This book has proven difficult to review. I finished it 5 days ago and have been avoiding the review. I also read the first ten percent of the book and put it down for a few days to recalibrate my expectations. I had known from our romance readers group on Facebook that there were problems with this, the fifth book, in the Ivy Years Series. What are the problems and what were the expectations? Let’s discuss.
If you’ve been reading along with those of us who hopped on the Sarina Bowen bandwagon this summer and fall, you’ll know that we were all ecstatic that Bowen was tackling new adult feminist romance with intense, relatable, and realistic characters. The four full length novels and one novella are indicative of some of the best storytelling that is out in the genre right now. Going into the fifth book my expectations were high, so high in fact that I preordered it, because the previous books had dealt beautifully with intense topics ranging from gay hockey players coming out, to slut shaming, to moving past devastating injury. And then the initial reactions started rolling in, and I was concerned.
There have already been four reviews of this book, from the lovely Beth Ellen, alwaysanswerb, Mrs. Julien, and emmalita. Each has discussed at length the big problem of this book: the false rape allegation. I won’t be going super in depth about that problem, but the link that Mrs. Julien offered in her review, as well as the various reviews of Jon Krakauer’s Missoula encapsulate my concerns about that topic and how it was framed. (Please note I haven’t read Missoula yet, but it is on the list and spot on to my concerns, best as I can tell.)
Where else were there issues? Unfortunately all over the place. (We’re about to get spoilery and revisionist, so exit now if you want.) Bowen appears to have decided to tackle the false rape allegation as a way to get to the bigger topic at hand in the narrative. This is probably why I’m less angry than some of my peers about the allegation plotline, but that doesn’t make it okay. What Bowen is really taking to task, or attempting to, is colleges and universities adjudicating rape accusations on their own, outside of the court system. This is an enormous problem (see Krakauer above), BUT, Bowen had already set up a way to talk about this topic in The Shameless Hour. In my review of that book I expressed concern about how the plot was tied up, particularly with the sexually aggressive abuse that Bella suffered and how it was dealt with by the Dean’s office. This same office is responsible for placing our falsely accused Daniel (I can’t deal with his job-as-nickname) in a state of permanent limbo. Bowen DOESN’T deal with how the Dean’s office handles the outcome of the accusations made against the frat at the end of Bella’s book, but she absolutely could have in this book and still featured Lianne and her budding romance with Daniel, since both appear on the page in that book, and Lianne has involvement in Bella’s interactions with the fraternity. As well as the fact that this book occurs within the same school year as The Shameless Hour.
The other pro to that possibility is that it would have saved us from some pretty unforgivable character assassination. Daniel is one note (attracted to Lianne, but his entire future is in jeopardy because he was accused of a sexual crime he didn’t commit), but so is Lianne (seeking out a ‘normal’ relationship to counterbalance all that is ‘abnormal’ in her life as an actress). The longer I read this book the more Lianne felt like a Emma Watson fanfic (who attended a prestigious New England university of her own), which is not at all how I felt about that character when we meet her in The Shameless Hour.
The other issue I have with The Fifteenth Minute is the fact that Bowen used it to attempt to bring up the very real issue of portions of religious conservative population of this country having incredible issues around a woman’s worth being tied to ‘cleanliness’ and ‘purity’. This is a good effort, but it was wasted in the back quarter of the book. There are signposts along the way that we are headed here (and it is eventually what saves Daniel) but it actually subverts Bowen’s intention of opening the book on in-house rape investigations. Yes, as a plot point it clearly shows that a lack of proper hearing by the college caused six months of limbo of something that could and should have been uncovered earlier, but it scapegoats the problem. Nothing to see here, folks. Just some whacko religious nut parent who forced his daughter to lie to protect his image of her as holy. No rape, just like we said! I see Bowen’s intent, but it just didn’t land.
I really feel that Bowen accidentally set up a story that feeds into the anti-feminist myths (false rape accusations being used by social justice warriors to attack men because feminists HATE men, obviously) because she saw a bigger target in need of taking down. But I am feeling pretty sure that Bowen got in over her head. So why did I still rate this book as three stars? Because in many ways my concerns are that of a well-read picky feminist. This isn’t a bad story, it’s perfectly serviceable and the portions that take place after Daniel’s hearing are back to form and the type of story I wish Bowen had decided to tell with these characters. Let’s dig in to Lianne’s crazy history and lack of family. Let’s explore, honestly, Daniel’s status as an adopted kid in an incredibly loving and tight family unit. Let’s talk about consent, and what it means and how we express it. I just wish it were better, but I can’t really stay mad at an author for attempting big themes, even when they fall short of the mark.