The Hate List was the first book I reviewed on this blog and a book I adored, so Jennifer Brown’s books mean something to me sentimentally. When I was able to get a copy of Bitter End after searching for nearly two weeks for a store that had it in, I was so excited about reading it, which considering it’s topic sounds a little wrong. Jennifer Brown’s last novel however was so visceral and poignant, I was desperate to see what she would write next.
Bitter End did not disappoint me. Taking a topic like an abusive relationship and writing about it is difficult. How do you make it real and not an after-school special? The feelings, the violence, everything about a topic like that is complex and needs to be handled carefully. Brown explains in her afterword that she got the idea after studying the pattern of abusers and the abused in a Psychology class at university and wanted to explore how you can love someone who can do that to you. It’s something that fascinates me as well.
When Alex meets Cole, a new student at her school, he seems perfect. Athletic, hot and even interested in her, what more does a girl want? However as their relationship develops, another side of Cole emerges. This Cole is cold and cruel and even violent. What follows is a beautifully written, unpatronising novel about a situation everyone dreads finding themselves in. One moment that really got to me was after Cole punches her for the first time. Brown writes:
But it was like watching myself from the end of a long, black tunnel. The poor girl on the end- she was bruised and confused and beaten and I felt sorry for her. Whoever she was. 241, Bitter End.
For me, this line sums up the beauty of Brown’s writing. She can convey real meaning and emotion so simply and it just gets me. I love her writing style and her observations because they feel teenaged, they feel raw and real. I also like that she showed that Alex loved Cole, and to an extent apart from the utterly terrifying violent moments, Cole acted like a great boyfriend. I think it’s easy to judge a person in such a situation and say why didn’t they leave and Brown shows why they may not, why it’s not easy. Imagine your first love doing that to you, how would you cope really? We all say we’d kick someone to the curb, but like Alex observes it’s not that easy when it’s you and the fear of people knowing and saying those same things you’ve thought about others to you would be awful.
I loved Zack, Alex’s best friend and someone who seems to know Cole’s bad news from the start. Though he antagonises the situation and Cole, something I wanted to scream at him for, he really cares about Alex and is the sort of friend I would want to surround myself by. There’s one scene in particular where he just lays his cards out and tries to protect her when he realises what happens that left me speechless. In another author’s hands, it might have felt cliched, but it didn’t here. I also loved Bethany, Alex’s other close friend, who is lost at what to do with Alex and how to help her once she begins to suspect Cole isn’t all he pretends to be.
There are scenes of foreboding before the violence where I wanted to yell at Alex and say ‘Red light, run away, red light!’ like their first date in the cinema, which is made uncomfortable when a group of girls from Cole’s old school walk in and see him. I was angry in that scene too as while I as a reader, knew what has happening, I wanted Maria to say something to her and warn her. I understand that post-traumatic stress doesn’t work that way though and if I was Maria, I would have freaked out even more.
I felt this novel was very realistic and showed the pull of such a relationship. The ending felt true to life and I love that it wasn’t perfect and showed the difficulty of what would happen after the events of the novel.
Bitter End is published by Little Brown and available now in paperback. I highly recommend this novel to all contemporary YA fans. Jennifer Brown is an author I hope gets more recognition in the UK soon!