Book Review: Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught

From the onset of this review, I believe we can establish that a lot of men are assholes. We can argue about it, but after the past few years, that is a certainty very few can deny—even men. Some of us have known this a while because for a large portion of our lives we’ve been surrounded by assholes, and sometimes are often assholes ourselves. If you haven’t experienced assholes, you’ve been extraordinarily fortunate—like win the lotto fortunate. This current era is a reckoning with the toxic male entitlement that is inherent in a patriarchal system. This kind of male toxicity cultivates assholes. There is a reason feminists have been screaming this for thousands of years.

The men in this novel are assholes. The men in this novel are also of the upper class or aristocracy, which allows them even more latitude to be assholes without risk of any consequences or accountability.

Several of the reviews of this book pointed out the abusive behavior of the male protagonist and yes, Whitney is surrounded by assholes—her father too is an asshole. The only man in the book who isn’t an asshole is her Uncle at which I say give it time. So, one out of every ten males is not an asshole; it’s probably higher on the asshole end—we’ll leave it at that for now. My point is that all men—or people in general—are capable of being assholes. It’s not a gene or a chromosome; it’s entitlement and accountability and ethics and morality and habits—good or bad—that fosters that kind of faulty behavior.

Acknowledging this does not excuse the behavior; it only acknowledges it. That the book is a romance novel presents the dilemma of romanticizing this asshole behavior, and, as some of us ought do when we are stuck in circumstances we are helpless to do anything about, we romanticize the bad to something more appealing we can deal with for fear of becoming nihilistic no-hope depressed cynics with death wishes, or worse. At least I sometimes do. It’s the romantic dreamer in me that ceases to break. It’s an annoying pesky sentiment that I’ve tried to squash, alas…

I’ve noticed an unusual phenomenon of wanting books or stories in general to be as we want humans to be and not as we are. While that is admirable, it isn’t very pragmatic; it’s more like utopian fanfiction, and what we know about utopianism is that where there is a utopia, others are more than likely living a more dystopian reality and experiences. This narrow minded utopian perspective only serves to show a privilege that you may indulge in while others who are or have lived this other experience, can only aspire or pray or contemplate or that pesky hope thing.

I’m not dismissing any of these stories or perspectives, or even the criticisms surrounding all—I’m only pointing out that everything is more complicated and people have different perspectives—different lived realities, and we shouldn’t be so casual or callous about dismissing anyone’s story so blithely and absolutely with permanent unredemptive labels. Calling men assholes is one such label, you say? If you’d rather, you can substitute the word complicated with asshole if that makes you feel more comfortable, healthy and righteous and better aka smug—so be it.

Also, we cannot be ahistorical about any story. Remember that during this book’s era, women were chattel and had very little power or rights (still relevant in large portions of today’s world unfortunately). They had to make the best of some seriously bad situations and still do. They couldn’t just dismiss a situation outright, especially a marriage or betrothal, with an ‘I give up’ or ‘I’m done’ and ‘I quit’ and walk away while demanding a divorce or annulment or a statement of liberation—it simply wasn’t done. What portion of chattel and no rights do you not understand? Women had very little power or no control over their own body or lives—lots still don’t.

At this point, we need philosophize on at what point in a relationship (with anyone) does the abuse become unredemptive or irredeemable, and the person at which is abusive become unredemptive or irredeemable? What are the pros and cons for keeping the relationship or this person in your life? We can also contemplate the abuse spectrum since this word can encompass many levels, and while some people use it too liberally in some areas and too judiciously or narrowly in others, we need contemplate the irredeemable levels of abuse and ultimately, redemption in general—do you believe people can be redeemed? What about someone you love? Someone you count on to provide you with shelter and protection? A parent to your children? Is there a strict line in the sand or do you redraw that line as you live, adapting to the circumstances and people around you—or making the best of bad situations? Are some people irredeemable? From a personal perspective and experience, yes, absolutely; I believe it is up to each individual to determine that on their own, sometimes with the help of those around them. Now go back in time to an era where women were chattel and had no rights—yes, please empathize with this person; put yourself in their shoes, mindset and situation, if you will.

I grew up within and witnessing some severely toxic abusive relationships, and it is with that experience that I can cautiously say that some of the behavior in this book is bad but not nearly on the level of irredeemable, in my opinion, especially for the era in question and given the context. The entire situation is adverse because of the systematic oppression against women and their lack of equality, and that is the point of the novel. Am I excusing this behavior? Absolutely not, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a relationship or even purposely within the vicinity of the likes of these assholes today (at least I should hope not), but I believe that is the point—many of us would not given our freedoms today earned with the sacrifices of those women before and around us still. Please recall though that lots of women are still being systematically oppressed and it is for that purpose that I urge you to read with that in mind.

This is one of my favorite books because of the redemptive powers of forgiveness and love and the evolution of the character arcs; and I truly do not think, or at least hope I’m not trying to rationalize the abusive behavior of men (given my wealth of history, I highly doubt it but am open to challenges and interpretations). I’ve been cursed—or gifted given your perspective—with a certain fondness, tolerance and patience for asshole behavior, no matter their gender, probably since I can occasionally be of the same ilk. I long for their redemption as I do my own. We have all lived a complicated experience given that we are imperfect individuals capable of horrendous ugliness as well as beautiful benevolence, and to cheapen those experiences to worthless labels and unsatisfactory tropes in a reductive hyper-judgmental blurb is to dilute or erase a life lived at the cost of ourselves, our history and everyone that we have touched. We can critically analyze these stories in a historical perspective as related to current socio and geo-political gender roles as we should; however, to shame someone for their ability to forgive and show compassion and great love and patience is something I’m hesitant and often unwilling to do because there are usually larger and more considerable circumstances and concerns unknown, and that is what McNaught did with this story. Genuine remorse and contrition are essential and fundamental for true redemption and Clayton Westmoreland shows that, in my opinion.

Ultimately, it comes down to how willing you are to show true forgiveness and compassion to those you love that have wronged you. There is no one reply and I have no answer given that each circumstance and perspective is different, oftentimes unique. I philosophically wrestle with this conundrum daily, especially given my history and in this political environment. To choose to harbor hate and hostility and unforgiveness is easy and simple and requires no real fortitude or spirit; accepting and embracing forgiveness and love and compassion demonstrates true strength and grace, and is difficult as hell. If it’s not difficult for you, I commend you and you are a far better person than I am.

Before any of this though is the biggest and most meaningful step: Confronting abuse illustrates the highest form of courage and should never be scorned or shamed, despite whether or not you can forge that long path to forgive or not. Any form of abuse should always be questioned, confronted and challenged. The steps beyond that represents a longer more onerous struggle as described above that is a burden that all of us carry, even society, and one I struggle with daily.

Regardless, the book is an emotional surplus of ups and downs and the discomfiture one feels reading it is probably related to the life experiences—or lack thereof—one has, of which no one should dismiss casually. Instead of reviewers telling you how you should feel about it, I urge you to read it and decide on your own. Being in control of your own mind, attitude and opinion—having true agency—is what we women have been fighting for all along, and one Whitney and McNaught exemplifies—attempts to anyway.

Apparently there was an update to the book. Read here (spoilers). I wasn’t aware of this till I started reading reviews. I’ve only read the revised version so I couldn’t give a proper review on the earlier version.

Addendum: I don’t want to dismiss the fact that there’s also a larger more broader discussion involving the forgiving and enabling of men and their trespasses and bad behavior that women—especially white women—continue to give that hinder progress for all women and people in general as evident in the 53% of white women vote for the serial sexual predator president. We must also remind ourselves about this as we philosophically ponder these societal issues and each person’s story. Is Whitney’s—a rich white woman—willingness to easily forgive Westmoreland and his behavior indicative of a larger problem? Or is it more complex that that?


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