The word "unflinching" appears frequently in reviews of author Merrit Tierce's debut novel, Love Me Back; so do words like "searing," "raw," and "unrelenting." The book follows its protagonist Marie through one bad decision after another, leaving the reader to wonder why? Of course, the book isn't just about "why" but about "who"--who is Marie, and why are we more curious about the answer to that question than she is?
Tierce created Marie in her own image, drawing on her own tumultuous years working in the restaurant industry. If you've ever worked in foodservice, the (mostly) afterhours sex- and drug-fests in which Marie seeks refuge may not be as shocking as they are familiar.
That's not to say that every waiter, waitress, and bartender is an aimless shell seeking external validation through negative attention, but anyone who has worked in the service industry will recognize Marie. She is ambivalent about herself outside of her role as waitress; Marie's limited self-confidence comes exclusively from her ability to wait more tables and make more tips than other servers. "I think Marie was damaged when she fell into [waitressing], and it gave her a great stovetop on which to cook up all her pain," explained Tierce by phone in New York City, where she is kicking off her book tour. Restaurant life is rife with opportunities for anyone with a lot of pain to make big mistakes, said Tierce. "Who knows what would have happened if Marie stayed at Sally Beauty Company? The fast, dark, druggy after-hours restaurant culture provides a way for her to find her way down to the bad stuff, really quickly. In life, one needs to do that before one can build out from there."
Love Me Back doesn't always read like a novel, but as she never sat down to specifically write a novel, that's quite all right with Tierce. She wrote a short story called 'Suck It' which appears as a chapter in Love Me Back, and then others followed, with recurring characters making appearances and creating a thread of continuity. "I still feel like it's strange that I've written a novel," laughed Tierce. "When the book was sold, I hadn't written the interstitial chapters where Marie addresses her daughter. They provide the connective tissue and they are my favorite parts of the book right now." While Tierce is not necessarily interested in redemption or closure for Marie ("It's not true to life--I would feel like a sham inventing some sort of redemption."), the addition of these passages allows the reader to experience empathy for a character whose poor decisions make her difficult to like.
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Marie's worldview is dark and limited, and she never really provides us with the "glimmers of hope" we expect when awaiting a heroine's redemption. This is the ultimate strength of the novel, which can be--yes--unrelenting in its descriptions of Marie's drug use, her decision to leave her husband and daughter, and most of all in her unyielding quest to have joyless sex with as many people as possible. Early passages of the book are filled with descriptions of some the least satisfying sex one could imagine. Rather than being shocking or titillating the sex scenes in Love Me Back are often thoroughly depressing--both for us, and for Marie, who doesn't seem nearly as interested in her motives as we are. Marie's inertia is so complete that it paralyzes the reader as well. Can she break you as thoroughly as she has been broken? She tries hard, forcing us to look at pain she barely even feels herself. Can we suspend judgment? Can we suspend hope? Do we even have the right to expect more from Marie than she expects from herself? It's a challenge right from the title. Love Me Back. I dare you. Bet you can't.
Sometimes Love Me Back feels like fan fiction--in a good way--using Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential as the source material. From drug-addicted restaurant owners who abuse their staff, to the frenzy that ensues when a guest's credit card goes missing, to the sound of the walk-in door closing--these details will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in foodservice. Tierce's 15 years of waitressing experience can't be faked; not only have you met a Marie, you've worked in her restaurant, you've hated her boss, and maybe you both even slept with the same waiter. "I held on to [waitressing] for a long time because there was nothing else I could do and make close to the money I made in a restaurant," explained Tierce--another of the highly relatable "restaurant people problems" Marie experiences in the novel. Even after she was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, Tierce found herself flying back to Dallas regularly to wait tables to supplement her income. It wasn't until the offer to become director of Texas Equal Action Fund came along that Tierce felt comfortable untethering herself from the restaurant industry. "The only way I could walk away from a restaurant was with a full-time job that paid a decent salary. Until I had that on the table, I never felt I could walk away," said Tierce. Now writing full-time, Tierce is on the road promoting Love Me Back while finishing up a screenplay she hopes will be made into an independent film.
Merritt Tierce will be signing copies of Love Me Back on Wednesday, September 24, at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore.