Disclaimer: An advance digital copy of Sourpuss was provided to me by Haigh 38 Press in exchange for my honest review. Sourpuss comes out on January 20th 2019.
Campus novels are one of my favourite genres. Not only do they evoke memories of some of the best years of my life, but they also shed light on the darker side of university culture - the hard partying, the wide ranging mental health struggles students face, and the frightening realities women deal with on campus. My favourite book of 2018 was a campus novel, called The Red Word, that highlighted the rampant sexism, violence, and political divide at American universities. As someone who had a very positive and happy university experience, I was blown away by the simplicity and elegance with which The Red Word’s author, Sarah Henstra, explained the relationships and divides created during the four years students spend at college.
Sourpuss by Merricat Mulwray, marketed as a “dark comedy”, promised to be many of the things The Red Word was: smart, snarky, insightful and eye-opening. The premise - a female track and field star gunning for the Olympics falls in with a notorious campus fraternity and becomes involved in a terrible scandal - sounded exciting and timely. But the reality fell flat, offering less humour, satire, and wit than expected and in its place offering only mild insight into the dangers of Greek life and the hardships student athletes face. Mallory, despite past negative experiences with the fraternity, seems to overlook all of the group’s bad decisions and simply accept they are the way they are.
The main problem with Sourpuss is its disjointed narrative. The novel is hard to follow, jumping between timelines and settings and alternating between various characters’ points of view without any real explanation of why this storytelling mechanism is necessary. The main character Mallory, an Olympic hurdling hopeful, is easily disliked and doesn’t inspire much sympathy or interest. She clearly expresses her superiority over other students, even her friends, and seems incapable of forming a thought that isn’t about herself and her career. Sourpuss is filled with unnecessary characters whose stories are jumpy, hard to follow, and don’t seem to follow the same timeline as Mallory’s.
There’s no clear point in Sourpuss. While its authors (and yes Merricat Mulwray is actually two people) are trying to use satire to explore issues like sexual assault and violence, the attempt is feeble and never really rings true. Mallory, who causes many problems and makes troublesome choices, is not a character whose experiences are easily related to. She is not a useful vessel through which to tell a story about assault, gendered violence, and problematic campus cultures. The novel’s ending makes little sense, offering no real conclusion to the problems and scandals Mallory has been faced with, and leaving readers unclear about her wellbeing. It almost makes the book seem unfinished.
Sourpuss seems confused in the demographic it is trying to target. The writing, while nice at some points, for the most part reads in a way that suits young adults. But the context and content matter - as well as several fairly graphic scenes - are definitely not suitable for pre-teens or even some teenagers. Overall the novel is confusing, mildly upsetting, and very frustrating.
Sourpuss is not at the top of my most recommended 2019 reads.