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Hilary T. Smith
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Bryan Peterson
This Gorgeous Game - Donna Freitas 3.5 starsOn a purely analytical level, This Gorgeous Game ticked several boxes on my mental review checklist: good quality writing, well developed characters, a compelling premise, nuanced exploration of contemporary issues. It’s an accomplished, compact novel – deftly and efficiently handling a complex subject with the gravity it requires. Yet, on an emotional/gut level – and friends, you well know I am nothing if not an emotional reader – something was lacking. This Gorgeous Game is a story about manipulation and obsession, mental and emotional exploitation, but Freitas’ unique riff on these topics is to examine them in the context of faith. By placing the perpetrator of these acts of unhealthy fixation in the role of benefactor, mentor and cleric, Freitas also opens up a complicated discussion on religious belief. Raised and educated a Catholic, (though by her own admission one less staunch than her sister), Olivia must address an abuse of power by someone she regards with implicit trust and respect, even admires. Someone offering a once in a lifetime opportunity. And someone she believed spoke for God. It’s weighty subject matter, yet by keeping the focus tightly on Olivia’s personal experience and emotional journey, the novel remains accessible and relevant to a wider audience. Stalking is not new territory for young adult literature. But rather than the all too frequent “I’m a paranormal romance hero and imma creep in your window tonight..” (which is a rant for another day), This Gorgeous Game deconstructs the nature of the obsession: the intimidation, isolation, harassment. Importantly, Freitas’ novel highlights the subtle development of Olivia’s increasingly unsettling situation – and how identifying the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is not as clear-cut for the victim as it would seem to others. The insidious creep of psychological manipulation into the characters’ interactions demonstrates just how deeply Olivia’s ability to trust her own judgement has been undermined, and it makes for disturbing reading. It’s difficult to talk about the writing style of the novel without giving away a major element of the book’s ending, so I won’t discuss it in great detail. Essentially, the first half of the novel didn’t work for me as much as the second. Something about the slow, ponderous tone of the opening chapters felt.. off to me, almost tediously self-conscious. In hindsight, they fit with the end result, but I found them difficult to engage with. Similarly, I experienced some disconnect with Olivia as a character until the story moved more deeply into her mental struggle. While a multi-dimensional character, I initially had no sense of investment in Olivia or her life, or a connection to her voice. However, as the sheen falls away from the story, and the unpleasant reality of the situation is revealed, This Gorgeous Game became a much more compelling read. The unravelling of Olivia’s apparently perfect life feels authentic, her increasing anxiety and disconnection from her life is insightfully written. I appreciate the particular angle from which Freitas approaches these themes - not shying away from difficult questions, while not delivering a heavy-handed message – yet I found it less of an emotive reading experience than I expected. Although an unsettling story, I’m not sure that I found it as “chilling” as I had anticipated, and I put this down to my lack of immersion in the characters. Still, This Gorgeous Game is an important, thought provoking novel, and handles a complicated subject with grace and honesty.