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The Romantic – A Review

I’m left with a strange unsettled feeling after reading Kate Holden’s new book, The Romantic, a story of the struggle to move on from the past and the incredible tenacity of misunderstood intention.  My ears feel hot, not so much from reading about so much sex, but from feeling put in the position of a voyeur. Somehow, although there is a great deal of honesty here, there isn’t a connectedness to the reader, or even to the world, which left me feeling as if I had been listening to one of those stories a friend tells, long after the incident is over (how come she never called to let me know?), that leaves you wondering who you’ve been friends with all these years. Come to think of it, I do this retrospective story telling myself often enough. Last year was so………and  I leave out the important part of this conversation; why I didn’t call you at the time, why I couldn’t ask you for help or a listening ear.

Then there’s the sex itself. So often she talks of being reluctant, persuaded, uninterested, particularly at the start of an encounter, that I was left feeling as if I had been dragged into something against my better judgement as well. There is not so much a falseness, as a lack of insight here in her reluctance to explore her ambivalence about men and her relationship with sex. I don’t want to be in the position of feeling something close to pity for a woman who so clearly wants to reflect on her relationships, and time and time again shies away not only from unfettered reflection, but consequently from honest action as well.

Is it my fault, she thinks furiously, is it my fault I’m attractive to men? Should I stop being smart, being funny, being friendly? Having breasts and a vagina? Being an ex-hooker? Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Be proud of your body, be yourself. I am being myself and I’m getting nothing but fucked by these fuckers. (p. 83-4)

She writes well about loneliness. Particularly the loneliness of being unable to communicate need and feeling. In Rome and Naples, where she has come to write, explore, read romantic poetry and reflect, she is imprisoned both by language and by fear. So in a way she is left with the directness of the body. She writes about sex well. Really well. This is of course particularly hard to do, and she faces the body head on. Sex is described with great visual and sensory detail, without mysticism and obfuscation, and we are invited into each of her experiences with a great deal of generosity. In fact there is so much generosity in this book, that I am astonished at how little she offers herself, and how painful this is to observe. Like a lover who wants to see another’s pleasure, I want to see her satisfied, and she never allows herself this.

There is such a pressure throughout this book to find herself, and in a strange way, the more time out she takes to reflect on her relationships with men during the course of her italian pilgrimage, the further she gets from a sense of her own personal experience. The closer she gets to others, the more present she is on the page. When she describes her struggle to feel useful, to see things and not be a tourist, the way a new language excites and confuses at the same time, she is right there, breathing on the page. I like her reading this book, and at the same time I suspect that it is very hard not to like her, and maybe for her not to be liked.

To some extent an autobiographical book asks you to see the author in a particular way. As I write this, I’m asking you to see me in a particular way, and most probably this is how I make this demand of others in my everyday life as well. I think Kate is asking us to like her, to admire her daring, sexual skill and courage, and also to want to care for her, to buy the myth that she can’t see where her self lives and where it does not. Still, I have to say I enjoyed it much more than Eat, Pray, Love. I want beauty, and there is certainly beauty here.

On seeing Kate’s picture on the back of the book, my daughter said ‘I see her on the tram all the time. She’s so beautiful. Always dressed in really cool black clothes, looking out the window.’

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