*I received a free ARC of this book with thanks to the author, NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: He said he was looking for a ‘partner in crime’ which everyone knows is shorthand for ‘a woman who isn’t real’.
April is kind, pretty, and relatively normal – yet she can’t seem to get past date five. Every time she thinks she’s found someone to trust, they reveal themselves to be awful, leaving her heartbroken. And angry.
If only April could be more like Gretel.
Gretel is exactly what men want – she’s a Regular Everyday Manic Pixie Dream Girl Next Door With No Problems.
The problem is, Gretel isn’t real. And April is now claiming to be her.
As soon as April starts ‘being’ Gretel, dating becomes much more fun – especially once she reels in the unsuspecting Joshua.
Finally, April is the one in control, but can she control her own feelings? And as she and Joshua grow closer, how long will she be able to keep pretending?
I mentioned in my review of Holly Bourne’s How Do You Like Me Now? that I fell for the Bridget-Jones-esque surface, only to be surprised by the hidden depths of desperation. You know that saying, ‘Fool me once…’!
Pretending completely blindsided me.
As the book started, I found myself instantly irritated with April and her constant obsession with how she is perceived by others. The man-hating spiels seemed over-the-top in their venomous misandry and, when April takes on the persona of ‘perfect’ Gretel, her tips and rules are actually quite painful to read – the sarcasm so bitter it bites off the page. I was fooled into thinking this would be a romcom of errors, where the heroine would make a series of silly slip-ups before falling gracefully into a romantic relationship with Mr Right.
Slowly, as the story progresses, Holly Bourne reveals the cracks in April’s cynical facade. We see a woman who has been through a serious personal trauma, and who now deals with other people’s traumas day in, day out, to the point of burnout. The constant drip of sexual violence and domestic abuse incidents that April is exposed to via her job has taken its toll on her mental health and wellbeing, and she is clearly not coping, no matter how much she and Gretel think she is.
At this point I will throw in the obligatory content warning for rape. The depiction is not graphically detailed, but the emotional representation is raw, authentic and absolutely awful. And then there are also the emails April receives at work, dealing with all forms of violence and abuse. The misandry is a side effect of this toxic barrage and April has simply lost sight of the tools to deal with her feelings in a healthy way. Enter Gretel.
Gretel allows April to shift her harshly critical, judgemental filter from its internal focus – ripping apart her every thought and action – to an external focus on the rest of the world. Neither is particularly healthy, but then, healing is a process and Gretel is the defence mechanism that is easing April through the first steps. It’s just unfortunate that Mr Might-Be-Right turns up while Gretel is still deployed and the real April is still in hiding from the world.
The story is told through a mixture of April’s point of view, text and email exchanges, and sections of Gretel’s “advice column” on how to deal with romance and not being yourself.
The slow build-up of lies and pain is nerve-racking to read, and the cathartic release of tension when events finally came to a head actually felt quite cleansing. I especially liked that the author resisted tying things up neatly with a perfect happy ending, instead sticking to the realistic view that serious mental and emotional trauma takes more than a bit of love and romance to resolve.
Much deeper and more emotionally wrenching than the average contemporary romance, Pretending has deep emotional undercurrents and speaks strongly to those who have experienced or witnessed male-on-female aggression and oppression, in a way that manages to be both lightly entertaining and heartbreaking at the same time.
While it’s easy to get carried away, make sure you spend some time looking out for yourself. Dating can be exhausting,, even if it’s going well, so get well-rehearsed in the empowering act of self-care. Run yourself a bubble bath; put on a facemask; light a candle; treat yourself to some cashmere-covered stationery and write lists of everything you feel grateful for. You deserve it. I mean, there’s no significant trauma with resulting long-lasting mental-health issues that can’t be fixed with a sheet mask and writing you’re glad it was sunny today in calligraphy.
– Holly Bourne, Pretending
Pretending is out on Amazon right now! You can find my review of How Do You Like Me Now?, by the same author, here.