Trigger Warning: Rape, violent/painful sex.
This is the chapter where I am officially Done With Elena.
We rejoin our heroes upon their having returned from their narrow escape from the three mutts; the chapter begins in media res as Jeremy is adamantly forbidding some course of action in front of Nick, Peter, and Antonio, who are primarily here just to prove that there are other wolves involved besides Elena and Clay. They make no meaningful contribution to the scene, which is the classing dressing-down of the protagonists by their overly strict boss as they propose to do the impossible.
This being Bitten, of course, it goes south very fast.
“If [Karl Marsten] wants territory, he has to join the Pack,” Jeremy said.
“Fuck that,” Clay spat. “Karl Marsten is a thieving, conniving son of a whore who’d stab his father in the back to get what he wanted.”
I’m sure this is just meant to be Clay being a cowboy, going off the handle in true Maverick fashion, but it’s telling somewhat that he insults a man by his mother and shows his honor (or lack thereof) by the respect he shows to his father.
Clay goes off the handle entirely, to the point where Jeremy has to deal harshly with him:
“If you go, don’t come back.” Jeremy’s voice was barely above a whisper, but it stopped Clay cold.
I’m really disinterested in the political jockeying between Alpha Males, particularly when I despise both of them for their utter lack of empathy or humanity, so I’m rooting for Clay to storm off and get his ass exiled. The book, however, plays this off as a tough decision for poor ickle Clay, who does storm off but doesn’t leave the grounds so I guess got off on a technicality.
[Clay] walked until we were out of sight and hearing of the house. Then he slammed his fist into the nearest tree, making it rock and groan in protest. Flecks of blood flew.
I am not impressed by how hard the neanderthal can punch. That makes him no less worthy of Elena than before. He screams and rages and punches trees, torn between his inability to betray his father-figure and his inability to let Logan’s killer run free. Again, if he wasn’t such a fucking awful person, I could buy into this. There could be real dramatic tension here.
His lips touched mine lightly, tentatively, waiting to be shoved away. I could taste his panic, his fight to control the dueling instincts that raged stronger than anything I could imagine. I put my arms around him, hands going up and entwining in his hair, pulling him closer. A moan of relief shuddered through him. He let the mantle of control slide free and grabbed me, pushing me back against a tree trunk.
He ripped at my clothes, nails scraping against my skin as he tore my shirt and pants free.
Sex between Clay and Elena, that we have seen, is a violent, messy affair. It’s a classic struggle for dominance, with Clay using his larger size to physically shove her around, forcing himself into her, taking as much control as he can — in this instance, he physically lifts her off the ground so she’s helpless as well as pinned. With this scene we also introduce blood — his injury leaves the smell and taste of blood all around them. His wedding ring is a physical reminder of their strangled relationship, digging into her hips and causing her a small measure of pain to remind her what she’s doing. The adjectives in this section reinforce the narrative of sex as violence: “slammed against me”, “desperate lust”, “my battered back”, “shuddered convulsively”.
In my own book, Wolfbound, when Zachariah and Eileen finally have sex, it’s an experience that is likewise ringed with pain: he has taken her on a run through the woods, a run her body is not physically prepared for, before tackling her to the ground and taking her earlobe into his teeth. I chose to shy away from the pain once they got around to the actual sex part; due to the first person narration, the reader cannot remove themself from Eileen’s head as she disassociates from the experience, focusing on the sense of surrender and safety that her Wolf feels in being mastered by the Alpha rather than the physical discomfort. Through this, we can see what Eileen sees in Zachariah; he is more myth than man to her, the Peter-Pan esque introduction to the world of the supernatural despite being at times carelessly cruel and never seeming to care much for her as a person.
So I can see where Armstrong could have been going with this. Clay is a violent sociopath, a monster in the skin of a man, and yet Elena is drawn to him almost against her will. I, too, have felt the call of the Bad Boy, the lure to be with someone who hurts you and uses you because deep inside your traitorous body says “yes, he is strong and dominating, he would make strong babies”. I’ve wanted to be there with Elena as she slowly comes to terms with what Clay is and what he’ll never be for her; and yet, she seems to already have gone on that journey years ago, when she left him and the Pack behind to try and put together what remained of her life. So what’s this then? What story is this book telling?
“I love you, Elena. I love you so much.”
[…]I stayed there, listening to his heartbeat and waiting for the dread moment when reality would return. It would happen. The fog of lovemaking would part and he’d say something, do something, demand something to send us snarling at each other’s throats.
Is this meant to be a love story? The story of a flawed man and an equally flawed woman coming together despite themselves, struggling to make things work in a fucked-up world?
Clay invites Elena on a run, and they shift into their other skins. As soon as she’s ready to go, he tackles her — yet again, he connects to her via violence, rather than with any sign of care or tenderness. After a few rough tackles, he entices her into a game of “tag”; only when he has tired of proving that he is the strongest, fastest wolf of the two does he change his tune. Now he feeds her rabbit, and shows concern when she feigns injury on the way to go swimming. Now he offers to make her breakfast. Only once he has what he wants: he has conquered her, and now can relax his posture and allow for her womanly weakness, providing for her as her rightful owner.
This is what makes me give up on Elena:
I knew if we went tot the house first, we’d never come back out to go swimming. Something would happen. We’d remember Logan was dead and there were three mutts in Bear Valley. Real life would destroy the fantasy world we’d built so carefully over the past night. I didn’t want it to end. Just a few more hours, a little more time to pretend that it could really be like this, with no past or future to intrude on our utopia.
This is her fantasy: being conquered by an abusive asshole, being shown tenderness because she has given up her right to agency and self-determination. Clay and Elena are our pairing for this book. The author ships them.
When I was younger I had a friend who was going through some hard times. I wanted to be there for her, to help her and comfort her and be the shoulder to cry on that she needed. But over the course of several years, I realized something: nothing was ever resolved with her. It was always something new, some new drama causing her misery and heartache. No matter how many friends she had, it was never enough. No matter what she did, she somehow ended up right back where she started. She didn’t really want her situation to get better. She just wanted to milk every last bit of comfort out of those around her and then, when they got tired of always giving and never receiving, cut them loose in search of fresh bait. Elena wants to be with Clay, despite all her complaints, despite her better judgement. So be it. Let her have him.
No, that’s unfair. It really is. I can understand the desire to be with him, as I said above. But something about this book frustrates me beyond reason. Perhaps it’s that I can see where this is going: Clay promises to change, Elena stays with him, we’re spoon-fed assurances that this is a happy ending, and I’m yet again left bereft, wondering if the book is really that bad or if it’s just me reading negativity into everything. Wondering if maybe it’s right to settle for what you can get because sometimes all you can have is a monster. And then I snap out of it and I return to rage that this book would be well-regarded enough to be turned into a TV series. Everyone picks on Twilight, but there is nothing on this book’s Wikipedia page to condemn this relationship, and on Amazon, the “most helpful” review doesn’t mention Clay, while the second-most “helpful” asserts that “Their bond is fascinating and multi-faceted — in many ways they are reflections of each other.”
I haven’t felt this deeply unsettled by a series since Anita Blake tricked me into liking the protagonist and then careened off the rails until I hated everyone in it equally. New quest: Can I find one decent character in this book to get behind? Someone to root for? Anyone?
Oh, also, some human is missing after coming out to their house. Clay probably ate him. Yay.