Book review: After by Anna Todd

Yet again, I find a new read based off of hate for a series. If this keeps producing positive results, I might just start asking people “tell me about a book you really hated” to get more recommendations. In the case of After, I didn’t post updates on Goodreads because guessing from the reviews I thought something would set me off and send me away without finishing. Not only did that not happen, but I ended up buying book two around 80% in because I was that certain I would want to keep reading.

Before I get into the plot and characters, I feel like I need to address the criticisms on this book, which can be summed up in two sentiments, “this isn’t a healthy relationship,” and “these people are making bad choices.” I’m not in disagreement with either of these sentiments, but I feel like asking why we need all our stories to be based on good relationships where everyone is making the right choices. In real life, most of us have made a lot of bad relationship choices, and we needed years or even decades to learn who we are well enough to understand who we need as a life partner. But in fiction, it seems like people demand that everyone be smarter and more “healthy,” as if merely reading about a couple who fights might somehow damage us.

Add to this the always infuriating comment, “Reading this might teach women to want the same kind of terrible relationship.” Oh please. Boys can play violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and most people recognize that this isn’t going to lead them into lives of crime. Guys can read the goriest horror and most rational people know it won’t lead to serial killing or Satanism. But time and again, this line about women being too stupid to understand the line between fantasy and reality gets trotted out whenever a book contains even a whiff of bad behavior. “We’re just worried for the stupid little women who will chase after bad boyfriends if they read this. You know how dumb and impressionable they are.” Uh-huh, and the fact that so many people using this talking point are women is doubly offensive to me. How about we give the little ladies some credit and stop trying to demand that they only read “healthy” fiction?

So, one last thing before I get started: have you ever had a relationship that you knew was all wrong for you, and yet something about the other person felt like they were your soul mate and you couldn’t just give up on them that easy? Have you toughed it out through the bad times and tried to live in the good times until the bad outweighed the good and left? If you have, I suspect this story will carry more credibility with you than with someone who’s never been in that kind of situation. If you haven’t, this could be a hard sell. Whether you can make it past the early chapters will also depend a lot on how willing you are to put up with lengthy arguments.

I have been in that kind of relationship, and so for me After carries the uncomfortable ring of truth right from the start. Theresa, or Tessa to her friends, is a somewhat sheltered woman coming to college with no idea of what to expect but a lot of plans written down in exacting detail. It’s revealed early on that her mother is a control freak, as during a very early scene Tessa says she wants to go to another school and her mother throws a temper tantrum until Anna relents and claims she was only joking. This method of handling drama from Momma is important to keep in mind. She doesn’t handle conflict well.

Not long after arriving at school, she is introduced to a friend of her roommate, Scott, or Hardin to his friends. Hardin is a British Bastard™ par excellence, a dude with a chip on his shoulder constantly looking for someone to knock it off for him. There’s actually several reasons for his hostility and his disdain for commitment. But to get an answer, you have to wait for most of the book wondering “what the hell is this guy’s problem?”

When Hardin and Tessa first meet, he is dismissive of her being anything more than a pampered rich girl, and though she sets him straight right away, he spends many chapters antagonizing her based on his incorrect assumptions. Initially he doesn’t have much respect for her, or for anyone, so he just acts like a jerk like he does with everyone else. Hardin is the kind of guy that friends will always describe like “he takes some getting used to.”

His antagonizing behavior is what leads Tessa to see ulterior motives in everything he does and sets up a lot of their initial fights. The thing is, like I mentioned before, Tessa really doesn’t like to fight much, and she’s quick to do or say something to placate Hardin. She’s also just as quick to explode because as she says often in the early chapters, “You bring out the worst in me.” So she’s constantly walking this line between capitulation and retaliation. In goading her so often, Hardin does something positive for Tessa without realizing it; he helps her grow a backbone.

Under Hardin’s brash exterior and under his emotional armor, Tessa finds hints of someone worth knowing, and even worth loving. Initially, though, a lot of their relationship is all based off of lust at first sight. This is also another source of conflict for them because Hardin is only interested in casual “friends with benefits” relationships, and Tessa wants something more traditional. Tessa’s not too goody to be above playing the jealousy game by kissing or hugging other guys just to piss off Hardin. Eventually Hardin admits that he wants Tessa enough to make a real commitment to her, so in her way, she helps him grow up as much as he helps her develop some inner strength. They just both happened to stumble into these better qualities after lots of arguments. LOTS of arguments.

Or so it seems, something the ending throws into question. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that even if it’s something I should have expected, I actually didn’t see it coming. It reaffirms that Hardin is a jerk with his own agenda and ulterior motives for everything he’s done. I did expect that something would come up to drive them apart at the end of the first book, but I was thinking it would be Hardin’s jealousy that broke them up, and instead it’s…right spoilers.

The sex would be the only thing I have any legitimate complaints about the book, as the sex scenes are clunky and corny in many places. A scene would just be getting good when a poor word choice would leave me chuckling instead of panting. There’s an overuse of the word raspy that I think husky and variants might have been better used, and each time Hardin spoke “in a raspy voice,” I’d roll my eyes and wonder who thought a sore throat sounded sexy. If I had a nickel for every time these two had a shared orgasm, I’d be able to buy the next book for free. I have read worse sex scenes in romance and erotica, and far worse scenes in horror and fantasy, so I can let that slide.

I still can’t decide if I’m rooting for these two to succeed in their relationship, nor am I sure I can make it through the whole series. (There’s already five books, and I just read an article that said the author has two more planned.) But I am morbidly curious enough to see where this goes in the second book. Despite their many, many flaws, I like both Tessa and Hardin and want to learn more about them, even if I can also acknowledge that they’re making bad choices. To me, that’s a good book, one that can carry me down a path I’m not entirely comfortable with while still keeping me entertained enough to want more.

That’s why I’m going After 4 stars, and I’ll be starting book two, After We Collided, soonish. It’s not all happy times and healthy choices, but if I really wanted that I’d be stocking up on Christian romance and other “clean reads.” But being honest, I prefer my books to be dirty, and to acknowledge that we all have flaws and make mistakes. If you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone and read something a little different, this might just work for you, too.