Is Scott Bergstrom’s debut YA novel The Cruelty greater than the sum of its controversial parts? We cut through the hype to so see whether or not this is a book worth reading.
I first heard of Scott Bergstrom because of an article in Publisher’s Weekly published November 2015 which burned up the Twitterverse. The hype wasn’t about the book, which was described as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity, or the amazing six figure book deal, or the movie deal….. No, what got people poppin’ were things Bergstrom said in the interview. Things that had the YA community seeing red.
“Bergstrom’s heroine is Gwendolyn Bloom, a Jewish, slightly overweight 17-year-old, who is transformed into a “lean warrior with hair dyed fire-engine red,” during her mission to rescue her father, a kidnapped diplomat.” -Publisher’s Weekly
“The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own.”- Scott Bergstrom
Apparently, Bergstrom a first time author, thought the world of YA was lacking in morally complicated stories and he was here to fix that. Wow, thanks Scott! I’ll admit it, with all the Twitter crossfire I mostly had my mind made up about The Cruelty and its author before I picked up the book. I heard that my friends in the YA community were outraged that a first time author would speak so disparagingly about a genre that just got him a payday with a whole lot of zeros behind it and I agreed.
But about a year later I found a copy of The Cruelty in a stack of arcs to read for Spring 2017. I read over a hundred books a year so there are times when there are books in my TBR stack that I don’t recognize. The Cruelty was one of those books. The day I picked it up and started to read it, I wasn’t thinking of Bergstrom’s interview or the Twitter hashtag #MorallyComplicatedYA. I wasn’t thinking of all YA authors I knew and respected who were furious when the interview was published in November 2015. What I was thinking was “contemporary action YA with a spy/assassin spin. Could be interesting”. So I started reading.
I didn’t have to read very far into The Cruelty before I realized that I was reading the book that pissed off the entire YA community a year and a half before it was released. Part of me wanted to move onto the next book in the stack. But another part of me was curious. How many people who were outraged by comments in Bergstrom’s PW interview actually read the entire interview? How many of those people read the book? While you don’t necessarily have to read a book to know it’s offensive, sometimes you should. Sometimes you need to do your own research to make sure your opinions are your own.
It’s in my nature to do my due diligence and as a book blogger sometimes I read and write about books I don’t like or that are problematic. I read and report about books so you don’t have to. It goes with the territory. So I decided I would read The Cruelty. I wasn’t just reading it for reviewing purposes, but I also wanted to examine some of the criticism and comments from social media against what was actually in the book. First, let’s start with the criticism.
Step One In Becoming A Bad Ass- get skinny
Body image is a delicate subject in the world of YA. So the idea that a protagonist must first “get skinny” before she can truly find herself is more than a wee bit offensive. But is that really the message of Bergstrom’s book? Not exactly. First off, our protagonist Gwendolyn Bloom, is not overweight. She’s described as being a trained gymnast with an athletic build from the start of The Cruelty. It’s the interviewer who uses the phrase “slightly overweight”, not the author. Gwen’s diplomat father disappears while on assignment overseas. When the government stops their search for him, Gwen takes up the search herself. It’s important to point out the timeline in The Cruelty. What should have been a few days abroad for her father turns into weeks with no contact. Gwen begins to think the worse about the fate of her father. She stops sleeping, she stops eating. Eventually she makes her way to Europe to look for her father where she runs from one stressful situation to another. Gwen’s body change is not written as some kind of badass makeover, it’s a transformation from a high school girl to a grief stricken runaway who must fight to survive.
“Substituting terror for food does strange things to the human body.” -The Cruelty
“I hardly recognize my own body. It’s becoming taut, angry, bulging at the shoulders, along my arms, my back. Like a boxer.”-The Cruelty
This is not a defense of Bloom, but it is important to understand context. Within the story Gwen’s physical change is in conjunction with her mental change. She’s learning harsh truths about the world she thought she knew; she’s growing up. While Bergstrom might think he’s paving new ground here, regular readers of YA novels know better. These are themes that the House of YA was built on.
Scott Bergstrom’s November 2015 statements spawned #MorallyComplicatedYA, the hashtag used by outraged YA fans all over the world. From this, whole seminars at Lit Cons were developed. Did Bergstrom really say that YA was uncomplicated and that he could do it better? Kinda. Here’s the infamous PW quote in its entirety:
“The morality of the book is more complicated than a lot of YA so I wanted to try doing it on my own. In a lot of YA, the conflict takes place inside a walled garden, set up by outside adult forces. If you think of those stories as a metaphor for high school, they start to make a lot more sense, but that was one thing I wanted to depart from.” -Scott Bergstrom
Bergstom’s comments felt dismissive and condescending not just to YA fans, but especially to the authors who have devoted themselves to this community long before there were lucrative book deals to be had. Bergstrom came to writing from the world of advertising. This was his first book. This felt like mansplaining pure and simple. This is the WRONG crowd for that. Angry tweets were just the beginning of what turned into a movement which included online discussion groups, in-depth article and lit panels.
The Blow Back
How much damage did the PW interview really do? Bergstrom initially self-published The Cruelty in 2014 and it was already doing very well in Europe before it was picked up by a US publisher. News broke of the movie deal with Paramount before the November 2015 PW interview that kicked off the scandal. As of the date of publication of this post, Bergstrom was not promoting tour dates on his Tweeter or on The Cruelty website.
And now, the book review
The premise of The Cruelty is not an especially novel one, just ask Liam Neeson, the star of the Taken movies. Someone goes missing. Someone else goes to the ends of the world to find them. Asses are kicked along the way. Bergstrom’s debut takes us from New York to Paris to Berlin and other parts of Europe. The Europe that Bergstrom describes is not the tourist spots like the Eiffel Tower, it’s the immigrant neighborhoods where a half dozen languages for spoken by a dozen ethnicites. Gwendolyn Bloom is smart and competent, but she’s suffering from PTSD. She’s a loner who doesn’t connect with the kids in her elite high school. As a character, she doesn’t quite connect with the reader either. When the main character starts the book reading Camus’s The Stranger, has spoken in three languages before the end of the first chapter and dissess YA dystopian novels as being “all the same”, I’m already rolling my eyes.
There are things I liked about The Cruelty, such Bergstrom’s descriptive language when describing the unconventional locations. The Cruelty is all about the dark places- the dark side of politics, life and least of all the dark places that lurk within ourselves. But essentially this books reads like the treatment for an action film. Gwen doesn’t stay in one place long enough for any of the other characters to feel like anything but tour guides for one seedy hostel to another. The longer Gwen is on the run, the more she’s “morally challenged” and the less believable the whole thing is. If you’re looking for something with action, an international backdrop, and characters you may actually like, I’d just as soon read The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall or All Fall Down by Ally Carter.
As I said earlier, I like to do my due diligence. I did a far amount of research in writing this post. I found response articles by bloggers, analysis on the what constitutes morally complicated YA, reading lists….But what I did not find was a response by Scott Bergstrom himself. Does he regret his comments? Were they misconstrued? Does he understand why the book community was offended? Who knows. Incidentally he stopped Tweeting in November 2015.
The Cruelty is out this month. We’ll see if the YA readers decide to be cruel or kind to this debut.