This can’t be ‘love’?

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

These days as a cynical divorcée, I tend to ascribe to the view that Valentine’s Day is just a marketing exercise that I don’t wish to join in with again, but you can’t get away from it, and even I can be persuaded to read or watch some romantic fare. Indeed, I’ve just finished watching the final episodes and closing documentary of the extraordinary series Schitt’s Creek, and cried like a baby at Daniel and Patrick’s wedding, Daisy and Ted in love but agreeing to break it off for their careers, but also the true family love feel among cast and crew.

Tampa and some other similarly provocative covers!

I was also persuaded to read a book about some rather unconventional kinds of love…

Alissa Nutting is the author of the provocatively covered Tampa, a Lolita-in-reverse novel I’ve heard so much about, but not actually read. Made for Love, first published in 2017, now in paperback is her second novel and is no less confrontational, you know she’s not afraid to shock right from the opening lines:

Hazel’s seventy-six-year-old father had bought a doll. A life-size woman doll. The kind designed to provide a sexual experience that came as close as possible to having sex with a living (or maybe, Hazel thought, a more apt analogy was a very-very-recently deceased) female. Its arrival crate bore an uncanny resemblance to a no-frills pine coffin.

Okay, that’s not so shocking really, but does set you up for expecting more to come.

The main story is that of Hazel, who has run away from her husband Byron, hoping to stay with her father in his trailer. She left with only a single suitcase, devoid of any electronics or gadgets, because Byron is a tech multimillionaire – the owner of Gogol (yes!) , and she wants to be as untraceable as possible (although don’t you think he’d come looking for her at her father’s?). Anyway, she’s there now, and was slightly disgusted at meeting her dad’s new ‘companion’ whom he’s christened Diane; her mother died a few years previously.

Hazel met Byron when she replaced the journalist who was supposed to interview him after a talk he did at her college. He took a shine to her – well, she did play up to the role, and soon they were an item. Hazel lived a life of austere luxury. Byron claimed to love her, but really, he loved his business the most. Gogol has developed all kinds of gadgets to improve your life, including many which constantly monitor your vital signs. Hazel was getting fed up with the increasing lack of privacy, and when Byron makes a proposal to take their relationship to the next level by inserting paired chips in their bodies, so they could wirelessly know what each other was thinking all the time (although his would have business filters on, natch!), she initially demurred, gradually falling out of love (if it ever was that), withdrew sex, which didn’t seem to bother him – but finally had enough of the pressure – and ran!

She knows that Byron and his henchmen will come after her, that Byron will want her dead (why? – they have a pre-nup…) and she only has a short head-start, but her dad persuades her to go to the bar down the road so he can have some Diane time. She gets terribly drunk, enjoying the freedom and germs out in the wide world, and crawls home grabbing an ornamental flamingo from one of her dad’s neighbours gardens along the way.

This is where I paused to consider the flamingo 🦩 symbolism/slang, and what a surprise, there’s a sexual position called the flamingo – on one leg!

We continue with Hazel’s efforts to evade Byron for a while, which includes hooking up with Liver, a much-scarred, leather-clad, off-grid-living (and ergo more interesting) chap. But then the novel takes another tack and we meet Jasper, a con man gigolo type. Jasper was swimming in the sea, when he’s butted and nibbled at by a dolphin whom he wrestles, and ‘saves’. This encounter causes Jasper to fall in love with dolphins, he is no longer able to get it up with his women targets. Dolphins are the only thing for him now, he gets a job at an aquarium, and sets about planning to steal Bella, the sexy dolphin.

Here I paused to go and look up some dolphin 🐬 behaviour/symbolism/slang, and what a surprise – there’s plenty! (My Gogol Google searches will need clearing!)

Eventually, Hazel and Jasper’s stories will converge, but not before we’re subjected to far too much of Jasper getting a stiffy every time he thinks about dolphins.

Although primed for plenty of bodily functions, the blurb of this book is all about Hazel’s high-tech nightmare – which is certainly a form of coercive control, even virtual rape. Having recently read William Gibson’s super novel Agency, set in an alternate similarly high-tech (but not sexual high-tech) present, I’d been expecting more on that side of things, but it wasn’t really treated that way beyond the obvious invasion of privacy. Having read Mark O’Connell’s wonderful book on transhumanism, To Be a Machine too, I was looking forward to seeing how that could be incorporated into the comedy. The first chapters were promising, but once Jasper was introduced, it frankly went downhill for me, and the plot was full of holes.

There were moments of insight such as when Hazel and her father finally have a frank discussion about his need for the dolls (yes, there is a second eventually!) and his health after a transhumanist kind of intervention, also about loving companionship when you’re on your own, but these are few and far between. Nutting strictly steers the arch comedic line whenever she can, questioning what love is, which for these characters equates with sex of one kind or another most of the time.

Uncle Albert, Del and Rodney + dolls!

The funniest bits for me did end up being the dolls, which had a screwball aspect (reminding me of that classic Only Fools and Horses episode, and the autopilot in Airplane!), not screwy like the rest which fell flat for me.

The best bit though was one of the touching moments, finding out that Liver’s job was a ‘gravesitter’, visiting and sitting at graves for loved ones who couldn’t be there. I liked that idea a lot. (6/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you! Alissa Nutting, Made for Love (Windmill, 2021) paperback, 310 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

17 thoughts on “This can’t be ‘love’?

  1. Calmgrove says:

    We’re nearing the end of our second viewing of Schitt’s Creek and it’s still just as good as first time around. Highlights include not just the wedding but also the two romances, the Cabaret sequence and all the mannerisms (Moira’s odd syllable accentuations, Alexis’s simpers, Johnny’s… Well, the whole ensemble. Valentine’s Day itself was weird, being wet and windy — I suppose unsurprising, here in Wales!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    This sounds utterly bonkers. You’ve given me a wonderful image of you frantically trying to delete your browsing history having discovered the connotations of dolphins and flamingos. It’s going to be hard in the future to watch any David Attenborough programmes featuring those creatures with a straight face 🙂

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