Going into Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, I knew what I was getting into: this is a story about relationship abuse. Unlike Deb Caletti’s recent Stay, which also tackles this topic, Brown’s book faces it head on as it happens, rather than reflects back on it after the fact.
It doesn’t take long for Alex to fall head over heels for the new guy, Cole. He’s been assigned to her tutoring duties, as he’s a little behind from changing schools. He’s a sports star, and though Alex believes he’s way out of her league, Cole finds her attractive, smart, and completely his kind of girl: the kind he can manipulate.
When they begin dating, Alex’s best friend Zack becomes a problem for Cole. He’s jealous of the time she spends with him, and he’s begun showing up whenever they’re hanging out as friends. It’s just an accident — really — when Cole walks in at a time that Zack happens to be on top of Alex; they’d been goofing around like good friends would. But that’s only the first instance of Cole’s anger. When he begins taking out physical aggression on her, Alex writes it off as accidental; she even goes as far as to cover it up with makeup when he’s knocked her down and turned her face a few shades of black and blue.
Zack and Bethany — Alex’s other good friend — become increasingly concerned as she writes off Cole’s stalking behavior as his desire to spend time with her because they’re both so busy and when she writes off his attitude and his acts of assault as simply his stress relief. Moreover, they know Alex is lying to them and to herself about the severity of Cole’s actions, but it’s not until she’s ready to handle the issue herself that Alex will finally realize she’s in a mess of a situation and it won’t get better if she continues to ignore it. And the last act of this show is brutal: so brutal, in fact, Alex finally discovers the real reason Cole had to transfer to her school in the first place.
Bitter End is an extremely difficult book to read. What I have come to appreciate so much about Brown’s writing both here and in her debut Hate List is that she’s willing to delve into a challenging problem facing teens, but she does it in a manner that is full of heart and understanding, rather than one meant to teach a lesson. With Bitter End, we come to really like Alex: she’s an average girl. There’s nothing spectacular about her, and she has the same insecurities any girl has while dating a guy she’s thrilled to be with: she wants Cole to keep loving her no matter what because it feels good. The abuse, though it doesn’t really feel “good,” feels right to her because it’s a sign that he’s paying attention to her. And though we’re right there with Alex knowing what he does it wrong — so, SO wrong — we can almost understand why she explains it away. We almost understand why she’s willing to ignore all of the warning signs about Cole.
Of course, we don’t accept this abuse as readers. We’re squarely on the side of Zack and Beth in the story: we want Alex safe. She’s worth a heck of a lot to them, and they care so deeply about her. But they realize early on that their influence over Alex to change her attitude toward Cole is pretty limited; she has to come to terms with what he’s doing in her own way. That’s not to say they think she deserves what she’s getting nor that they’re ignoring it. They’re pretty blunt with her about how awful she looks when she’s wearing Cole’s scars and they’re perfectly honest about the fact she needs to get out of the relationship. But they can’t actually remove her from the situation because she’s also stubborn. She’s finally got something she’s wanted for a long time — a cute boyfriend who she believes cares so much about her he can’t let her go — but she doesn’t want to come to terms with the fact he abuses her. Or that he has immense baggage and issues he needs to deal with, and she doesn’t deserve to bear the brunt. The thing is, both she and we as readers know that these things are wrong. She knows she doesn’t deserve this treatment. But the fact is, she feels trapped and continues making excuses.
What Brown does so successfully in this story is set up a victim who cannot be blamed. We empathize with her immensely because we are right there in her mind. And while we know Cole is a bully and deserves everything coming to him, we also sort of understand that he’s not necessarily doing what he does to Alex because he’s mad at her. He’s got much bigger issues he needs to tackle — we see this through what we learn of his own family’s challenges and manners of dealing with those troubles — and we almost sympathize with him too. As readers, we actually want him to overcome his own hurdles, but we know he can’t do it through Alex.
The secondary characters in this book are all well drawn and add to the greater arc of the story. I liked Zach and Beth quite a bit, as they’re the kinds of people I’d always wanted as best friends. They care deeply about Alex and they offer her all of the help they can without downright meddling in her affairs. Each of them has a distinct personality, despite not having all that much page time. I also really liked Georgia, one of Alex’s coworkers at the bistro where she works. Georgia has a bit of a history and some experience with pain herself, and it’s almost through her that Alex garners her own strength and pulls out the realizations that Cole’s behavior toward her is not excusable.
Bitter End is steadily paced; it’s not a fast read nor a slow read, but it’s one that’s deliberate in execution. I had to read this one in spurts, since it does get difficult to read straight through. It’s emotionally challenging, as I had to remind myself more than once that what Cole was doing was wrong and that the way Alex justified things was wrong. Brown’s talented in developing these characters that beg you to drop into their skewed mental perceptions; however, what I most appreciated in reading was that we never once are able to excuse Cole’s actions, despite feeling sorry for everything he’s got going on in his own life. We can sympathize without justifying. Perhaps most important, though, is that Brown never makes any sort of statement that creates a villain of one gender and a victim of another. What she sets up in doing in this story is exploring relationship violence in this instance, rather than create a generalized story to talk in a grand sense of violence in domestic relationships, and she’s successful in doing just that.
The one thing that didn’t quite work so well for me in this book was the ending, but I won’t say it’s not a fitting end to the story. I prefer my books to end a little messy and with a little uncertainty, since that’s how things are in the real world. Alex’s story wraps up pretty neatly in the end and too quickly. This is probably due to the fact this story focuses less on plot and more on character, and the wrap-up is key to the plot, rather than the character.
Pass this book off to your contemporary fiction readers and those who found Brown’s Hate List a compelling story. Fans of Sarah Dessen or Deb Caletti will likely enjoy this book, as well. I don’t usually think of books in bibliotherapeutic ways, but this is the kind of book that would resonate with a person experiencing relationship abuse. I’d also hand this book off to adult readers easily.