BOOK CLUB – With My Body by Nikki Gemmell

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about With My Body by Nikki Gemmell which was released today, June 19th by Harper Perennial. For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the publisher’s synopsis

A wife, a mother of three, she has everything a woman should want—and yet she has gone numb inside. Locked in a never-ending cycle of chores, errands, and mealtimes, she cannot find a way to live her life with the honesty and passion that once drove her. Even her husband, whom she loves, has never truly touched the core of her being. Only one person has ever come close. In desperation, she returns to the memory of an old love affair—a transformative relationship with consequences she has never fully resolved. Revisiting her past, she will begin an exhilarating journey into her sexuality while finally confronting the hidden truths of her heart.

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Between the Covers
Caribou’s Mom
Devourer of Books

Linus’s Blanket

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • What did you think of the use of the 2nd person narrative? Why do you think Gemmell used it here, was it effective for you?
  • What were your thoughts about the protagonist’s great, defining love affair?
  • Any other thoughts or questions?
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39 comments to BOOK CLUB – With My Body by Nikki Gemmell

  • I’m still reading the book, but I have read enough to answer some of these questions!

    First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
    The style of the narrative took some getting used to for me, but the voice became compelling very quickly. I like some of the dark humor from the adult protagonist, and I thought the author captured the voice of a girl coming of age well (especially a girl who was “different” – an artist, thinker, someone who didn’t fit in).

    Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
    I don’t think I would have picked this one up had BOOK CLUB not chosen it. It is not the type of book I am usually drawn to, but I have to say that I am glad it was a book club pick because I’m enjoying it.

    What did you think of the use of the 2nd person narrative? Why do you think Gemmell used it here, was it effective for you?
    I have read very few books which use this POV and I always find it a bit jarring. That said, I do think this was a good choice for the book. I think Gemmell wrote her book to speak to many women – it has universal themes – and so it is not just the protagonist’s story, but “you” the female reader’s story too.

    What were your thoughts about the protagonist’s great, defining love affair?
    I’m just getting into that part in the book – so I’ll hold my thoughts for later :)

    Any other thoughts or questions?
    In the Q&A at the back of the book, the author indicates that the book is also about a daughter’s relationship with her father. I thought that was interesting. Her father was such an important part of the protagonist’s life after her mother’s death at a young age – and then he marries the stepmother from hell and emotionally abandons his daughter. Do you think some of her sexual yearning (and thus the experience with the art teacher which happened at age 14) came about more quickly because of the emotional loss of her father, or is this behavior “typical” of a young girl? I wasn’t sure. I know teens are experimenting sexually, and they sometimes engage in risky behaviors, but the protagonist seemed even more so than how I view the “typical” teenager.

    • I definitely think that part of the reason she was yearning for attention (any attention) was due to her estrangement from her father. At that age, I think sometimes “kids” confuse love and lust, which may have been a factor here. But she definitely wanted a man to LOVE her, too, which I’m sure stems from her father ignoring her.

      • I agree, Heather – she refers to wanting “love” with the artist and is shocked when she finds that sex and love do not always go hand in hand. She equates “love” with the physical touching of a man before she has her first experience. Her first sexual encounter is really a rape…there is no love there at all and it deeply impacts her: “No idea where to go from it. You shut down. For a couple of years. A spring coiled tight. Waiting, for God knows what. Lost.” (page 103).

        • Yes. After that experience, I’m so glad she found someone like Tol early on to show her that what happened with the artist isn’t the status quo. As much as people may yuck at their age difference, I think she was very lucky to have found someone like Tol to have those experiences with; I believe she would have had sexual encounters anyway, so it’s good that she found someone who actually cared for her. It could have been much, much worse.

          • Tol may not have raped her in the way that the artist did, and in a manner in which she would have understood it that way, but he took terrible advantage of her. I had so many problems with him, even though I think Gemmell did a wonderful job in conveying the girl’s feeling that she was in a relationship where she was an equal. I just don’t agree that she was, and I look at his actions as little more than molestation.

            • I strongly disagree with the comparisons to rape and molestation, but agree that I had problems with him, too. Their relationship was consensual–he repeatedly told her she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to, and she continued to go back on her own. Do I question his secrecy about himself? Sure. Do I think they should have gotten involved in the first place? Not really, no. But it wasn’t the age difference that bothered me.

              • Well, in US law at least it WOULD technically be rape, statutory rape.

                • True, which is one of those things that I’m not sure I agree with in every case.

                  • Did we know exactly how old Tol was, other than old enough to have published? I pictured him early to mid-30s, about twice her age. If he’s been 22 or do I’ve probably have felt differently.

                    • I pictured him as late 20s, early 30s… no older than 35. I mean, yeah, society makes us feel like we should “yuck” at this, and I won’t say that I never do. There were relationships I yucked at when I was a teenager because of age difference, and there have been other cases where I thought it was inappropriate, but I’ve learned to take it on a case-by-case basis. I mean, girls used to be given away by their fathers as young as 11, and I don’t agree with that because it wasn’t consensual. There are states where people can still marry their cousins. I’m being verbose, but I really think it depends on the people involved and it’s not something that I can personally make general statements about.

                    • My husband is 14 years older than me, and while we met and got married as adults, we still play the game and laugh at things like: when I was five, he had already been in college for two years. When I was a senior in high school, he was already 31. I’ll be 36 this year, and he’ll be 50. It sounds awful when we think about it that way. Haha! I guess what I’m getting at is that I can’t put all my judgment on the age factor in any given relationship–there are a lot of other factors to take into account, as well.

              • But the age difference bothered her father and Tol. It’s why he walked away so easily. He knew he was wrong and could have been prosecuted, had no ground to stand in with respect to their relationship. I agree that she “consented”, and didn’t view it as “rape” per se, but he understood that he wasn’t in a position where her consent made it okay. Even she knew enough to keep it secret.

                • Her father was bothered because he knew it was his fault. I’m about to comment about that at the bottom of the discussion…

      • Erica

        I agree, and I also think that there was a sense for her of not being accountable to anyone. She has no supervision but also no one whose opinion she really values about her actions–which can be terrible but can also help her grow as a person, because she has to figure out her own opinions.

      • I think this idea of her searching for a father replacement is part of the reason that her relationship with Tol actually bothered me, he was taking advantage of her brokenness and vulnerability.

        • I never got the feeling that he was taking advantage of her, but I can see why that idea would come up. Without really knowing much about him, it would be easy to view him that way.

          • Right, and I didn’t really feel like she ever got to know him – as much as he wanted to know EVERYTHING about her, he didn’t really like to share about himself – so neither did we.

            I also would have just felt better had we seen him actually stop and think about having an affair with a teenager, instead of just jumping in.

            • The only part of the affair that truly bothered me in respect to their ages was the total lack of discussion about contraception. They didn’t bring it up, they didn’t use it, and as the adult, he should have been thinking about the repercussions of her getting pregnant. That didn’t happen, thankfully, but it COULD have, and it would have been a disaster. THAT really bothered me about the story.

    • I read the galley version, so I didn’t see that at the back, Wendy, but I do think it’s interesting that comment was made about the book being about a father-daughter relationship. I definitely see it as such. Everything stems from her loss of that relationship with her father after the death of her mother, and a lot of her issues are resolved based on the evolution of their relationship. I would say even moreso than her relationship with Tol and what she finds out later about that.

      • Since you didn’t have this in your book, Nicole – here is the part I was referencing:

        “In a way With My Body is about a father/daughter relationship as much as anything. There’s a line in the book, something along the lines of “if you want to inflict the most pain – do the most damage – then try withholding love, as a parent.” I wanted to explore the seismic rifts that can result from that cruelty. But I wanted the novel to be redemptive, too, an uplifting read. The swift and sweet grace that can be found in forgiveness and letting go.”

  • Agree with many of Wendy’s points above. I think the POV works well in this novel because of it being such a personal, intimate story. It is one that has to be told directly to the reader, in a way that makes the reader feel as if he/she is experiencing what the narrator experienced. And Gemmell succeeds in doing that, IMHO.

    Similarly with the narrator not being named. Another way to illustrate that it is a universal story – that the themes are universal.

    Not sure I would have picked this one up on my own either (it was sent to me for review by TLC) but it is definitely one that has lingered with me for several days after finishing it, that’s for sure.

    Will be interested to see what others have to say! (I will say that I was prepared to hate this and even consider it a DNF during most of it. Now … not so.)

  • I was pleasantly surprised with how much I ended up liking this book. I wouldn’t have chosen to read it if it hadn’t been for BOOK CLUB, but I really enjoyed it.

    I liked the second person POV–I found it very easy to step into the narrator’s shoes and get wrapped up in the story. I said this in my review, but when reading a book like this one I think it’s important to let go of personal judgment and ego and just be in the story. There have been other books written in the second person POV that didn’t work for me, but this one definitely did. I also loved the way the book was set up, with A Woman’s Thoughts About Women playing such an important role in the narrator’s life and a passage from it defining each chapter. I liked that she used it as a journal.

    The narrator’s love affair was heartbreaking. We knew from the beginning that it didn’t end up lasting very long, and I actually cried when Tol’s friend was explaining to her why Tol had disappeared so abruptly. I didn’t have any problem with their age difference–lots of girls are mature enough to make those kinds of decisions at the age of sixteen, and I never got the feeling that Tol didn’t care for her in a very real way (well, except when he disappeared, but that gets explained).

    The narrator’s stepmother made me so angry. I will never understand why women act that way with one another. Jealousy sucks.

    • Not only was the stepmother’s behavior reprehensible from a woman to woman POV…but she was supposed to be filling a mother role her – and clearly she felt nothing as a mother towards this very young girl (11 at the time of her father’s marriage). It was heartbreaking because initially the protagonist has hope that she will have a mom again.

      I have to head out to work – will check back later today!

      • Erica

        I have a friend whose stepmother actually thought and said out loud that she felt my friend and her sister were conspiring against her. At the time, they were 8 and 6 years old.

    • I’m intrigued by how much everyone liked the point of view. It didn’t QUITE work for me as an ‘every/any woman’ narrative, mainly because of some of the really specific details, like the way her stepmother changed what her father was called. I think a really distant third person would an unnamed protagonist would have been more successful for me, since I didn’t really step into the narrative as it was.

      • Second person POV can be very tricky, I agree. It hasn’t worked for me in other books, but it fell right into place for me in this one. Maybe I was just in the right frame of mind when I sat down to read this.

      • It’s also a rather extreme narrative to make into an “everywoman” narrative.

  • •I had a hard time getting into this book and I probably would not have finished it had Jen and I not selected it for book club. The narrator was bored with her life and maybe it was a case of that being communicated too well, because I was bored with everything too, and I didn’t find any of the characters very appealing. I thought correlating every little section of the book to that older work got a bit tedious and distracting. Sometimes things seemed to match up and other times they didn’t. The book could have been quoted more sparingly. Things improved as she detailed her first sexual experiences since they were so dramatic and rather shocking.
    •I would have read this book based on the description that we had of it. Voila, it’s in BOOK CLUB, but had I known what the nature of the affair was, I probably would not have read this. That the affair was between a 16 year old and a grown man was not what I wanted to be reading, especially with the unrealistic sex and the graphic nature. And that’s not to say that 16 year olds aren’t sexual and don’t have sex, but for her to be having that much sex with no contraceptives and without any signs of being uncomfortable, sore or getting a UTI was frankly, fantastical. She wanted orgies and men bruising her, anal sex, and hard sex 5 days a week. No one wondered at all where she went for entire days.
    •I’m not sure why Gemmell went this way with the pov. She had such unique identifiers with the characters, and this was no ordinary affair- I was never in this woman’s shoes. In fact, I found it rather distancing and another distraction, especially since she also had the quotation thing going on as well. She did do a really good job with the teenage voice, and I could see how this damaged girl would make the choices she did. Tol’s were less understandable/ forgivable for me.
    •I didn’t think of this as a love story/affair at all! If she had been in a relationship with someone more her age or even 5-8 years- totally different. She had a rough time after her mom died, got a crappy stepmom and a dad who wouldn’t step up for her and she paid a high price for his perceived loss of love. The artist and then Tol took advantage. I mean who starts sleeping with a strange teenage girl who rides her bike onto his property? The fact that he didn’t think about this at all before the dad beat the shit out of him speaks a lot about Tol, and the fact that he backed off immediately and didn’t press charges. He gave very little, besides sex. He knew what he was doing wouldn’t be “understood”.

  • I think it’s interesting that no one has really said much about the father’s fault in all of this. If any blame is to be laid in this situation, it is with him, and maybe him solely. He neglected his daughter. He shoved her aside for the new wife. He pushed her out of the house by not taking the time to notice what was going on around him, or even asking her if everything was going smoothly.

    I didn’t see the father’s violence against Tol as an act of love. I really didn’t. I think he was angry with himself about not knowing what his daughter was doing–angry with himself for not being the kind of father that would have prevented any of this from happening in the first place–and he took his anger out on Tol. His act of violence was also an act of embarrassment, in my opinion.

    And if you don’t think there are parents out there who never ask their kids where they’ve been or what they’ve been up to…EVER…I can introduce you to a few. I went to school with plenty of kids whose parents didn’t care what they were doing and never asked. Kids were getting drunk, high, having sex, all kinds of stuff, and they were never punished or questioned about it.

    So I think if any there is any finger-pointing necessary, which I’m not sure there is, the finger should be pointed at her father in this case.

    • I would say that this is also the reason why her father never said a word to her about it. Nothing. Didn’t punish her, didn’t speak to her about it, didn’t confine her to the house. Because he knew he was to blame, and there was nothing he could do about it. I’m glad that she was able to see it as an act of love and not estrange herself from her father, but I would have been pissed.

  • Okay, I finished the book … and I have changed my mind. Ended up not really liking it all that much. For me, the whole part with Tol was a little overdone. It could have used some editing. I couldn’t get past the fact this was a young girl with an older guy…and even though it was written that he was somehow doing her a favor by teaching her, it started to feel like here was an older guy taking advantage of the innocence of a young girl. I found myself getting a little bored with all the graphic scenes…just too much. I’m glad at the end that this woman finally discovered what was real and valuable about her husband and marriage…but by then, I had sort of stopped paying attention. Haven’t written my review yet – I’ll be giving it 3 stars I think.

  • […] book was a book club choice for me, and the discussion over on Jen’s blog was good. Although it was not a great read for me, some readers may enjoy this […]