This is a long one, y’all. You might want to save it for your lunch hour or something.
Beautiful Redemption: Chapter 19
The only other real character of any importance turns out to be who’s at Liis and Thomas’s hotel door.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I slid the chain and then yanked the door open with a smile.
“Hi.” Camille hesitated.
Cami awkwardly tells Liis that she needs to tell Thomas that all the guys are getting ready and taking pictures in Shepley’s room. Liis tries to get rid of her, but Cami awkwardly hangs around, and Liis cuts to the chase.
“You came here to see him?” I asked.
“No! I mean, yes, but it’s not like that. […] Is he here?”
“He’s in the shower.”
“Oh.” She bit her lip and looked everywhere but at me.
When Thomas gets out of the shower, Cami continues to beat around the bush before realizing that Liis isn’t going to leave the room, and comes out with it:
“I was, um… hoping we could chat for a minute,” she said.
“About what?” he asked.
“Last night… and other things.” She looked as terrified as he had.
“We talked about it last night. You have more to say?” Thomas asked. […]
“You look really happy,” she said, looking down. “Your brothers want you home, T.J.” When Thomas didn’t respond, she looked up at him. “I don’t want things to be awkward. I don’t want you to stay away. So, I was hoping… since you seem so happy now… that you would consider visiting more often. Abby, Liis, Falyn, and I need to be a united front.” She chuckled nervously. “You Maddox boys are a lot to handle, and I just… want to get along.”
Can we take a moment to appreciate how there is somehow both self-aware world-building brilliance in here and completely lacking self-awareness of how terrifying this is? No, really, we’re actually going to pause and talk about this for a bit, because there’s something very uniquely totally bonkers going on here, and it’s all in that “Abby, Liis, Falyn, and I need to be a united front” philosophy that’s at the core of the Maddox Brother novels. It’s ok, not much actually happens in this chapter. We can pause and look at the broader scope of these novels for a bit.
In order to do that, we need to, uh, talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This might seem like an absurd comparison, but there’s actually kind of a lot that the hit Marvel movies have in common with McGuire’s Maddox Brother novels. The main thing is that while each movie/book stands on its own, an integral part of the fun comes from seeing the ways they overlap as the series goes on. Tony Stark’s character development across the three Iron Man movies stands on its own (albeit with mixed results – getting to that in a second), but the unique opportunities afforded by his interaction with other fleshed-out and developing characters in Avengers, Avengers 2, and Captain America: Civil War give the fans so much more to invest in.
It’s easy to see how the Maddox Brother novels do the same kind of thing: each one is very much someone’s story, but there’s something interesting in knowing that Liis and Cami have to clash at some point, or that Liis and Abby have to pretend to believe a lie about Abby’s wedding – for different reasons. The way that each new Maddox Brother novel teases upcoming characters has clear mechanical parallels in the Marvel movies as well: Captain America: Civil War introduces Black Panther in anticipation of his own movie, and Beautiful Redemption has given us our first glimpses at Taylor and Falyn, the stars of the next book. This is a pretty fun way to build a franchise! It’s hard to deny the momentum this gives either series. For all their shortcomings, Ariel and I (mostly Ariel) get pretty excited about reading a new Maddox Bro novel.
But let’s talk about those shortcomings, because the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Maddox Brother novels have another major thing in common: assumed empathy. Film Crit Hulk (yes, someone writing in character as the Hulk, but with a love for cinema – it is exactly what it sounds like) has just recently written a brilliant piece on this idea, titled “CIVIL WAR, SPIDER-MAN 2, And The Dangers Of Assumed Empathy“. It’s well worth reading, but as it is very long and I’ve already diverted quite a lot in my discussion of this chapter already, but here’s some key excepts where he critiques the more recent Marvel movies. See if it doesn’t sound very familiar to some problems we’re seeing in the Maddox books.
THEY DON’T WORK FOR YOUR EMPATHY, THEY ASSUME IT.
ASSUMING EMPATHY IT IS THE MOST DANGEROUS THING YOU CAN DO IN A MOVIE, ESPECIALLY ONE THAT IS TRYING TO GET BY ON CHARACTERIZATION ALONE. BUCKY BARNES IS ALL ASSUMED EMPATHY. AND LOOK, HULK LOVED THE FIRST CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE BUT HULK COULD NOT TELL YOU A DAMN THING ABOUT BUCKY FROM IT. […] HE’S A PROP BEST FRIEND WITH A PROP DEATH IN THAT MOVIE. AND WHEN THEY BROUGHT HIM OUT FOR THE SECOND ENTRY, HULK CAN’T TELL YOU HOW MANY PEOPLE (WHO LIKED THE FIRST MOVIE) COULDN’T REMEMBER WHO HE WAS OR WHY HIS COMING BACK MATTERED. IT WAS ONE BIG “WHO IS THAT AND WHY DO I CARE?” […]
ALL THERE IS IN TERMS OF MEANING IS CAP’S DEDICATION TO HIM. AND WE ARE SUPPOSED TO CARE ONLY BECAUSE CAP CARES. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO HEAR TWO LINES OF DIALOGUE ABOUT THE GOOD OLD DAYS AND BE READY TO GO AGAINST THE BELOVED TONY STARK FOR THIS… WHY? […]
IT HAS TO BE MORE THAN STEVE ROGERS CARING ABOUT BUCKY.
WE HAVE TO CARE ABOUT HIM TOO.
This is our third Maddox Brother novel. We’ve seen the beginning of two couples’ stores (Travis and Abby, Trenton and Cami), are in the midst of a third (Thomas and Liis), and have been teased about a fourth (Taylor and Falyn). And I could not begin to tell you how any of these people are even a little different. And the books themselves don’t seem to particularly care about them either.
This chapter of Beautiful Redemption is Travis and Abby’s ceremonial wedding for friends and family. We’ve read a whole book about these two fuckers, and this is the entirety of how much of this key moment in their story – which we’ve never seen before – makes it into this book:
Travis pulled Abby into his arms and leaned her back a bit as he kissed her. We all clapped, and Thomas caught my eyes and winked.
No dialogue, and nothing we couldn’t already assume would have taken place at a wedding. They kiss. Phew, glad that blank got filled in! Much like how two chapters ago, Trenton and Cami’s engagement was mostly just glossed over without any dialogue, just a short description of Trenton doing something he already said he was going to do.
Are we supposed to still care about any of them? I feel like “probably, because we already read a whole book about them” isn’t the best answer. And those are the ones we’ve already invested our time in. Here’s the entirety of our introduction to Falyn, the actual goddamn narrator of the next book in this series:
“Say cheese!” Falyn said, holding up her camera phone.
Thomas wrapped me in his arms and kissed my cheek. I smiled.
Falyn smiled, too, showing us the picture when she was finished. “Perfect.”
Thomas squeezed me. “She is.”
“Aw, cute,” Falyn said.
Is it possible to learn a negative amount of information about a character? Because I feel like that’s what just happened. We don’t need to know Falyn’s life story right now, of course (and we probably shouldn’t), but it’s hard to get excited about a whole book from the perspective of someone who said “Aw, cute” that one time.
“You’ll be sitting with Camille, Falyn, and Ellie.”
“Ellison Edson. She’s Tyler’s friend. He’s been chasing her forever.”
To reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with the series laying the groundwork for the franchise by planting little seeds like this! The problem is that it takes us caring about any of them for granted. I sympathize with Cami’s concerns about how “Abby, Liis, Falyn, and I need to be a united front” for entirely the wrong reasons: I don’t know how they could possibly have any interest in doing so either. I know so little about them, and whenever we see one from one of the books outside of their first-person perspective, they suddenly can’t be differentiated at all.
And there’s another problem a bit more unique to the Maddox Brother novels. What little of these characters does get developed is fucking dreadful:
After dessert, Shepley stood up and tapped his glass with his fork. “I’ve had a year to write this speech, and I wrote it last night.”
Laughter rumbled across the patio.
“As the best man and the best friend, it’s my duty to both honor and embarrass Travis. Starting with a story from our childhood, there was one time when I set my bean burrito on the bench, and Travis chose that moment to see if he could jump over the back and sit beside me.”
I gave a speech at Ariel’s reception on like a half-hour’s notice (long story) and even I wasn’t this fucking boring. And when the half-baked characters in this story aren’t apparently trying to be as uninteresting as possible, they’re terrifyingly unlikeable pieces of shit.
“This time should be spent musing over how he met Abby, and I can do that because I was present when it happened. […] Their marriage has reinforced what I’ve always thought and lived by— that stalking, harassment, and inflicting general misery on a woman will eventually pay off.”
“Oh, good Lord, Shepley Maddox!” Deana wailed.
THIS IS WHAT I MEAN ABOUT SELF-AWARENESS. McGuire’s trying to pass this off as a joke, but there’s nothing funny about how her characters actually think this way. Her characters are goddamn monsters, and when they’re not monsters, they’re wallpaper. Do you remember anything about Shepley aside from how he’s a shitstain of toxic masculinity? Maybe it’s not super fair because he’s a minor character, but if I rewrote that same sentence a dozen times, swapping out the name with every single male character in this book series, would you be able to say yes a single time?
But let’s move on from the male characters. It’s easy to find reasons why those interchangeable fetishizations of emotional abuse don’t work, but what can be said about the female characters? Abby has a pretty long conversation with Liis in this chapter. You might remember that Abby has a lie she has to live about when and where she got married, and for reasons unbeknownst to her, Liis is aware of this lie but has to play along. If this meeting can’t make us care about both characters and play with the unique and conflict-building time we’ve spent with both of them, can anything?
Abby strolled across the room and sat next to me, watching the boys from her new seat. “Wow,” she said. “I think they’re trying to scare poor Cami off.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” I said, wiping my cheeks.
Abby watched me until I looked at her. “She’s going to be my sister-in-law soon, I hear.”
“Yes. The proposal was quite entertaining.”
She turned her head to the side a bit and clicked her tongue. “Trent always is. So, you were there?”
“I was.” I wished Thomas had never warned me about how smart she was.
…is she? I’m not sure how she actually shows th- oh, right, nothing in these books ever happens because we actually witness it. We’re just told what everything means all the time. Because god knows when it has to actually naturally make the reader come to a conclusion without explicitly telling them, it flounders about helplessly.
“Nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. Poker phenom? So impressive,” I said without an ounce of condescension.
“What else did Thomas tell you?” she asked.
“He told me about the fire.”
Abby looked down and then to her husband. “A year ago today.” Her mind drifted off to somewhere unpleasant, and then she snapped back to reality. “We weren’t there, thank God. We were in Vegas. Obviously. Getting married.”
Is… is this really what “smart” looks like? This seems like someone being super obvious about something.
Abby nodded. “We weren’t there. People say” – she chuckled – “that we ran off to Vegas to get married to give Travis an alibi. I mean, how ridiculous.”
HOW IS THAT NOT SUSPICIOUS?
To be fair, it’s not that their conversation doesn’t have some genuine laughs in it.
“Were there strippers?” I sighed in relief.
“Dear Jesus,” she said, shaking her head.
But it doesn’t take long for this book to cycle around to “hey, here’s someone you might kinda sorta remember, but not really, because everyone’s basically the same mildly unpleasant cartoon-person”.
“What are you doing, bitches?” America said, shimmying over to us.
And to be fair, it’s not like every single line of dialogue has to be full of intense character development. But there’s so many goddamn characters in these books that little moments like this really only draw attention to how few lines there are that do. Bringing back America for one line of dialogue that could just as conceivably have been said by Reagan or Val doesn’t really make it feel like we’re revisiting our favorite characters here: this is just a parade of easter eggs. Bringing back Abby, Shepley, and America in this chapter hasn’t reminded us of the joys of reading Beautiful Disaster: it’s just reminded us what its characters were named.
Even the stars of Beautiful Disaster are having trouble figuring out why all of these people actually matter:
“Why did Toto’s babysitter and Camille both call you T.J.?”
“It was how they talked about me without letting anyone know it was me.”
The actual reason is “so T.J.’s identity is a secret.” The actual goddamn reason. That’s probably fair enough (it’s not unrealistic), but given that the entire last book hinged on the plot twist (which wasn’t even a twist so much as it was straight up withholding information from the reader), it’s just so boring that this opportunity wasn’t used to tell us even a little bit about these characters. This reveal could have been anything, and all it could come up with was “because it made the secret secretive”.
The chapter ends with another bullshit fight between Liis and Thomas about whether he has real feelings for her or not, which ends with a slightly less bullshit fight when Thomas accidentally calls her Cami. I say “slightly” because I’ve accidentally written “Cami” instead of “Liis” while drafting these posts so many times, so clearly telling these two characters apart isn’t just a Thomas problem.