'All The Rage' Has All The Despair, And All The Confusion, Too
The title of Courtney Summers' latest young adult novel, All The Rage, doesn't quite earn its seeming double meaning. It's a single entendre — "all the rage" really does just refer to anger, though the book could also have been called All the Confusion, All the Defiant Loneliness or All the Sublimated Self-Destruction.
The protagonist, Romy Grey, is dealing with many feelings, and rage is one of the least obvious. But that makes the book compellingly unpredictable. Romy is seeking safe outlets for emotions that are held in check largely by her own inability to sort through them, and the title expresses something even she doesn't understand: Underneath her diffidence, defiance, apathy, mourning and other sensations is a solid core of fury.
Romy was raped at a high school party, but virtually no one in her small hometown believes her. The circumstances are against her, and ripe for backbiting gossip: She was intoxicated. Her father was the town alcoholic, with a checkered history. The rapist was someone she knew and had an undisguised crush on. She drunkenly left the party with him. She never pressed charges. And even if none of these things were true, the rapist was Kellen Turner, the sheriff's well-liked older son, and there was never any chance that Sheriff Turner would listen to her.
But rather than analyzing the event, Summers sticks close to Romy's present-day activities, and the ways she dissociates herself from something she can barely remember, yet certainly can't forget. The book is mostly first-person, but in her hazy memories of the party, she's "the girl," or even "a girl." Kellen's name barely comes up in the book, and he never appears as a present-day character. This is a fallout story, not about the act, but about the emotional processing for a community afterward.
Summers covered similar ground in her 2010 book Some Girls Are, about a high school senior who fights off a sexual assault from her best friend's drunk boyfriend at a party, then has to fight off her former friends at school, when they claim she led him on. That book had more physical violence, but in both cases, Summers summons up plenty of emotional viciousness as the victims suffer bullying, savage pranks and the school's collective contempt. But where Some Girls Are protagonist Regina Afton is a former Mean Girl reduced to the level of her past victims and trying to regain her equilibrium, Romy is lower on the totem pole to begin with, and driven lower still.
Summers has grown as a writer since Some Girls Are, with more developed characters and more sophisticated emotions. Romy's chief tormenter, Tina, is still a cipher — Some Girls' one-dimensional villains drew a lot of complaints — and the ending again feels rushed and ambiguous, with a climax largely consisting of information about the fates of secondary characters. But this time, Summers addresses the adults in Romy's world, both the people who care about her and listen to her, and those who don't.
She also finds the book's heart in the tentative romance between Romy and her waiter co-worker Leon, who has a crush on her and no idea about her past. Her behavior toward him is erratic and volatile because her fear of physical contact is overwhelming, while part of her attraction is simply the relief of being around someone who doesn't see her as a victim or a liar. This isn't a Nicholas Sparks romance, where a great love affair heals a wounded heart; it's something uglier, rawer and more realistic, with Romy taking advantage of Leon to bury her feelings, or in her better moments, to edge toward examining them.
As a look at rape culture, All The Rage is straightforward and un-nuanced; Romy's peers selfishly trying to diminish her to reduce their own possible guilt, while the authorities shut out a situation they don't want to face. But as a look at the trauma after an assault, it has a queasy power and some bold insight.
Toward the end of the book, Romy climbs into a scalding hot bath, willing her body to understand the difference between the present pain she's causing it and the past pain she wants to shut out and forget. Her body refuses to get that message. While she looks for ways to comprehend and express her rage, turning it inward doesn't bring any relief.
Tasha Robinson is a senior editor at The Dissolve.
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