The sex scenes—there are many—in Love Me Back are not titilating. I am not sure what the opposite of titilating may be, but when Merritt Tierce writes about sex—there is never a description of “making love,” but instead simply of fucking in its most raw and visceral sense—we get a feeling of unease and discomfort rather than arousal.
This, perhaps, is Love Me Back ’s biggest success and flaw at the same time: we never feel quite comfortable throughout the entire novel, and we are left uneasy once we put it down.
I have never worked in the restaurant industry before, but like many other people who eat out on a (more often than healthy) regular basis, I have had dreams of what it would be like to own a restaurant, or at least manage the front of house. I have fleeting moments where I dream of leaving my life as I know it and working as a maître-d’ at an upscale dining establishment—I convince myself that I will remember everyone’s name and preferences and practice incredible discretion—before reminding myself that it takes years of work bussing tables, serving diners, and playing host before I could even get to that position.
Merritt Tierce does everything she can to shatter those dreams of working in the restaurant industry. Nothing she writes about is glamorous; even the descriptions of the upscale steakhouse with customers who leave hundreds of dollars as tips for their servers are lurid and often grisly. Our main character, Marie, has perfected the art of serving customers meticulously, while dealing with the rest of the pain of life by burning herself, occasionally taking drugs, and having wanton sex with any man who shows a slight interest in her.
Marie is a destructive character that we’ve seen in other novels, but Love Me Back, unlike other novels in the genre, doesn’t offer us a solution, a moral, or even an end to the story. When we leave her, Marie is still serving customers at the restaurant and fucking extravagantly, just as she was when we met here. This lack of resolution is the most powerful part of the novel; the discomfort it leaves with the reader is powerful and resonant.
Where the novel fails is that, despite all the pages written by and about her—the voice of the novel changes and shifts often, creating even more jarring discomfort, adding to the not-always-easy-to-read prose that is the books stylistic strength—I still don’t care about Marie. I see her pain and her suffering and her longing, but frankly, I haven’t been given any reason to give a damn. It’s not just Marie: there are no characters in the novel which incite even a mild flurry of empathy. Not Danny, not Marie’s daughter, not even Roman with the cock the size of a silverback gorilla’s (spoiler: tiny). In the end, despite all the brilliant uneasiness and the harsh-but-beautiful prose, I put the book down and just didn’t care.
For a first novel, Love Me Back is a tour de force of style. Tierce can manipulate prose to leave you with a breathless queasiness that comes from having just done something you’re going to regret for a long time. It is that discomfort and lack of resolution, the sense that you’ve made too many bad decisions for anything to ever go write, that makes the novel a standout. It’s too bad that, by the time you’re done, you don’t care enough about anyone in the book to want to pick it up again.