“But I think giving us this story gave us power too. They wanted to divide us that night. Make us hate each other. But that’s not what happened. We fell in love. As a group, I guess. We grew closer. We became friends. These special people who were raised in privilege took my side and saved my life. That’s my story, anyway. That’s the happy ending I need to write.”
I need to preface this review with a warning. As I’ve noted on my blog page, I am a writing professor. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degree in literature. When reading romance, which I oft do nowadays, much to the detriment of my grading sadly, I am not always looking to analyze it deeply. I like to sit back and “enjoy the ride,” so to speak. This post won’t be me “sitting back and enjoying the ride.” JA Huss’s book pushed my internal literature student out of hibernation with her newest book, The Dirty Ones.
To me, this book is not a standard romance. Yes. There are seemingly a main male and female protagonist, Connor and Keira. (I say “seemingly” because there are other characters who figure in prominently to this story). And yes, we encounter their love relationship. However, if you read this book and only see that relationship, then you have missed the genius of Huss’s book.
Okay, I am going to book nerd out hard right now. Firstly, I have a love-hate relationship with looking deeper into books. I did it for so many years, I teach students to do it every day, and I don’t really want to do it with my leisure reading. But Huss wouldn’t allow me to put my mind on pause with her story. From the outset, the cover is suggestive of something meatier within her story. Styled in 1920s Art Deco, it looks very MUCH like the most recent cover of The Great Gatsby (post-2013 Leo Dicaprio movie version Gatsby). You should initially ask yourself “why.” As you read, however, other than a nod to The Great Gatsby later in the story, you cannot initially see the connection. At least, until the end. This book has given me a bit of a book hangover, as I ponder its depth. In many ways, this story IS The Great Gatsby (TGG) of modern romance. Keira is the Nick of TGG. Her family has some wealth, but it is nowhere close to the other members of their group, The Dirty Ones. They are wealthy and come from “old money.” As such, it doesn’t allow her to be fully integrated and accepted into their group. This is mentioned multiple times through the words of the other characters that you start to believe it. Like Nick, Keira skirts the perimeter of this group as an observer, at least, seemingly so.
Like TGG, nothing is at all as it seems. I have to admit. I was worried I wouldn’t like the book after reading the first couple of chapters. Like the characters in the book, I felt confused. I didn’t really know what was going on, and I worried it wouldn’t be remedied. I was completely wrong. I will not be offering any kind of true summary or synopsis of this book because there is so much that transpires in the story I don’t want to ruin any of it. All I can say is…read it. And be prepared to feel confused. I believe that’s intentional. Like TGG, we have an unreliable narrator who makes you question everything that happens in the story.
This story doesn’t shy away from hedonism. There were times when my straight-edged brain struggled with the hedonistic tendencies of the characters. But, again, this is so The Great Gatsby. While this book sits in a different era from TGG, people’s lust for each other hasn’t changed. Be prepared to cool off after reading this book.
Finally, the allusion to The Great Gatsby aside, this book is a book about writing one’s truth. It is a meta-offering of writing. The story asks the question of responsibility to self. Is it ethical to allow others to write your story or co-opt it? There are so many moments in the story when Keira tasked with writing the story of their group, The Dirty Ones, will not take responsibility for it. She recognizes that it was written outside of her, and it lacked the truth of their situation. These moments made my head hurt in all the best ways as I thought about the ethics of authorial agency. And morality.
Now, if you’ve come this far in my review, and you’re either bored or confused, I am sorry, dear reader. I LOVE a book that challenges my thinking while satiating my lust for romance. Most people will read this book and see something completely different from me. And that is fine. That is the beauty of writing. There are some amazing moments between the characters. There are some moments when you really don’t like them. And there are moments when your heart will hurt for The Dirty Ones. In the end, though, I think you will see that this story is something more than the average romance. It holds a little bit of Gatsby’s magic.
In love and romance,