Saturday, April 11, 2015

Persona, by Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine's book The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was one of my favorite reads last year, so I was pretty damn excited for her newest offering, Persona. And there's so much to like! A plethora of the elusive Strong Female Character! Like pretty much no white main characters, but rather Actual Diversity! Women helping women! And so many ambiguous characters; oh, my heart could sing! Love me an ambiguous character.

Except my overall feeling upon finishing the book was "...meh." What?!

So let's break down where things went south for me. Because all that great stuff I mentioned? Is really great. One of our two narrators is Suyana Sapaki, the Face for the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation in the International Assembly. Faces are pretty much exactly what they sound like--they represent their countries, but have basically no power to make decisions themselves. From page one, Suyana chafes in her position. She's smart and she genuinely cares about her country. Even with all the bullshit she has to put up with--even her own romantic relationships must be under contract for political gain--she still sees the value of showing up to vote and be counted. Even when she's told how to vote. She has so many humiliations to endure, from being all dolled up by her Handler (again, just what it sounds like) to try to entice the American Face into a romantic contract with her, to being dressed in hideous quasi-tribal garb that's supposed to represent her culture but is just super racist. Neat. And then, on top of it all, someone goes and tries to  kill her.

This is when we meet Narrator #2, Daniel, a photographer. He's trying to become a "snap," the paparazzi of this world, and has been tailing Suyana in hopes of getting some shots of her and the American Face together for the first time. Instead, he witnesses the shooting, and, to his own annoyance, can't resist helping Suyana escape. He winds up torn between a real growing respect for her and his own selfish desire to follow this story as it develops without revealing to her who and what he really is. I enjoyed Daniel overall. I like some good internal turmoil and it's always kind of fun to watch an essentially decent character have to do some shitty things and live with themselves. So well played, Persona.

As for Suyana, she's constantly forced to decide who to trust. Her default is pretty much "no one," but she turns out to be surprised a few times. There's some excellent interaction between her and some of the other Faces, all women, but this is also where things started to fall apart for me. Because I wanted MORE. We kept sidling up to these secondary characters and getting these glimpses of fascinating complexity but then Suyana would have to go on the run again and their storylines would just be dropped, with the briefest of mentions at the end. MORE GRACE/MARTINE/KIPA, PLEASE.

And it wasn't just them; the book kept dropping vague mentions of past events--what happened to Hakan, Suyana's previous Handler, how she wound up involved with the ecoterrorist group Chordata and developed her relationship with her contact Zenaida, Daniel's past...I mean, it's all technically explained, but it felt underdeveloped to me. We kept getting short flashbacks or Daniel or Suyana would have a brief memory that hinted at what happened and I'd sort of gloss over it, honestly, assuming we'd get the story in full later. This might be my failure as a reader but this is also a fairly fast-paced book so I wasn't doing the closest of reading here. By the end I felt a bit unsatisfied, like I'd missed a big chunk in the middle. It's not the worst criticism ever, wanting more of the story, but I think it will keep this book from having much staying power with me.

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