Recent Reading: Shape of Desire

Okay! SHAPE OF DESIRE. Anybody out there who’s read it and didn’t tell me anything about it? Thanks! I really wanted to come to it without a lot of preconceptions. Anybody out there who wants to do the same, look away now, because I’m going to totally provide (variable) responses to this book, below.

Now, this is the Sharon Shinn novel that Publisher’s Weekly loved but to which responses by readers have been highly mixed. Let’s start with the Pub Weekly review, which is here.

Here’s what the Pub Weekly reviewer said about SHAPE OF DISIRE:

“Loving a shape-shifter requires a life full of lies in this touching domestic fantasy . . . Maria has known, and kept, her lover’s secret since they were in college together. Dante is only human a few days a month, and he cannot control when he shifts or what he shifts into. Maria has lied about him to her family and friends for almost half of her life. But when Maria suspects that a shape-shifter is behind recent murders in local parks, she begins to fear that, whether or not Dante is innocent, their lives will irrevocably change. The tale of their relationship meanders like a stream, with strong characterizations and poetic prose polishing the story until it shines. Shinn’s frequent comparisons of humans and animals are subtle, quietly building the question of whether the true monsters are those who change shape or humans with the capacity to hurt those they love.”

I would say that’s a very accurate summary. And please note that Pub Weekly picked this one as a top book for 2012, too.

The book’s average rating on Goodreads is 3.05, with 125 reviews. Here are a couple of interesting responses from random reviewers on Goodreads:

The Good — Louise Marley rated it 5 of 5 stars:

“This is a fabulous novel, dark and erotic and unerring in its character portrayals. Shinn has chosen the shape-shifter device to tell a story of passionate love under difficult circumstances, and something I love about the way she’s handled it reminds me of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE–no rationalization or apology, just accepting it for what it is. And it works! I’ve read almost all of Sharon Shinn’s lengthy bibliography, and I think this is her strongest work yet. It’s always satisfying to see an artist get better and better with time, so this book is a special pleasure. Highly recommended.”

That was the first 5-star rating I came to. I can see where this reviewer is coming from, and btw, by ‘erotic’, she means Maria and Dante have sex all the time, on stage, as it were, which is a first for a Sharon Shinn novel, so fair warning, right? Compared to the highly explicit, lengthy sex scenes you see all the time in modern paranormals, though, it’s pretty tame.

The bad — Evangelie rated it 2 of 5 stars

“This book was sadly,disappointing. Did Sharon Shinn really write this??? The author of The Twelve Houses created this boring and unimaginative story? I am a big fan of her writing but this book fell flat. I was constantly waiting for something to happen. After reading this book all I learned was that
1. Maria LOVES Dante
2. Dante and his family are shape shifters
the end.
Also, this might have been just me, but until it was mentioned Marie was in her 30’s, I had thought she was a teen, maybe a college student…overall, very disappointing. I hope any other books Sharon Shinn plans to write are like the ones she used to write.”

This was the first two-star review I came to. I think it’s a lot less accurate. Actually, I think this reviewer expected and wanted an adventure story — which the Twelve Houses series provided — and this one is a relationship story. Nobody saves the world in this book; the most they’re aiming for is to save each other.

I do think the reviewer was right to feel cheated on a YA front. This one was marketed as YA, I suspect; the cover certainly implies YA; and it’s not. Just not. At all. In fact, if I had a teenage daughter who wanted to read this, I wouldn’t object, but I’d want to talk about it afterward.

Now, back to those mixed responses. Reviewers love the ordinariness of Maria’s life. Or they hate the triviality of Maria’s life. They love Maria’s obsession with Dante. Or else they totally hate Maria’s obsession with Dante. I’m sure you can imagine how it goes — the characters are well drawn. No, they’re totally flat and one-dimensional.

Okay, I’m not claiming to have a corner on The Truth about this book, but here goes:

My God, is that relationship between Maria and Dante disturbing, or what? In no way is it healthy for any adult human being to be so totally obsessed with her lover. When he’s with her — bliss! When he walks away — the abyss! Emotionally, Maria is a lot like a dog suffering separation anxiety. That’s bad in a dog, and REALLY AWFUL in a person.

But . . . you know what? If I’d stopped reading two chapters in, it would have been a mistake. Because at the ending, we find Maria and Dante still together, but in a MUCH, MUCH healthier relationship.

The whole book is about relationships — healthy relationships, sick relationships. And trust, and the nature of love. This is quite obvious, because one of the other pivotal relationships in the story is between an abused woman and her abusive husband. So I think we can be sure that Maria’s obsession with Dante is not supposed to look normal, either.

We get to see Maria’s interaction with her family and friends — nothing amiss there, if you don’t count Maria concealing this huge secret from them all for years and years . So I think we’re supposed to understand that Maria is capable of healthy relationships. Plus, she’s surprisingly easy to root for — I say ‘surprisingly’ because I would not normally find a woman who obsesses over her lover and just dies emotionally when he leaves her to be very sympathetic. But Maria’s got a really interesting, unique take on the world. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“If I can hide the fact that half of my waking thoughts are consumed by my passion for a mythological creature, if I never mention his name at all to people who think they know me very well, how big could their own lies be? Are they serial killers, members of the Witness Protection Program? Have they been transgendered, bitten by vampires, kidnapped by aliens? . . . No possibility seems too outlandish. And I would not blame any of them for refusing to spill their secrets.”

Maria really *is* a hopeless romantic who wants everything to work out for everyone — I definitely like that about her, even if her obsession with Dante is disturbing. Which it IS. Until, as I said, the end of the story leaves her — leaves them all — in a better place.

I will be getting the sequel. In fact, I’ve just ordered it, so I expect I will be getting it Wednesday.

I do rather look forward to seeing if anybody else Maria knows actually turns out to have a really outlandish secret. My best guess now is: Caroline? I think she is doing evil mind-control of some kind. That’s just a guess!

Anybody else read this yet? Or planning to?

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3 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Shape of Desire”

  1. Planning to. Shinn is a ‘get from library first’ writer for me in general. Unlike the negative reviewer I have no particular love for the Twelve Houses series – it’s ok, but not a keeper. So if a fan of that series doesn’t like it, I’m thinking it might be more to my taste. your comments prompted me to put it on hold instead of just looking for it when I remember.

    Besides, I like relationship stories. and look forward to seeing an unhealthy one improve. With a teenager in the house, I’m suddenly NOTICING healthy and unhealthy relationships in stories more than I used to.

    Oh, last trip to the library I remembered to pick up the first Patrick Lee BREACH bok wherein a lot happens for my husband, who thinks McKillip writes books in which nothing happens.

    Lastly, today’s WSJ reviews a book that puts me in mindof that Why Things Fall Down science of structure book, DAWN OF INNOVATION by C. Morse. Looks interesting and maybe up your alley, too.

  2. Ha! I just BET that having a teenager would make you focus on relationships! Actually, this might be a really good book to read with a teenager — if it sparks discussion about bad and good relationships.

    I hope your husband loves THE BREACH. I bet he will! And thanks for the pointer to the Morse book on innovation.

  3. Correction: Charles MORRIS. oops. What especially caught my attention in the review was the mention of how he points out the synergy of certain industries feeding off each other.

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