This novel is a story about the choices we make and how they can result in consequences we are unwilling to imagine at the time and unable to fix later on. It’s a story about blind and selfish love, about becoming a slave to one’s desires, about the evilness that exists in the human heart and the loneliness that can drive us to do terrible things. It’s a story about human weakness and indulgence, about how permissiveness and indifference can become cruelty. It’s a story about how nothing is ever as simple as it seems and how we can never change people into the person we want them to be—how trying to do so will only lead to disaster and heartbreak.
Summary. To give a full summary of The Taker would ruin the reading experience, so I won’t write too much. The book goes back and forth in time, between present day and the 19th century. It’s not a romance, but rather a “mainstream” fiction novel with elements of metaphysics and gothic romance.
The Taker centers around a young woman born in the early 1800s. Lanore grew up in a small town in the wilderness of Maine and at a young age fell in love with the town’s golden boy, Jonathan. They form a close friendship, but as the years pass Lanny longs for more. Having to watch Jonathan go from one woman to another and never turn to her is devastating. She yearns to possess Jonathan and to have him accept her love and devotion. This obsessive desire leads to a series of events that affect lives far beyond her own and that stretch out timelessly in front of her.
Now I know only a fool looks for assurances in love. Love demands so much of us that in return we try to get a guarantee that it will last. We demand permanence, but who can make such promises?
Reaction. What to say about this story? It is devastating, nerve-wracking, mysterious, and darkly sensual; it’s a seductive read, but also very heavy. I had to read it in batches and found myself putting it down for several days in between readings. It is not a feel-good book: it involves obsession, rape, violence, murder, taboo subjects, and sex—lots and lots of sex. It is not erotica, but has dark erotic undertones from beginning to end.
All of its characters are destructive, twisted, unhappy, and depraved. I have to admit that I did not like a single one of them, though for me that’s only a deal breaker if it’s a romance book. This is a novel that explores so many ugly aspects of humanity and human behavior that I couldn’t help but be fascinated; I found the most interesting character to be the one who was also the most evil. As repulsive and incomprehensible as The Taker’s characters sometimes are, they are also perversely compelling—like watching a burning house: it’s difficult to see the terror and loss that is unfolding before you, but it is also impossible to look away from, beautiful as it is in its absolute destruction that leaves behind only emptiness and devastation.
I’m always curious as to the meaning of a book’s title. In this instance, it comes from a conversation between Lanore and Luke, one of the present-day characters, about her relationship with Jonathan:
“I’ve always wanted him to love me the way I loved him. He did love me, I know he did. Just not the way I wanted him to. And it’s not so different for a lot of people I’ve known. One partner doesn’t love the other enough to stop drinking, or gambling, or running around with other women. One is the giver and one is the taker. The giver wishes the taker would stop.”
“But the taker never changes,” Luke says, though he wonders if this is always the case.
“Sometimes the giver has to let go, but sometimes you don’t. You can’t.”
Here, Lanore is presented as the Giver and Jonathan the Taker, but the truth is that every single one of the book’s characters is a Taker. The entire novel is about Taking and if nothing else, that is the lesson it teaches: these characters take and take and take, yet still they remain unfulfilled; they are able to find pleasure, but never joy. It is never enough—it can never and will never be enough—yet they have condemned themselves to always wanting more, to always wanting what they cannot have.
Criticisms. My main criticism is that the whole story revolves around and is driven by this (supposedly) deep and obsessive passion Lanore feels for Jonathan. It’s the crux of the entire novel … and yet I was unable to believe in it. For me, this essential element of the book ended up being its biggest “telling, not showing” example. Lanny’s great love for him is what triggers all the subsequent events in the book and brings about so many people’s downfall, but I just didn’t buy it. It felt inauthentic, and I’m sure part of it had to do with the fact that I found Jonathan to be very weak, and therefore didn’t understand what it was that captivated her about him.
Some of my other criticisms are the blah-ness that was Luke, the inauthentic and cavalier way that characters’ rapes are dealt with within the story, and the disappointing ending. I loved what happens shortly before the end and found that to be one of the most honest and authentic passages. The ending itself though was very anti-climactic, especially in comparison to the drama of the rest of the book. The Taker is the first in a trilogy (how two more books are coming from this I know not), so the story will be continued, but as a separate book it should have a strong ending that stands on its own.
Bottom Line. We’ve reached the end now, and you’re probably confused (as am I): did I enjoy the book or not? Everything I’ve written above makes it sound torturous and emotionally draining, which in many ways it was. However this book was also compelling: it was like that burning house, the one you know you should look away from, but instead can’t stop watching with sick fascination.
Alma Katsu is without a doubt a talented writer. With The Taker, she has created a dark and gothic world with very, very flawed characters, and as repellant as they are, one is seduced into watching them destroy themselves. Katsu has a wonderful ability to create an all-encompassing and overwhelming tone and atmosphere with her writing. She does so in a way that creeps up on you, so that you unknowingly become slowly enveloped, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late: you’re lost in the fog.
One of My Favorite Quotes:
Looking back, I know we were only filling in the holes in our souls, the way the tide rushes sand to fill in the crevices of a rocky shore. We—or maybe it was just I—bandaged our needs with what we declared was love. But, eventually, the tide draws out what it has swept in.