Fight or Flight by Samantha Young
I wouldn’t call this a hate read...exactly. But considering the very rough beginning of Fight or Flight by Samantha Young, I would classify my reading mindset as “Hmm, can this be redeemed?” Turns out, it can’t. If you were curious if characters in a book could gaslight you, I’d direct you to Fight or Flight as an answer.
Ava is flying back to her home in Boston from an upsetting funeral in her childhood home of Phoenix. Ava’s at the airport and wants to try and upgrade herself to first class. Just as she’s about to reach the ticket counter, a man bumps into her, cuts her in line, and swoops in to claim the last remaining first class ticket. (My Mom worked in the travel industry for her entire career. None of what happens in the airport actually makes sense, but probably no one will really care about that but me.) Of course, this rude man is our hero, Caleb Scott.
Caleb reads as the very model of angry white male privilege; it was so over the top, I was one step away from nominating him for a Supreme Court seat. When she confronts him and the gate agent, they both act like she’s being completely unreasonable. Caleb is jaw-droppingly rude to her from the beginning, calling her a “nutjob” and “unbalanced.” Later, when they are in the same line at a coffee kiosk, Caleb cuts to the very front of the line, telling the barista he’s running late for his flight. Ava and Caleb continue to have contentious and angry exchanges through the airport and after being seated together on a rerouted flight to O’Hare. I think readers are supposed to think it’s “chemistry,” but it just felt abusive. Ava starts to take the blame for their altercations, thinking he was “terminally rude, but I’d turned it into a situation.” In 2018, this plotline just made me furious. Oh, a woman blaming herself for a man’s bad behavior. How appealing.
There were plenty of other issues with with the “meet mean” (there is nothing cute about it). There’s some mild homophobia when Ava churlishly blames the male gate agent for inappropriately flirting when he assigned the seat to Caleb. Ava justifies her decision to burn thousands of dollars to upgrade to a last minute first class seat on a case of “mild claustrophobia,” but also bemoans her overwhelming credit card debt. She’s in debt because the rent on her studio apartment in a very expensive Boston neighborhood is $4,000 per month, which makes it hard to make ends meet. For anyone facing real financial struggles, this book will likely feel offensively tone deaf. Caleb has a policy of not saying please and thank you which makes him sound like an entitled asshole. A few times, he notes how surprising it is to see her eating food and having an appetite. It’s a misogynist asshole playing his favorite tune, Not Like Other Girls.
They have to spend the night in Chicago before catching their connecting flight to Boston the next morning, and of course they run into each other at the hotel restaurant. Ava suffers through a number of dudes trying to pick her up, a scene that is a million times better in Out of Sight with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. Caleb saves the day and eventually suggests a one night stand. It's actually believable as a hate fuck: the sexual tension is sky high, so why not get it out of their system? Ava hasn’t had sex since a bad break up seven years ago, but she wants it and they go to his room. However, It’s baffling how the characterization required for Ava in the airport scene is completely dropped here. I don’t have a single solitary problem with anyone deciding to have a one night stand; but up to this point, Ava has been portrayed as emotionally locked-down and conservative. This is not a woman who is going to break a SEVEN YEAR dry spell with a one night hate fuck in an airport hotel room. Oh well. They have great sex and afterwards Caleb fakes being asleep so she’ll leave. What a prince.
Through a series of plot machinations, Caleb ends up in Boston for several weeks and they agree to a no-strings affair. I enjoyed these chapters because the focus switches to a fuller picture of Ava’s life. There’s some flashback chapters to her painful past in Phoenix, description of her life as an interior designer, and some great scenes of Ava with her best friend, Harper. This is where I started to really know and understand Ava and would even say that I enjoyed reading the book.
But Caleb continued to be a cipher, blowing hot and cold. Ava classifies him as someone that makes her feel safe, but it’s hard not to think she’s mistaking his brusqueness and rudeness for honesty. I would best characterize my mental state at this stage as “lost in the wilderness.” Ava describes Caleb’s behavior to Harper, who then tells Ava, “If I was telling the same story to you, you would tell me that it sounded super unhealthy, right?” THIS IS ALL OF US, AVA. THIS IS SUPER UNHEALTHY.
But I also felt emotionally manipulated as a reader. The narrative choice to have Ava describe Caleb’s cruelty afterwards rather than experiencing it in real time kept me reading far longer than I would have otherwise. She kept insisting it wasn’t that bad, but by the end, Caleb’s cruelty to her is downright punishing. When he’s still emotionally knee-capping her (and the reader) at the 90% mark, I felt like a victim of gaslighting! It’s not a classic "low moment" because his behavior at the end hadn’t significantly changed from the beginning. It was devastatingly cruel and I had no interest in seeing them back together. He engages in behavior that is frankly more like a stalker than a hero---calling her at work after she blocks his number and manipulating her by contacting her boss. None of that is okay, and romance shouldn’t normalize it. These folks need therapy and the idea that a conversation or two could miraculously "fix" their deep-seated problems seemed laughable. I was profoundly disturbed that her friends would encourage her to reconcile. It was an unpleasant and unsettling reading experience.
Now for a few other important issues that I wanted to highlight outside of the main story arc. The issues around safe-sex and condom usage were irresponsibly handled. Late in the book, Caleb is jealous and it turns into emotionally-charged sex. But, it’s this scene where Caleb unilaterally decides to stop using condoms. He says he’s “clean” and that he's seen her taking the pill. It was deeply problematic. She’s so upset about the emotional undercurrents that she acquiesces to this birth control change with no further discussion. It feels like an epic bait and switch and she deserved to make that decision separately and not while he was in a jealous rage. Several times the book implies that Ava thinks sex feels better without condoms. The first time it happens is during what she thinks will be a one night stand. Hey authors, don’t do this! Condoms are an ESSENTIAL part of practicing safe sex, and if it doesn’t feel great, maybe the answer for your characters should be *more lube* not *less condoms.*
Finally, this book needs to come with a whole set of content warnings. Ava’s parents were reckless about who was in their home, and she faced serious threats of sexual assault as a young teenager. Harper is violently attacked by a boyfriend. There’s abortion-shaming, which I'm not down for at all--and honestly as an excuse for Caleb's behavior, it was lacking. Her childhood best friend was pregnant and both she and the baby during an emergency c-section. Lots of serious stuff goes down in this book, and the blurb and cover make it seem like a light and fluffy read. It's not. That's fine---but this book was all over the place and readers should know about the many ways it can be triggering.
Most damning, it's one of the few books I could remember reading where I genuinely had trouble believing the HEA. These two would be happier apart and I don’t believe that their relationship will be successful in the long run.
ARC from NetGalley