By Heidi Simmons
Love is complicated. Or is it? In Liz Kay’s Monster: A Love Story (Putnam, 368 pages) an emotional heart and an intellectual head don’t add up to a manageable relationship.
The story is told by Stacey, a newly-widowed mother of two young boys who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s been eight months since her husband’s death and she is still numb until Hollywood calls. Stacey is a poet and her novel in verse has caught the attention of Hollywood’s most notorious womanizer and biggest movie star, Tommy DeMarco.
When Stacey goes to Tommy’s Caribbean house to start work on the adaptation of her book, she can’t help but be smitten by the super-star. Aware of his reputation, she tries not to be attracted to him. Much to her surprise, Tommy is well-read and actually gets the nuances of her book, “Monsters in the Afterlife” a love story that supposedly reflects the themes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Stacey tries not to get caught up in the Hollywood life-style but is quickly drawn in as her book and the movie garners Hollywood’s best talent. When she begins an affair with Tommy, she discounts the relationship as a fling, but he is stuck in her head. Tommy seems to have the same appreciation and infatuation with Stacey.
But, Tommy is an actor and Stacey doesn’t know what is real. She cannot discern if it’s an act or he really cares. Stacey and Tommy must work together and she justifies her continuing romance. She tells no one, ashamed of the relationship. But those closest to her and Tommy recognize something is up.
Even when Stacey and Tommy are at their best together, they are mean, drunk, violent and angry, but there is some kind of chemistry that keeps them coming back for more. He blames her and she blames him for the chaos that seems to come between them.
Stacey tries to have a ”normal” life with a doctor she meets in Omaha, but the dullness overwhelms her. She wants the relationship to work with the doctor and even goes as far as to accept his marriage proposal. But, he can’t compete with Tommy.
This is a first-person story with Stacey sharing her fear, loneliness and insanity. She is an unreliable narrator as she shares every detail of her life. Stacey is clearly not done grieving the loss of her husband, but she rarely acknowledges it. She needs professional help and even Tommy can see that. But for Stacey, it’s everyone else who has a problem.
Stacey recognizes she is coming unraveled and being in love with Tommy is impossible to admit. The doctor, as dull as he is, makes more sense.
This is a love story, albeit odd and different. Since we only get Stacey’s point of view, we can never be sure how anyone else in the story really thinks. A few characters warn her or have meaningful observations, but she takes none of their advice under consideration.
I had a hard time liking Stacey, but I was sympathetic to her trauma, loneliness and fear. I felt sorrow for her sweet sons. But, most of the time she is just an arrogant bitch. I kept thinking who is the “monster” in the story? Is it Tommy? Is it her book? Is it Hollywood? No, I think Stacey is the monster.
I like first-person stories because most often you are totally at the mercy of the narrator. The reader sees what the storyteller sees and that can be very exciting and intimate. It is especially fun to get a picture of the character that the character herself cannot see.
Poetic and witty as some of the writing is, I still found Stacey to be more and more uninteresting and dull. She is not forth-coming emotionally or intellectually. I wondered what did she and Tommy really have in common and why did he love her?
Stacey’s book and subsequent movie is never fully summarized so the story does not benefit from any deeper metaphor, which it seriously needed to be compelling.
However, the Hollywood world was fun as she and Tommy end up at the Academy Awards together.
I wanted more insight into grief and grief recovery. I was intrigued about how a big movie star like the character of Tommy finds true love when no one truly knows whether you are acting or being real. Or, who really loves you for you, and not who you play on the big screen?
Overall, in this love story, head and hearts need not align to fall madly in love. Perhaps love is the monster and it is something we create, set free and then destroy.