Worst Kind lavishes in the darkness of Cilla’s memories, experiences and repressed emotions.
In The Worst Kind of Want, a former film producer’s unresolved issues, pressure-cooked under heady grief, guilt and disgruntled familial responsibility, swerves her into forbidden territory in Italy. Tasked by her brother-in-law to mind his daughter, who’s acting up in adolescent confusion fueled by hormones and her mother Emily’s death, Pricilla becomes entrenched in the escapades of her niece Hannah and Donato. While the girl crushes on the charismatic young man, he flirts with Cilla and awakens desires she’s locked away for her family’s sake.
Liska Jacobs’s second novel entices with a pulpy allure. The narrative of a middle-aged woman traveling abroad to find herself is glamorized by her coming from influential, though fading, Hollywood royalty and vacationing in one of the most ancient, romantic countries. Top that, then, with a salacious tryst with a teenage boy. Even knowing better otherwise, readers develop a twisted curiosity in how Cilla and Donato evade detection, particularly by Hannah, who’s unwittingly their third wheel and cover story. Palpable tension sparks when Donato’s youthful insecurity threatens their clandestine arrangement.
Worst Kind lavishes in the darkness of Cilla’s memories, experiences and repressed emotions. Since childhood Cilla had been pigeonholed as the family’s nurturer, a role she assumed but still resents. The fissure between sisters formed when, as teenagers, she chastised Emily for incessant partying, drug abuse and other rebellious behavior. “Stop mothering me!” the younger sibling had insisted and the elder one now recalls as an adult when her niece acts up. They grew estranged as more arguments piled up; Emily’s memory haunts Cilla the more she’s around Hannah. “I’ve been mourning Emily since we were teenagers,” Cilla told her niece at her mother’s funeral, but it’s not till the book’s end, in light of a fresher tragedy and Hannah’s discovery of her aunt’s betrayal, that Cilla finally feels the gravity of the loss.
The novel layers Cilla’s hangups with death. She deals not only with Emily’s passing, but their father’s prior and their mother’s current illness. Cilla quarrels with Emily over using their father’s illness as a “teaching moment” for Hannah as a child and bars her sister from saying goodbye. Hannah throws a tantrum about having to go on another tour of ancient ruins because she doesn’t want to be surrounded by death, and in a dreamy reverie Cilla asks Donato if he tires of living in Rome when “everywhere [there] are reminders.” The amount of allusions to death is rather much, perhaps to emphasize that Cilla hasn’t coped with it in a healthy manner.
Saturated in responsibility, illness and mortality, as well as pummeled by societal, sexist jabs at her womanhood for her childless singularity and waning desirability in her 40s, Cilla’s relationships are disturbing but unsurprising. Her first boyfriend Guy – her father’s protege and 17 years her senior – insisted “someone needs to take care of [her]” at 15. In her own infatuation and need to be seen, she goes along with it. Jacobs’ use of flashback, if sometimes overdone, evokes tangible feeling, in this case, with the creepy memory of Guy clearly taking advantage of Cilla as a minor when he tucked a rose in her bosom on her birthday. Despite the reversed age differential, 43-year-old Cilla is attracted to adolescent Donato for the same reasons as Guy, with the added “bonus” of confirming the sex appeal she’s afraid has eluded her.
It’s hard to determine if it’s an authorial failure or narrative intent that neither Guy or Cilla are condemned for their abuse of power over their younger lovers, especially because teenage Cilla and Donato are willing and don’t recognize or acknowledge – even in the former’s adulthood long after her and Guy’s relationship – that they’re being preyed upon. The worst rebuke either adult party receives are Emily’s disgust over Guy and Cilla or family friends’ suspicions and Cilla’s internalized then realized embarrassment after Hannah’s friends confess they know of her and Donato.
Narratively, Worst Kind is an engrossing read and offers insightful looks into Cilla’s difficult past and struggles accepting her aging self compared to other women and society’s double standards in perceiving older men and women. However, the sudden climax comes across as a cop out, and the neglect in addressing the problematic nature of Cilla’s relationships leaves a sour aftertaste, almost overshadowing the novel’s valid observations and the heart of its protagonist’s troubles – a sisterly bond that never healed.