To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Media literacy is dead, and I am its unwitting killer: a book review turned reflection

Every reader has that one book that they despise with all their being. Whether that be the latest overhyped BookTok sensation, a classic that hasn’t aged as well as your grandparents think it has or your high school calculus textbook, in our modern literary society you’re bound to read something that doesn’t suit your tastes. As someone who considers herself a moderately prolific reader (at least when the semester isn’t in session), I’ve read and abandoned a countless number of books that I wouldn’t recommend to my worst enemy.

Today, I do not write about any of those. I write about a book that spurred feelings far worse than simple dislike in me. Even the word “hate” could not begin to capture the slog of reading through 370 pages of mildly incestuous romance, ableism and secret Jewish plots to take over the Catholic Church, all under a failed attempt at a feminist message. And so, after over a year of ranting about it to anyone who’d hear me, I decided to return to the pages of my old nemesis in order to write a detailed review for The Hoot. As you read, you may notice that the name of this book will never appear in this article. That’s because, dear reader, this isn’t a book review. This is a cautionary tale.

Our protagonist is a young woman that I’ll call … Caitlyn. We’re introduced to her as a proud feminist living in the middle ages already commanding her own navy at the tender age of 16. Though we never actually see any of her battle chops, we’re informed of her competency. While Caitlyn doesn’t fear death, she dreads her looming marriage to a sadistic hunchback, whose portrayal makes Shakespeare’s “Richard III” look like a sensitive depiction of disability. Caitlyn spends the first third of the book hemming and hawing about her impending marital doom (uttering such compassionate lines as “I wish I was poor”), but it’s all for nothing. In the end, Caitlyn gets married and then … there’s a time skip.

We pick up years later, after Caitlyn has run away from her husband, who was just as abusive as she feared. Desperate to keep her husband away, she goes to the one man powerful enough to protect her: a 19-year-old king named Henry. (In this case, I did not use an alias to protect this character’s name, as there were about a million medieval kings named Henry, so good luck trying to figure this one out! All I can say is that he’s not a particularly famous Henry.) Here is where I was hoping the book would pick up! What can I say, I love a good romance from time to time. Of course, a quick Google search would tell you that the historical Caitlyn and Henry were second cousins, but I was hopeful enough to overlook it.

I shouldn’t have had such hope. The womanizing, manchild Henry, fully abusing his immense power over Caitlyn, immediately starts courting her, despite being married himself. It doesn’t take long for him to get her into bed, where he feels it necessary to tell her, “This is not rape. This is love. You will enjoy it as much as I will.” And then. She doesn’t. Even. COME. Just lots of “tingling” and ZERO foreplay. In fairness to Caitlyn, that line wouldn’t exactly do it for me either.

At this point, allow me to step back from the review portion of this article. Unlike our protagonists, I’m not so easily convinced when it comes to matters of the heart. I have been made thoroughly bitter and cynical by the kinds of abuse-fetishizing books and movies that are passed off as “romance” these days. I’ve watched “Twilight”! I’ve been suggested those awful “dark romance” TikToks reposted on Instagram! I could see the rest of this book playing out in my mind’s eye: yet another toxic romance passed off as something to aspire to. At this point, I stopped reading for pleasure and started reading for spite. And that is where the danger began.

Back to the book. The rest of it mostly follows Henry and Caitlyn’s unsuccessful attempts to divorce their respective partners while the two deal with ups and downs in their own illicit relationship. At one point, Caitlyn refuses to say “I love you” so Henry gets drunk and sleeps with a maid. Caitlyn forgives him basically immediately, but he does it again later. Henry gets Caitlyn pregnant and doesn’t exactly ask her permission to do so. All the while, he’s constantly pleading with her to “get over” the fresh trauma of what her husband did to her. At some points, I had to wonder. Did the author truly expect us to be rooting for the main couple?

At least one of the side characters seemed to be on my side: the villain. A high-up official in the Catholic Church, he is dead-set on using that power to cockblock our main couple, as their marriage would be powerful enough to rival the Church. Another fun fact about our pro-abstinence antagonist is that he’s secretly JEWISH!!! He and a small cabal of other Jews use their knowledge of Hebrew to read ancient prophecies and gain power for themselves within the Church hierarchy. Or at least … this is all heavily implied to be the case. It’s mentioned in passing within the book, but I was astonished. Obviously, this is extremely antisemitic, so I don’t entirely blame myself for what happened next: I skimmed the entire second half of the book, not taking the time to truly absorb its meaning. All I wanted to do was say that I finished it so that I could go on righteous rants about it and feel good about myself. And therein lies the problem.

While writing what was initially going to be a rant review, I re-skimmed certain sections in order to ensure the accuracy of what I was saying. As I looked over the last few chapters of the book, I realized with mounting horror a crucial detail that I had managed to completely forget: Henry and Caitlyn break up. She finally recognizes him to be the immature brat he truly is, and she leaves his ass! In my moralistic hubris, I had assumed this to be a romance novel written by an author too stupid to realize the implications of what she was writing. But no. Henry was MEANT to be annoying. Their relationship was MEANT to be toxic. “This is not rape, this is love,” was MEANT to be cringe! In the words of the wise sage Taylor Swift, “it’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”

And so, to the author of this book, who will almost certainly never find this article, I extend my lukewarm apologies. Of course, your book is still quite antisemitic and ableist. Worse than that, you unironically used the word “tingle” in sex scenes. And even if you hadn’t, this book would still be bad. But I do regret the one-star review I left up on your Goodreads page for over a year bashing it for the wrong reasons. I had intended to write a long, impassioned article complaining about the state of modern romance novels, without realizing that you had never intended for your book to be that. Because I do not want the research I have done and the half-baked review I had written to go entirely to waste, I have turned my work into a journey of self-discovery, a modern epic of error and what not to do. I won’t even mention the name of your book, because it would only distract from my point. This article is my penance. My atonement. It is my veritable walk to Canossa.

So, dear reader, I leave you with this lesson: if you are going to review a book, always do so in good faith, no matter how much you hated it. Don’t DNF, don’t skim. The sins of moral outrage and puritanism are capable of defeating even the most media literate warriors. Please, learn from my mistake: YOU ARE NOT IMMUNE.

Perhaps next semester I’ll take an English class.

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