Generally, if I don’t make it past the first three chapters of a book, I don’t review it, not even for a DNF review. I don’t like to read books I’m not enjoying, so unless there’s a curiosity or crazy factor, I don’t keep going when something doesn’t grab me in some way.

So far there have been two books I couldn’t finish or review because my reaction was so strong for entirely subjective reasons.

I found Megan Hart’s Dirty (Harlequin Spice, 2007) impossible to finish. Straight up impossible. Not because of the writing or the strength of the plot, nor because it was all about the sexxoring. Erotic descriptions don’t bother me at all. The problem was the heroine—she was so realistic and utterly reminded me of someone I knew who was exactly like Elle, and that person didn’t have a happy ending. The character was so strong and present in my mind and SO reminiscent of this person, I couldn’t finish the book. It was too painful and sad and frustrating for me—I couldn’t separate the two or disconnect my reactions and feelings from the narrative long enough to establish a comfortable distance. I’ve recommended Hart’s books to people looking for character-driven erotic romance, particularly with strong heroines and complex obstacles to overcome, but for myself, I haven’t been able to read that book, not in the five times I’ve tried.

Another book I couldn’t finish or review was HelenKay Dimon’s Hot as Hell (Kensington Brava, 2008). The heroine is the daughter of a hoarding couple—yes, like on TV, those people who don’t throw anything out and have 6,000 cats. Dimon’s heroine was struggling with her own OCD tendencies (hoarding is a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, to my understanding) and struggling to separate from her parents and the effects of their hoarding. Stuff took on impossibly complex meanings for the heroine, and on top of the plot of the book, her private struggle with her feelings of rage and helplessness, both against her parents and at herself, was totally overwhelming for me. I’ve long struggled with a hoarding member of my family, and it is so not easy. I can’t watch the shows about it without getting nauseated and wanting to throw up or hurl breakable objects. Dimon captured the rage and helplessness and sorrow in the heroine that again, I couldn’t separate long enough because I was seeing too much of my personal experience in a romance. And I didn’t want my review to veer repeatedly into whether I thought, based on my own perspective, Dimon got the details or the feelings or the experience or the reality “right.”

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Yet finding a painful or personal aspect of oneself in a fictional heroine can be exciting and comforting for some. A few months back I reviewed Julie Cohen’s Girl from Mars (Little Black Dress, 2009), and many of the commentators identified the heroine as having Asperger’s based on my description, despite the fact that the heroine wasn’t identified as having it. Some were going to find the book to read it, because seeing that experience, particularly something so personal as having a child or relative with Asperger’s or autism, can be uniquely thrilling and almost cathartic.

In those two cases, Dirty and Hot as Hell, I couldn’t finish or talk about or even review either book because, like I said, I couldn’t step back from the too-personal elements of my own reaction. It’s not a fault of either writer. In fact, I look at their books as examples of vivid writing—for me, perhaps too vivid.

Have there been books that were so true to your life that you couldn’t read them or, if you had, talk about them cogently? Has a book reached in and shaken you on a level you hadn’t anticipated? Which books, and what was your reaction?

 

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.