Initial reaction: I need some time to think about how I want to reflect on this one. It's not really all that much better than the first book I've read in this series, and I had issues with the portrayal of some very serious matters. Not saying that some of it isn't realistic, and I can't say that this work was as "by the formula" as "True", but man - this novel is one of the reasons why I rail against the problems with New Adult for situations and portrayal of very real issues.
I think I might have to stick with McCarthy's adult novels, because this isn't flying with me. Not at all.
Let's have a frank discussion on Erin McCarthy's third novel in her "True Believers" series, "Believe". I picked this up on NetGalley because I'd heard from some discussions about the book that this was better than the first book in the series. I always have this tendency of giving books/series/authors second chances even if I'm turned off by a certain story sometimes, and so I figured I'd read this through something of an academic/curious filter with no expectations. This series has recurring characters within it, but I didn't feel like I missed anything by picking this up having read only the first book.
(I didn't want to read Jessica's story, because from the excerpt in the first book, it sounded like Jessica was an absolutely infuriating character and that it would go the typical NA route with various offenses to boot. I'll admit I was curious about the hero in that book though.)
I'm going to start with the positive because that will take me less time to say than delving into many of the problems this book has. Kudos for featuring a character of color as a leading role in this narrative, because in general, characters of color aren't well represented in this genre, and many times, it's like they're either token characters or have very little role in the overarching stories they're within. I liked and sympathized with Robin, even when I found her actions problematic in turns. I liked the portrayal of her family, even for the brief time that I saw her interactions with them. I even liked some of her little quirks like kitten pictures and such that she receives in texts from the hero when they're flirting and carrying on random conversations as they grew to know each other.
Kudos for featuring characters with clear motivations and rationales behind the way they think and feel. Many times in this genre, I see too many authors just jump to sex or problematic details without really delving into them and just throwing it in for melodramatic purposes and engaging with the emotional conflict porn of it all. It's milked to its maximum, but then when reaching the breaking point, they don't deal with the very real consequences of it all. Many times it's shallow representations of very real and palpable issues.
That said, I'm going to dig into this narrative's problems. This book pretty much started with a rape/"rapey" scene like the first book "True." I'm not going to mince words about it being rape, even if it's not mentioned as rape in this story, and I honestly have to wonder why it isn't, because it certainly wasn't consensual sex.
At the point of the story's beginning, Robin describes herself as once a party girl, flirty, a heavy drinker, someone who "dresses in short skirts" and some negative self assessments of her expressions of sexuality (which bothered me from the start). It took one night of her getting drunk so badly that she blacked out with no memory of events. She wakes up realizing that she had sex with her best friend's boyfriend, Nathan.
She is horrified because in her words, she would never do something like this if she were sober, that she didn't know exactly what she did, though there's one fragmented snippet of a memory that she has of her "legs around his neck."
Nathan, the jerk that he is, doesn't seem to care about Robin being absolutely horrified and worried about her relationship with her friend, Kylie. He doesn't even seem to care about the fact that he cheated on Kylie.
It's then that Robin decides to swear off alcohol, and to distance herself from her friends because she knows that Kylie would hate her for sleeping with Nathan.
But Nathan knew what he was doing. He might've been drunk, but he was far more aware of events than Robin. He had cognition to be able to make a decision, and he knew that Robin was drunk. Robin was drunk to the point where she didn't know where she was or what she was doing. For me, given the details in the narrative - it wasn't that Robin "slept" with Nathan and cheated on Kylie, Nathan raped her. But Robin's perception isn't portrayed as such.
Robin sets herself to move out of the place where she and her friends are staying, to go back to her parents' place, but then she ends up meeting Phoenix. Phoenix is a guy with a messed up past, typical scenario I realize for the genre, but there's some heart behind his situation. He was just released from prison, his mother was a drug addict and pretty much threw out all of his former belongings and identification, so he's left with nothing but the clothes on his back and his record. He's having to adjust back to normal society for the crime he committed (which I won't say for spoilers, but I see why he did what he did.)
Still, Phoenix has anger issues (*rolls eyes* Please spare me the cliche). People in his life left him behind. His ex-girlfriend cheated on him and is pregnant with someone else's child. He really can't catch a break. So he's reluctant to hook up with Robin though they are within the same social circles, but ultimately - the two hit it off, first in cute ways, and others with a little more spice.
Okay, maybe a lot more spice for sex scenes (though, there's a give and take I personally had for those scenes.)
Ultimately, both of them have things about their present troubles that come roaring back to interfere with their abilities to live and be together. For Phoenix, it's his mother and worrying about Robin's situation (because she tells him about it eventually). For Robin, it's dealing with the perceptions of her person/image (there is some rampant female hating/shaming in this that made me want to facepalm several times), her past with drinking, and then the pending fallout with Kylie over Nathan.
Suffice to say, the situation with Nathan is even worse considering he heckles and harasses Robin via text messages with explicit sexual content, even saying that her sex "tasted like chocolate." And it was noted that she'd repeatedly asked him to stop contacting her.
Guys, what does behavior like that sound like to you? Seriously.
Things come to a harrowing head after Kylie found out about Nathan, and reveal that Robin has more mental issues on the matter than she first thought, with drinking as an emotional trigger. I actually railed against Phoenix at one point because he was blaming her unfairly instead of supporting her. I was aware he had issues with people who suffered from addiction in his life (namely his mother, and when I figured out how she neglected and stole and treated him miserably, I wanted to rage). But for him to do that to Robin when she needed someone the most? Eff no.
And then there was the side plot with the drug dealer. Honestly, I think this book could've done without that whole situation. It wasn't necessary, and was just thrown in to give some kind of harrowing situation where Phoenix swoops in to save Robin. She's definitely not passive for the situation, but I still felt like it was an outlier in the collective story.
The depiction of Robin's college environment bothered me too, and has me worried about how authors portray college students in NA in general. It's not like people pay money just to drink and party while going to college, and I think some authors in this genre skirt that factor. (Though arguably, there are people who go to college and don't realize this factor themselves, they for whatever reason may neglect or underperform in their studies and that becomes a problem.) In the narrative, there's one point where Robin's not even a few days into the new semester and suggests cutting class, but Phoenix is the one who tells her "No, you're like halfway finished with your degree, focus on that instead of skipping just to be with me." (I mentally fist bumped Phoenix at that point, even considering times I wanted to throttle him.) Many NA books have a college backdrop, but it's almost as if it's background noise and the characters don't really "care" about their education or what they want to go for, just makes it seem like the tragic past and drama is the only thing that matters.
At the same time, I can't help but think the college environment here mostly showcased a lot of insinuated pretentiousness at times. I don't know whether it was the specific company that Robin kept or if this was a really problematic presentation of college life in general. There was the slut shaming that Robin encounters when a group of girls gossip about her looks and dress while she's in Phoenix's company. And then there's the "Sober Group" meeting (group of students who either don't drink or have stayed sober for some time) where some science/pre-med majors are really condescending to Robin as an art major and to Phoenix because he's got tattoos on his body (and the measure that he was able to get a job as a tattoo artist.) I didn't like the portrayal of that, but maybe I'm the only one who had problems with that factor specifically.
Anyway, "Believe" may or may not be a step up from its predecessor novels. It still has a familiar formula that isn't completely shed, and it was a struggle to get through in points. I wanted to like it more, but the parts I could potentially give praise to were overshadowed by problematic presentations that did not match up with the respective problem, cliched elements, and just feeling too much of the "same script, different cast" progression that's been a part of this respective series.
The irony is that while this series might be depicting some kind of "true" terms, the reality still feels removed for the sake of drama that may either be manufactured or misrepresented. At least in moments of the narrative, I was able to see some specks of genuine character interaction and palpable struggle. I just wish there was more.
Overall score: 1.5/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher InterMix.