trigger warning for mentions of rape/sexual assault
In “reading recent,” I had Madeline Steven’s novel Devotion ordered to my college library. It sounded intriguing and it promised a dynamic relationship between two female characters (or, at least, I thought it did.) Someone had offhandedly mentioned to me too that it fell into a category of queer fiction as well, and I was even more excited to see what was in store.
Reading Devotion went by in a flash. I started and finished in just a few days* and every time I forcefully put it down, I found myself continuing to think about it. I took this as a good sign, as an indication that the book was making an impression. That didn’t turn out to be quite the case.
My initial review of Devotion, once I had finished it, was glowing. I praised the aesthetic, the writing, the ease with which the story was read. It felt like watching a movie with a peach-colored filter, giving it a highly romanticized appeal. I thought it really was a good book in the afterglow of finishing it.
A day passed and I started to feel more disappointed. The more I thought about the book, the more I realized I wasn’t satisfied with it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t until I had a chat with my mum (who is also an avid reader) and she conveyed her surprise in that I had reviewed the book so highly. It was then that I realized what was bothering me so much: the story didn’t have an ending.
Not an ending, in the sense, that concluded the action/plot of the story in any satisfying way. It was more of a “non-ending,” in which the story just ends but does not resolve anything from the action itself. The conclusion of the story really leaves the reader high and dry, kind of starting at the last page like, “What? That’s it? That’s the end?”
Moreover, the supposed “dynamic female relationship” between Ella and Lonnie isn’t exactly what was promised. The story is told from Ella’s perspective, a nanny hired by Lonnie and her husband, James, to look after their son William. Ella, unlike Lonnie, is poor and desperate for work and lies on her resume to get the job. She envies Lonnie and the life that she has: her son, her husband, her wealth. Though that dynamic shifts slightly, Ella never stops being jealous of Lonnie, even when she “falls” for her.
And the “romance” between Ella and Lonnie is not overt nor do I think it’s healthy. Ella romanticizes Lonnie and all of her faults, seeing the beauty amidst all of the problems that she has in her life (cheating on her James with their best friend, not the least of them.) She wants to be close to Lonnie but doesn’t want to sacrifice anything. She fantasizes about touching Lonnie and being with her, but does not deal with her emotions in a mature way.
There is also a scene towards the end of the book where I’m almost certain that Ella and James rape Lonnie. It is a harsh indictment, but there is not another satisfactory descriptor for what happened. I will not go into explicit detail about the scene, but it involved all of the characters being high on MDMA (ecstasy) and having a threesome.
From the description, Lonnie never explicitly consents (verbally or otherwise) and lies prone throughout the entire ordeal. Ella forces Lonnie to touch her and Ella touches Lonnie without her consent. It is incredibly uncomfortable, and I would make a note to be aware that this scene is written into the book.
The plot (or what little there is) doesn’t accomplish much. Devotion reads more like a snapshot into a brief period of someone’s life than an actual story. Events take place, people meet each other, but nothing truly happens. Conflicts are not resolved, information is learned but not divulged, and arguments between characters never reach a satisfying conclusion. This circles back to the “non-ending” complaint where nothing ever seems to be resolved.
I think that Devotion gives the impression of a good book because it does, honestly, read like one. I was intrigued by the general story and I was curious, more than anything, to see where it would all go. Tension builds and builds throughout but then you reach the end of the book and—nothing. It’s a quick read and the writing is clear and simple enough to allow for easy reading. I never found myself struggling to comprehend what was being written; it was all very surface-level. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it makes the story readable and pleasant to go through, as long as you don’t think about what you’re reading.
I’ve since updated my Goodreads review of Devotion and it’s plain to see the difference that a day makes when you have time to think about it. This is the first time that I’ve actively edited a review to reflect changes in my opinion in such a short amount of time. I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I’ve definitely surprised myself with how quickly I’ve swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.
*Which I know doesn’t sound impressive, but on top of uni work and other things, a few days is pretty quick for me