"Without Merit" by Colleen Hoover
Big, robust, raucous families have always kind of intrigued me.
As a child, my family consisted of me and my mother.
And at least one cat.
Sometimes as many as three.
Oh, and an African-clawed frog I got free at COSI when I was in 1st grade — I’m 35, and he’s still alive… which seems like a really fucking long time for a frog to live but, seeing as I’m not now, nor have I ever aspired to be, a herpetologist, I really wouldn’t know.
Given the petite nature of my childhood nuclear family, I remain brimming with questions regarding the functioning of large families.
How do the social dynamics work?
When there are tons of members — like, Dugger-level large — How do they even remember each other’s names?
How do they decide who gets to use the bathroom first in the morning? Is there an organized system, like a sign-up sheet? Or do they just Hunger Games that shit, pretty much ensuring that the youngest, weakest ones always get screwed?
Given this almost academic interest in large families, it’s unsurprising that my interest was piqued by the discovery that Without Merit was less about one person — or one girl and one guy, as Colleen Hoover’s books tend to be — and, instead, essentially about a large family.
And a beyond dysfunctional one at that.
The protagonist of this novel, Merit, is a member of the Voss family — a family that has decidedly more members than the one in which I grew up.
And decidedly fewer cats.
And no frog.
Merit’s family includes her identical twin, Honor, her older brother, Utah, her younger half brother, Moby — yes, as in Dick — her father, Baranby, her stepmother, Victoria, and her biological mother, also named Victoria — Yeah. I know. Confusing.
Complicated matters immensely, they all reside under one roof.
Fortunately, this motley crew doesn’t live in a traditional house but instead in an old church, which they call Dollar Voss because it’s divided into quarters. Merit’s father purchased this church not because he needed a larger residence to house his family — which, obvi, he did — but instead to stick it to the pastor, Brian, who had a dog who barked pretty much constantly, proving an infinite annoyance to Barnaby and a minor nuisance to everyone else.
As the novel opens, Merit is engaging in pretty much her favorite pastime, purchasing an abandoned trophy from a secondhand shop. As she’s perusing the trophies and selecting one that both strikes her fancy and fits within her limited budget, she notices a guy to whom she is immediately drawn. He is, she thinks, watching her.
And her belief that this guy to whom she is inexplicably drawn — but who I think sounds like a pretty big fucking creeper — is watching her is confirmed when he follows her out into the townsquare and kisses her.
Merit is as delighted by this as I, the reader, was alarmed — Bitch, do you never watch To “Catch a Predator”? This dude is seriously going to skin-suit you. And don’t say “Oh, he can’t skinsuit me because we are in public” He’s just gonna drag your somewhere private and then skinsuit you. A man who wants to skinsuit you will find a way to skinsuit you.
Okay… I might have an alarming preoccupation with skinsuiting.
Anyway, before there is even time for the post-kiss glow to dissipate — or for skinsuiting to take place #JustSaying — Merit discovers that her tonsil hockey partner isn’t just some random stranger, intent on kissing teen girls he doesn’t know. He’s actually her sister’s boyfriend and he kissed her because — as you’ve already likely worked out in you head — he thought Merit was actually her twin sister, Honor.
And thus begins Merit’s infatuation with Sagan.
To make matters worse, not long after this bound-to-be-awkward kiss, Sagan starts appearing, pretty much daily, at the Voss family breakfast table.
As of being in love with your sister’s boyfriend isn’t shitty enough. Said boyfriend needs to become live-in boyfriend to make it even more awkward.
Unfortunately for Merit, this romantic kerfuffle isn’t the only issue she’s having. Truth be told, life’s pretty shitty on all fronts — including emotionally
You see, with so many different things going wrong in her life, Merit is left feeling hopeless, helpless and useless.
Sound like the Colleen Hoover plots you’re use to?
Yeah, me neither.
Which threw me for a loop.
As this is the third book in my Colleen Hoover binge, I was beginning to feel like I had the formula figured out.
Boy meets girl.
Boy and girl start a relationship.
Boy fucks it up somehow — as only boys can.
Boy makes up for it.
Boy and girl end up together.
(fade to black)
This book absolutely did not follow this format.
In fact, although there were definitely elements of romance in this novel, I would hesitate to call it a romance novel at all.
Honestly, it was really more about mental and emotional health than it was about a burgeoning romance.
But this didn’t bother me.
I didn’t go into this book with any specific plot expectations.
In fact, I specifically avoided reading any plot descriptions so I could experience it fresh, my enjoyment unblemished by assumptions.
What did bother me, though, was the fact that the plot meandered.
Like, quite a bit.
As she usually does, Hoover took her time introducing characters and allowed us to really get to know them. I see this as a strength — particularly because Hoover’s novels tend to have way more essential-to-the-plot characters than most contemporary novels.
But, in this case, it seems that the cast of characters was too big, even for Hoover to wrangle. The character introductions and development took a bit too long, slowing down the momentum she had established at the start with that kiss.
Additionally problematic, the narrative transitioned at times from engaging and effervescent to monotonous and moralistic.
I do think there is room in fiction for the exploration of serious issues — including issues of mental health — but the way in which these difficult topics were handled in this novel surprisingly lacked grace and felt a bit… well… WebMD-ish.
All things considered, I enjoyed this novel. But nowhere near as much as I expected to.
While Hoover did an admirable job of building a robust family, and then endearing readers to this family, as I closed the book I was left feeling like I had missed something.
Was there some message I wasn’t getting?
I don’t think so.
I think I got the point that Hoover was trying to make.
I just don’t think she made it all that well.
Given these concerns, I give this one 3 out of 5 cocktails. While it’s worth reading, it’s not one that I expect will knock your socks off.
I’m getting a bit nervous about continuing my CoHo binge, as my esteem for each subsequent book continues to decline. But, continue I will — because I’m nothing if not committed!
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Who else is bingeworthy? Tell me which author you think I should binge on next in the comments, below.