Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

It wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.

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I can’t presume to say how other people are going to read this book, but I would be amazed if a good many of you didn’t, at some point, look up from it with a cold, nasty recognition shock. I did. Given its subject matter, this might seem an inapposite confession; but, while I’ve never devoted myself to quite the level or quantity of narcotics, promiscuity and self-harm that the protagonist Marie does, there it is. I’ve done destructive things: bad for myself, bad for other people. A lot of us have. Sometimes it’s only when you read it that you realize: I should never have put up with that. I should never have done that. I should never have treated myself that way.

This is not about slut-shaming, incidentally. Sex is great and glorious and as long as everyone involved is happy and in control of their own actions, then the more, the merrier, say I. (For a perfect articulation of my position [hehe], see Lindy West’s article here.) Nor is it about stigmatizing self-harm or alcoholism. Those things happen, people do them, and it doesn’t make them weak or selfish or somehow innately bad. What Love Me Back, and this whole review of it, is about is self-hatred: the active, venomous conviction that you yourself are a worthless person, and the attendant refusal to set boundaries about what other people are permitted to do to you, both physically and mentally.

Marie gets pregnant at seventeen, on a mission trip to Mexico, and the chapters that recount her just-about-adult life waiting tables in Dallas restaurants alternate with shorter segments that tell the story of that trip. The boy she sleeps with is sweet and bookish and quiet and solid. They get married (in the face of shaming from family and church elders that is sad and sickening to read about: “The elders meet with me privately,” Marie recalls, “in the library. Nine of them and a seventeen-year-old girl…I don’t know her, and I don’t know these men in dark suits, and there is nothing I can do to help her.”) It doesn’t last long, though; within a year, she’s slept with three other men from the Olive Garden, which is her first restaurant job, and her husband has filed for divorce. Their baby, Analisa, goes to stay with him. Marie sees her once every few weeks.

It’s only the beginning of a long, long line of sex, drinking, drug abuse, and self-harm both physical and emotional. Marie is driven by an impulse, but it’s one that she understands entirely, one for which she takes all the responsibility. I’m seeing this more and more in female protagonists these days, and I like it a lot. It feels real, and the fact that authors are writing it and readers reading it says good things to me about how the novel is developing, or can develop, at the moment. Marie is deeply self-aware but not very reflective; she knows that she can’t think too hard about some things, but she can know them nonetheless.

I ask my memory, Why did I take each next step? There was a hateful man who once said I am a step skipper but no, each step was taken. That one, then that one, then another, each voluntary. Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque, the chalky consequence of, paradoxically, so many hollow moments.

That is about as philosophical as it gets, which is a good thing. Tierce gets through a lot of material in only a little over two hundred pages—we get the sense of the frenetic, coke-fueled sex binges without going through each one in great detail. The effect is much stronger for it; these events are, by and large, flashing past Marie as well as us. The only ones that she lingers on, or describes, are the ones that were for some reason memorable. Everything else is just life. It’s a terrifying, but brilliant, evocation of how to normalize extremity.

There are two parts to Love Me Back, separated by an “Intermezzo”. The second part concerns Marie’s eventual long-term position as a waitress at a very upscale Dallas steakhouse known only as The Restaurant. Everything else was origin story, but here is where Marie comes into her own. It doesn’t mean that she suddenly goes straight, of course. It means that she starts to feel as though she belongs somewhere. She stays at The Restaurant long enough to become professionally confident. The result of this is the other major strength of the book, which is its utterly unromantic, but deeply empathetic, portrayal of the service industry. The lengths to which Marie and her fellow servers go for The Restaurant’s wealthy, entitled patrons suggest, irresistibly, that service work consitutes a hierarchy of power that echoes abusive or unhealthy dynamics of sexuality. It’s all about control: what one person can force another to do, not necessarily through brute physical exertion but also through guilt, coercion, and a sense of obligation. The first scene in the book has Marie sleeping with a restaurant patron out of some combination of the above:

On the third floor we got into his bed and he was so happy. He had done it. Gotten me there. Into the house, up the three stories, onto the bed. I couldn’t not let him have it. I lay down next to him and turned my back to him and heard the drawer of the nightstand open. He hurried with the condom as if I might vanish. I let him penetrate me. No, I thought. No no no. I whispered it each time he pushed. No. No. No.

It’s one of the most disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever read, and that’s where it ends: she gets up, does two lines of coke in the man’s bathroom, and leaves. There’s no hitting, no cruelty. But there is violence: it’s a violence she does to herself, and it’s a violence that the customer commits against her, despite the fact that he’s a pathetic schlub. His indifference to her her-ness, his desperate, fumbling insecurity, are violences.

Her coworker and friend Calvin points out that you can be liberated without deliberately hurting yourself all the time. Her reaction is fascinating for what it suggests about her motives, and about how much of them she recognizes:

It had something to do with love and something to do with grief. It was just this: I’d be down on the floor sometimes, picking up fallen chunks of crab cake near some diamond broker’s shoe…and I’d feel impaled by the sight and feel of the half-eaten crabmeat because it wasn’t her sparkly laugh and it wasn’t that place on her shoulder, right up against her neck, that smells like sunlight. I am not a mother, I’d think as I walked to the trash can.

We also learn—though it’s mentioned only once and scarcely dwelt upon—that Marie was her high school’s valedictorian and had been offered a place at Yale before she became pregnant. (It’s credible; she’s not one of those heroines whom we’re supposed to just believe is super-smart and naturally beautiful. Her voice is sharp, frank, and clever. She’s Yale material.) That combination of frustrated potential, profound mother-love, and a sense of having failed not only yourself but also, possibly, your child: could it be strong enough to make you think yourself worthless, to fuel self-destruction? Yes, of course it could.

Love Me Back isn’t hopeful about people, but it’s incredibly sanguine about them. There’s a sense of camaraderie about the restaurant workers, the people who create chaos, order, chaos, then order again, eight hours a night every night. Danny, The Restaurant’s manager, is notorious for punctuating his sentences with the phrase “Suck it”, and Marie wonders if it’s a Tourette’s-esque form of affection, like a soldier’s swearing. Calvin, DeMarcus, Asami, and her other coworkers will fuck each other, sell each other pills, total each other’s cars, but always, always help each other out when the night or the tips are on the line. At the end of the book, Marie is about to quit, and we hope—of course we hope—that she’ll be able to figure herself out somewhere else. But that confusion, that rage, that numbness, some of it is just part of the deal.

In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. […] Maybe it’s the same in a law firm, a nail salon, whatever high or low. Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.

For the honesty, bravery and beauty with which Tierce writes about those things that make you veer left, Love Me Back is up there, for me, with Katherine Carlyle and The Wolf Border. If there’s any justice in the world, this one’s going to be big.

Thanks very much to the kind Clara Diaz at Corsair for the review copy. Love Me Back is published in the UK on 14 January.

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11 thoughts on “Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

    • It is painful, but in a very good way. Marie is so fucking tough. Things I didn’t even mention in the review: the incisive characterization (especially of Calvin: a tall, well-spoken black male maitre d’ in an expensive Deep South restaurant, with all of the social undercurrents that go along with that), the Intermezzo (some reviewers thought it unnecessary; I loved how it gave us a third-person perspective on Marie, and how the piano player is a three-dimensional character even though he only gets about ten pages), the scenes with her daughter. All wonderful.

  1. Incredible review! This book is absolutely not me – I really struggle with contemporary self abuse narratives; too close to the bone – but you’ve made me think I should try it. Especially by that comparison with The Wolf Border.

    • Thank you! I thought The Wolf Border comp might help in some way… This book’s pace is much faster, but the similarity lies in the honesty and the absolute lack of self-pity. It’s startling and incredibly controlled. I totally agree that self-abuse stories can be agonizing to read—triggering the reader without providing much payoff—part of the reason I think this works so well is because the sex and drug scenes are all so short. Roxane Gay’s blurb calls it “a dirty razor of prose”, which is a very apt description.

  2. Working, as I have done now for almost three decades with young people in their late teens and early twenties, self-hatred is a real and present problem. Society perhaps encourages it most in women but it has been in the young men that I have seen the most destructive consequences – too often the ultimate consequence. Any book which forces us to face the damage that is done in this way has got to be given weight, even though it does sound like an incredible tough read. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    • What I love most about it is how not-a-victim Marie is. She makes choices that she understands. She isn’t a mystery to herself and she doesn’t need saving in the conventional sense. The book gives her autonomy as well as vulnerability. It’s marvelous.

      (I remember reading, also, that young men are more likely to succeed at suicide attempts, partly because they tend to choose more violent methods. Marie never tries to kill herself, though. For her the point is self-punishment, not self-deletion.)

  3. This is a phenomenal review. I just don’t know whether you bumped this us my TBR, or way, way down. Some of the themes are very close to home. So if it’s not done just right, it’s going to piss me off… if it is done just right, it’ll probably destroy me… I feel like I have to be mentally and emotionally prepared….

    • For what it’s worth, from my experience, it rang true–it was done very right. You’ll probably need to be prepared. I’d recommend reading it over a weekend or some other time when you’re unlikely to be thrown for a loop by external occurrences, but I definitely, definitely recommend reading it nonetheless.

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