Sometimes the how is just as interesting as the what. In Besotted, Melissa Duclos proves that on every page when the opening gives away the what: the ending of a doomed relationship between Liz and Sasha, two expats working at a school in Shanghai.
A Journey of Scars
In what could have been a staid romantic dwindle across nearly three hundred pages, Duclos employs a few narrative tricks to make this anything but a rudimentary star-crossed romance. While telling the story from Sasha’s first person perspective, chapters sometimes shift into taking on the perspective of Liz, Sasha’s girlfriend, or Dorian, a mutual friend who flows into and out of the story like a bothersome tide. Her usage of this flawed narrator to take on what amounts to a first-person omniscient narration is bold and makes the reconstruction of their failing relationship all the more heart-rending as the reader is left not knowing how much to believe when Sasha narrates from Dorian’s or Liz’s perspectives. Duclos also uses emotions as pseudo-characters, deftly weaving Love, Anxiety, and Loneliness into Sasha’s telling of the story to build out what might otherwise have become an isolating experience for the reader.
The groundwork for Sasha’s ability to latch onto Liz, the newest expat teacher, appears early through the guise of Loneliness when she admits, “I knew what it meant when Loneliness moved in. Loneliness took up all the available space, breathed the air meant for me, absorbed the heat and left me shivering.” It’s not hard to see why they are doomed from the start when Liz becomes Sasha’s hope for filling this void. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take away from the rawness Duclos explores in fascinating ways, turning something like the triteness of what goes unsaid in a relationship into this blistering line: “There are books and books and books of words that Liz and I never spoke to each other; our insecurities differed only in their coloring.”
Notably, Sasha’s story, as a reflection of Sasha’s inner working, features few extraneous characters, doing little to color in anyone but Sasha and her girlfriend Liz. Were Sasha and Liz less interesting characters, this spotlighting would be painful, even in so propulsive a read. But Duclos has created two brilliantly realized expats, both searching for an anchor after each ran away from something in the states, whether life’s seemingly foregone mundaneness (in Liz’s case) or the intolerance of her father and small town (in Sasha’s case).
Late in the novel, Sasha admits that “Everyone has a heart stitched back together, the scars they try to hide.” From page one, Duclos tells us why Sasha’s heart is in need of stitching. What becomes riveting is the careful journey of discovering what scars to hide, which to expose, what others to explore as Sasha figures out how to move on and how to leave Shanghai without going back home.
When the book ends, as Liz returns to the states and Sasha leaves Shanghai, perhaps only a little better at stitching herself back together than at the beginning of the book, I feel the spotlight turning on myself. I am prompted to analyze what stitching I have done, what still remains. Thus, Duclos has brought me into this wide circle of humans doing the best that they can with what they’ve got. She has reminded me of how real, how corporeal fiction can be, how it can make us feel alive and known.