Review: The Taker by Alma Katsu

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.

Rating: B-
The Taker by Alma Katsu
September 6th 2011 by Simon & Schuster
Historical Fiction 
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Comments

  1. says

    Hmmm…I like dark and flawed characters but not sure if this one is for me. I have seen lots of people reading it though:)

    Nice review!

    • says

      Thanks, Mandi! If you like dark and flawed characters, this book is choc-a-bloc full of them! It’s well-written and an interesting story – Katsu has a wonderful imagination – but definitely not an uplifting read.

    • says

      I’ve seen a lot of rave reviews for it, so it seems like most people who read it love it. It’s a dark read, but very compelling.

  2. says

    Awesome review! I think you captured it perfectly with your comparison of watching a burning house and all the characters being Takers in their own ways. You nailed it perfectly and I totally agree with you most of it.

    The only opinions I differ with you on were the believability of the love story and Jonathan’s character. (IMO) I totally bought Lanny’s obsession with Jonathan because she wanted to possess him even from the start, purely for his rare and unusual beauty alone. Not for who he was as a person. Apparently everyone wanted to possess Jonathan for his beauty and most were willing to forgive his behavior just to have a piece of him. Which I wouldn’t call Love. I’m still not sure I would call what Lanny felt for him REAL love. I’m on the fence on that one. But I believe that she believes that she loves him because I don’t think she even knows what real love is yet. And I didn’t think we were meant to like Jonathan or his behavior until the very end. I think that was deliberate. To show that he could make a change within himself and find some redemption for his guilty past.

    This is definitely a book that really makes you think.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Aimee! :-) :-)

      I actually agree with you in what you write about Lanny wanting to possess Jonathan. I felt like we were supposed to believe that she loved all of him and saw him as more than just a beautiful face, and that’s what I didn’t buy.

      Like you write, it did not feel to me like she saw him for who he was or wanted him for that – he was more an object to her, an ideal, and she projected what she wanted onto him. So I don’t feel that it was real love at all.

      I also agree that we weren’t supposed to like Jonathan – I’m not sure we were supposed to like most / any of the characters! Lol. The only time I was able to respect him was in the very, very end. He didn’t even seem like the same person.

      Yes, it does make you think and it says with you after, almost haunting you. When a book has such an affect on the reader I feel like it’s at least doing something right.

      Are you looking forward to the rest of the trilogy? I was surprised when I found out there were two more books.

      • says

        **Possible spoilers!**

        Yes, I was actually relieved to find out it was part of a trilogy. There were too many unanswered questions, like the episode with Lukes Mom, the tingling behind his eyes and feelings of recognition when he looked at Lanny or even his being compelled to go with her and not understanding why (just to name a few). Makes me wonder if there is something going on there. It just didn’t seem like something a sane, intelligent, individual would do. And near the end the letters from the lawyers show up, then the story ends and your left wondering what the purpose of that little reveal was if the story was just going to up and end on you. If it were a stand alone novel, it would have had zero closure and that would have a big disappointment. I’m just glad to know there is more to be revealed. And I also agree with you on Adair. He’s the most despicable, evil person and yet he’s the most intriguing. I actually had a moment were I thought it might be minutely possible that he was searching for some kind of redemption through Lanny. But it was those last words he said to Lanny that caught my attention and made me wonder. As sick and twisted as he was… could it be possible that he even he was capable of feeling regret? And what has all this time done to him, his psyche? Made him worse? Scarier? Different?

        I guess you could say I’m definitely hooked now. LOL

        • says

          ***SPOILERS***

          – Completely agree that there has to be at least one more book. Things are not at all wrapped up at the end of this one, but if an author is going to string you along so that you have to buy the next book, I want there to be more of a bang (read my last comment).

          – Yes, definitely something going on there with Luke. If she could have children, I would think there would be some twist where he was her descendant – no taboo being out of bounds in this book!! Lol. I wonder what the connection is.

          – Felt the exact same way regarding Adair! And there were times where I found myself wanting Lanny to just forget about Jonathan and be with Adair … which was so sick, because the guy is a sadistic rapist (and even more sick when we find out that twist at that end). It’s funny, because with that twist it really made me realize how much age tied to how you physically look is what really affects how you see something. The idea of the old man in his old man form doing all the things we’ve seen Adair do was even more disgusting than Adair in his young man’s body doing it. So weird, but true.

          – The letters are actually what I thought was going to bring us to a cliffhanger ending. Obviously has something to do with Adair, and I thought the book would end with Luke opening the door thinking Lanny had forgotten something and it actually being Adair – or Lanny leaving for the hairdresser and Adair is there right outside the house. Either one of those would have made a better ending IMO.

          … And I guess you could say I’m hooked too, lol ;-)