The Romantic by Kate Holden surely qualifies as one of the least romantic books I have ever read. There are certainly large amounts of sex, but it is accompanied by the kind of raw emotional revelation that makes you want to avert your eyes. It’s been said “Writing is easy; all you do is open a vein and bleed onto the page” (who said it does not appear to be quite clear) and Kate Holden is clearly a writer who takes this dictum to heart.
The Romantic is the long awaited follow-up to Holden’s memoir of her descent into drug addiction and prostitution, In My Skin. Now clean, this new book chronicles her attempts to rediscover some sense of normality in her relationships by spending time in Italy. In the process, she seems to fall into bed with a vast number of men. She describes sex several times as a “debased currency” – although she no longer trades it for money, she is still trying to earn affection, security and love.
It would be easy for The Romantic to become self-indulgent and some readers may believe that it does. My own view is that it is saved by Holden’s unflinching honesty, which was also a feature of In My Skin. At times you feel that you want to reach into the book and shake her, as she allows herself to be manipulated by yet another unreliable man, but you never lose sympathy with her. It’s the sense that she is trying to move on but keeps falling back into bad habits that becomes frustrating after a while.
The book is elegantly written, in the third person. It’s an interesting choice that initially surprised me, expecting as I was a memoir. But the book is very much an internal examination of the writer’s mind and perhaps was only possible through such a distancing mechanism. Or perhaps Holden felt self-conscious describing sex in such detail using the first person. Either way, it’s easy at times to forget you are reading a memoir, albeit a lightly fictionalised one.
I found the book somewhat depressing, although it ended on an upbeat note. If any readers have delusions left about the so-called “glamour” of prostitution, this book will destroy them utterly. Seeing how it affected Holden and the way that she interacts with people, particularly men, made me very sad. As she gropes her way back towards some sense of ‘normality’ it is also disheartening to see the way men reacted when she told them about her past. After years of saying yes over and over again she found it almost impossible to say no, and it seems that there were plenty of people willing to take advantage of that.
Ultimately, In My Skin is a book about the redemption of Holden’s body, while The Romantic is about the rebuilding of her shattered psyche. For all that, it’s a different book and readers who enjoyed the first will not necessarily enjoy the second. A relatively high tolerance for introspection and self-analysis is required, as well as a tolerance for high levels of sexual content. For all that, those with an interest in human relationships will relate to Holden’s honesty in laying her emotional life open on the page. I look forward with interest to whatever she writes next.