Spoilery Review: A Study in Charlotte (Brittany Cavallaro)

study in charlotteThere’s a ton that I really enjoyed about this book. The conceit that John Watson and Sherlock Holmes were real people and that generations of their descendants have been solving crimes and looking after each other for over a hundred years is charming beyond words. And, as outlandish a circumstance as that is, it completely works and feels believable within the otherwise realistic portrayals of the setting: a contemporary Connecticut boarding school where the latest generation of teenage Holmes (a resourceful and antisocial girl trained from birth as a detective) and Watson (a rugby-playing writer, desperately lonely for a best friend) are thrown together to solve the murders of their classmates. I’m not a huge mystery or crime fan, but the action and suspense had me turning pages fast enough to read the book in a single, long train ride (even after I’d figured out who’d done it about half-way through). The writing is sharp, the similes and descriptions spot on (the boarding school is similar enough to my liberal art’s college to be almost eerie), and the interweaving of the original Sherlock/Watson stories into the modern setting was crisp and organic rather than contrived.

But… a few things bother me about this book, and bother me increasingly the more I think about it. Major spoilers below…

First thing, Charlotte Holmes was raped by the first murder victim. This is an utterly unnecessary detail, and is yet another example of rape in media being used as a plot device and lazy workaround for character development. A girl does not need to have rape in her past in order to justify not wanting to be physical with a guy. The book supplies Charlotte Holmes with plenty of reasons to avoid wanting physical attraction, as well as for wanting to not engage in romantic entanglements: a serious and ongoing drug habit, a cold and unemotional family who trained her since birth to see all emotion as a weakness, as well as extreme guilt over manipulating and framing her first crush to be sent to jail because he didn’t return her affection. These are all very good, solid character-driven reasons for her to not want a boyfriend. And yet, the book adds in a rape into her past, and then explicitly cites it often as the reason why she does not want to be touched by Watson, and why–when he lashes out at her physically once–she cringes away in fear. The book (written from Watson’s perspective) will not allow the possibility that the fact that Watson–with a history of violence and a severe temper problem–might be a credible threat. No, the book has to blame a past rape: the lazy fallback for adding weakness to a female character. Because no woman can be her own enemy, her weaknesses must be imposed on her by men, and it is men’s action which will define why she can’t be a more physically-available romantic partner to the guy who loves her.

Which brings me to the more insidious, problematic aspect of the book for me. Watson has wanted to be Holmes best friend since before they met. And he desperately wants to be her friend. The word “friend” is used hundreds of times throughout the book to define their relationship, and the fact that Holmes has had few friends, and that she values Watson and his friendship, is one of the core aspects of the book’s plot. During one of their first interactions, however, Holmes correctly deduces that Watson would like to be more than platonic friends: that he wants her as a girlfriend and is attracted to her. She shuts him down and tell him WITH HER WORDS that it isn’t going to happen. She is explicitly consistent about this throughout the book, even as their friendship grows closer and they rely and care about each other more and more. He wants more, she pushes him away and tells him that she’s giving him exactly as much as she can give. He understands this, and respects it, but still hopes for more and rejects other girls who flirt with him out of loyalty to his crush on Holmes. And he is so loyal and steadfast that eventually she admits that she did actually think he was cute when they met, and–at the end–kisses him, citing the previously mentioned rape as the reason why their romantic love hasn’t been realized yet.


For so many reasons. For one, it perpetuates the belief that men and women cannot be friends (which is hurtful, as it keeps people across the genders from seeing each other as people, rather than just potential or taken romantic partners). The friendship between Holmes and Watson in the first two-thirds of the books is so great: respectful, caring, and loving in a thoroughly believable platonic way. But then the whole thing becomes fucked up into yet another example of a story where the “friendzoned” guy just has to hang in there long enough, loving hard enough, and he will earn the love of the woman he wants. She says she’s not into you. Trust her words. And, ladies, if you are actually attracted to a guy, the solution is not to be dismissive and bitchy to him in the hopes that he will see the “yes” in your eyes and know to keep hanging around in the hopes that the “yes” will turn to a “no”. Have your words mean something. It is completely possible that a girl might not be into the guy, that she will never be into the guy, and that she will simply not be into him forever (no matter how great he is, or how great a friend he is). And the reason she’s not into him romantically can be 100% simply because of him, and not because some other guy raped her in the past.

Can “let’s be friends and solve crimes together” be a meaningful happily ever after, please?

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