I think he could tell I was pregnant the day we did it. I don’t think he cared. I begged him to fuck me. I followed him around the restaurant touching him. I stood next to him when we sang Buona Festa. I didn’t even know how to fuck. It was four months then but I still didn’t show through my clothes at five, or six and a half. At seven I had to move the apron down to my hips. I worked there until she was born.
Marie narrates the story of the last few years of her life from becoming pregnant with her daughter at sixteen, taking a succession of waitressing jobs, trying to raise a child, trying to make a marriage work with a man she’d only known five days when she became pregnant and fucking a steady stream of different men.
The narrative’s fragmented, shifting in time over a series of almost interchangeable years while the end of each section returns to the story of the trip she was on when she met her husband and returned pregnant.
Two things are really striking about the book. The first is its setting in the service industry. Marie’s work is very much part of the story. Partly because it’s where she meets many of the men she has sex with but also because it’s such a significant part of her life (as work is for many of us). The experience of learning the role a waitress is expected to play and the day-to-day happenings in the job are rendered in some detail showing both the repetitive nature of the tasks but also the camaraderie of staff who’ve worked together regularly.
If I were to advise someone going into the service industry, my second suggestion after Don’t would be Walk through the place and look for the tables farthest from the kitchen. You’ll probably be stuck in that station for a couple months. Imagine walking from wherever that is all the way back to the kitchen for extra salad dressing. Now imagine it eighteen more times, and that’s just it for one table. You may think you’ll be waiting tables but really your job is to walk fast in a circle for six to eight hours every day. Don’t work somewhere with stairs, steps, ramps, outdoor seating, small water glasses, or kids’ menus.
The second is the degree of self-hatred Marie carries for herself and that Tierce conveys this without any sense of judgement for Marie’s behaviour.
You can fuck a lot of people, Calvin would say to me, and still enjoy yourself. Make it about you, about pleasure. At least make it safe. But it wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.
It isn’t just sex – often dangerous sex in one way or another – that Marie uses to punish herself, she uses various drugs, self-harms and overworks herself, often only allowing herself enough time between shifts to go home, shower, change uniforms and go back out again. Her daughter lives with her ex-husband.
You like staying with me because you get to sleep with me. You are so warm but I can’t stop shivering. I feel a soaring bliss – I adore you – I feel a plummeting ugly resentment – I am a pile of shit falling endlessly down a dark shaft, I am the hate that hurled the shit and the fear inside the hurled shit. If you slip out on one stitch in your brain high and low are the same.
There’s little hope in this book but there is what feels like truth; recognition that this is how life is for some people. Tierce paints a convincing picture of a young, working-class woman trapped in a lifestyle she wasn’t expecting. It’s a sympathetic portrayal in the sense that Tierce doesn’t judge Marie or offer her a way out. She does provide somewhat of a shock, however, when Marie’s plans prior to her pregnancy are revealed. (If you read other reviews or interviews with Tierce this detail is often included although it’s not mentioned until almost the end of the book. I found it more powerful not knowing before I read it.)
Love Me Back is an uncomfortable read but one with a realistic, interesting female protagonist at its centre. If you’ve got the stomach for an intense portrait of a self-harming, service industry worker this is well worth a read.
Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.