrified one moment and then suddenly finds the gesture cute.
He calls her Pidge – it’s given as a nickname (which she isn’t initially affectionate toward) and is supposedly a reference to the Disney film Lady and the Tramp, but that’s never given in the context of the book. Very rarely does he allude to her real name, and when he does, it’s often to mock her or mock someone else discussing her (with the effect of guilt tripping her).
He totals his apartment after Abby leaves the day after a bet they made together expires (requiring her to stay at his place for a month). They just so happened to have sex the night before, and she leaves the next morning without telling him. She’s blamed by pretty much everyone that she was the cause of his tantrum and she accepts it.
Travis also gets desperate and chases her back home after a stint in Vegas and wanting to fight there for a mobster in order to obtain money. Abby’s upset by it because her father was involved in that line of work and she doesn’t want to go through the hurt and pain she endured from her father’s involvements. Travis tries to restrain her, storms into the apartment with her roommate, and she has to hide from him until he “calms down.”
How is that love? How is that respect?
There are other factors to consider here as well. Let’s take it from the perspective of the man who, for a time, is set to be the “other” love interest in this novel.
Meet Parker – a high achieving, Med-school aspiring student who seems like a nice guy, even if he seems like a bit of a Gary Stu initially considering his wealth and intelligence (and the diamond bracelet gift does seem a bit presumed as Abby’s birthday gift for the duration of their initial relationship). But one can tell he’s genuinely attracted to Abby – he treats her well, is even patient when he’s sidelined by her. You can’t help but feel bad for this guy after a point because he’s pretty much a pawn in the “Travis and Abby” show. It’s not a real love triangle because, where Parker’s in the picture, either Abby, Parker himself, or someone else brings Travis up as the topic of conversation/comparison. It’s not realistic.
What frustrated even more is that I felt McGuire’s authorial voice often intruded with the relations between Abby and Parker where Travis was used as the comparison. It was as if it were set up to failure from point one. The way Abby treats Parker broke my heart, because either there’s a hateful comment he makes that’s decidedly out of character (and McGuire’s intruding voice) in an attempt to make Travis look like the better guy, or there’s a point where Travis or Abby completely skewer the guy for trying to use reason, or for just being who he is.
The only two characters I can say I actually liked consistently through the work were Finch and Kara, though their respective roles were very small in the overarching novel.
The events of the novel themselves are problematic, but let me take a moment to discuss the writing and thematic. (I mentioned misogyny in this novel, so I’ll go a bit into it as well here.)
It’s one of those reads that can be quickly digested, but it’s poorly written. Awkward dialogue tags (other than “said” or “asked”), stilted dialogue, choppy phrasing – all things that could’ve been avoided with thorough editing. The thematic of this book bothered me considering the misogynistic language that’s prevalent in this. If not just for the events themselves (i.e. Travis dropping a woman from his lap after she insults Abby or Travis saying that he wouldn’t want his future daughter to open her legs for a man so easily), then the language left something to be desired with frequent slut shaming, causal throws of “bitches” and “hos” and such. I’m not a stranger to crude language in a work, but some of these were championed for obvious humor purposes, and they didn’t come across as humorous or realistic at all to me.
So, in sum, I think “Beautiful Disaster” didn’t contain much beauty to it at all. I’ll end on the note that after reading the book, I see the symbolism of the cover with a butterfly being kept in a jar. The sad thing about is that, when you think about the image in a sense, a romanticized version of it may mean that it’s beauty captured and contained from the rest of the world. But the reality, the longer that butterfly is contained from its habitat and not left to wander free to experience the world, it suffocates, withers, and dies. I think that Abby and Travis’s relationship is, indeed, a suffocating presence that doesn’t have any true romantic notions at all, and I deign to think it represents anything that could be construed as healthy or desirable.
Overall score: 0.5/5
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher S&S/Atria Books.