“Jillian” by Halle Butler
This is not the feel-good book of the year. It has no hero. Like Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, it will likely reignite the debate over whether a book must have likeable characters to be good, or if readers can truly enjoy a book full of unlikeable characters. If you haven’t formed an opinion on this issue yet, here’s your chance. Jillian is populated by a bunch of self-centered jerks, each deeply flawed and in no danger of improving.
As a bookseller, a complaint I often hear goes something like, “I didn’t enjoy this book because I wouldn’t want to spend time with the main character,” “I didn’t identify with the main character,” or, “The main character wasn’t nice.” In particular, it seems like some readers expect female characters, especially in novels written by women, to be nice. Women must be pleasant, and men must be someone you’d want to be. Failing that, the characters must be punished. Indeed, the only complaint against Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl I ever hear is repeated again and again: Amy Dunne is not nice, and she still gets what she wants.
Jillian, then, is the perfect foil for this idea. The two main characters are a 24-year-old alcoholic awash in self-loathing as she battles through a quarter-life crisis and a 35-year-old single mother who is a compulsive liar and, by the end of the novel, addicted to prescription pain pills. Readers will almost certainly identify with them, but not in any positive way. Instead, they will nod in recognition at the urge to belittle somebody who brags too much about recent success, the fierce need for approval that leads a person to invent a car accident, and the selfish desire to distance oneself from a negative person who clearly needs help. Their days are packed with typical minutia, like giving clothes the sniff test on laundry day and putting items back on the grocery store shelf after some aspirational shopping. These characters face no comeuppance other than having to live in their own skins and being forced to deal with one another (which, as it turns out, is plenty).
What, then, is the value of reading this novel? For starters, readers with a certain sense of humor will find this book hilarious. Butler is to schadenfreude as Paula Deen is to butter or as happy little trees are to Bob Ross–it’s everywhere here. Fans of John Waters in particular will enjoy the clever one-liner about semen, the conversation about serial killers and bedwetting, and the chapter where one of the main characters drunkenly weeps beneath a porch while contemplating suicide, as well as the amusing anecdote about masturbatory trauma. There is an underwear-chewing dog named Crispy, a belching raccoon, and a woman using a Batman voice as she threatens to rat somebody out to God.
More than that, though, this novel offers a close look at internalized misogyny. What happens to women who are told they must always be nice when they realize they are not, in fact, nice people? One of the two main characters accepts her “toxic personality” and is openly rude to everyone in her life. The other lives in deep denial. One refuses to see within herself any redeeming qualities, while the other insists on ignoring every mistake and imperfection in hopes that they’ll go away on their own. Neither plan works out very well. Empathy vies with disgust as each digs herself deeper into her own hole.
What, then, comes of the expectation that women be cheerful, pleasant, social–in a word, nice–at any cost? These characters are not likeable, but Halle Butler lets you into their minds to find the answer.
Jillian by Halle Butler (Curbside Splendor Publishing | 9781940430294 | February 17, 2015)