This isn’t a general post on the topic. I was re-reading Bitten from the Otherworld series by Kelly Armstrong and I recalled how much I initially disliked Elena. Eventually of course I loved her, but it was the first 70% of book#1 that made me grit my teeth as she narrated the story from her POV.
You see Elena is an unreliable narrator, of sorts. She doesn’t omit pertinent facts or lie, but she gives the last ten years of her life a good, thick coating of self pity and puts all the blame for her unhappiness on Clayton, the guy who’d been waiting for a decade for her to forgive him.
What he’d done to her was pretty bad. He’d broken her trust and taken away her choice when he’d forced a supernatural life on her that made her dreams of a normal house, husband, kids and stability all vanish in an instant.
Elena was a product of the worst kind of foster homes. She could barely remember her own parents and never had a normal family. That’s what she wanted beyond all else. That’s the dream that sustained her through her years in abusive homes and midnight visits by foster fathers. That’s what drove her to excel in studies and then get into a good university on scholarship.
But then Clayton snatched that dream away never giving her a chance to choose him over the life she always wanted. She’d loved him but with one act driven by fear of losing her he lost her trust.
So for the next ten years Clayton waited and Elena stayed with him and the Pack in Stonehaven for a while but as soon as she began to feel too entrenched in a world not ‘normal’, she would run away to the city where she completed her studies and got a job as a columnist.
Elena held a long grudge. She blamed the worst parts of her character on the violent nature of the werewolf Clay had forced her to become. It didn’t matter that Clay loved her, it didn’t matter that the Pack treated her as one of their own. Everyone had an ulterior motive (they were being nice/ they were keeping the only female werewolf in existence safe/they were trying to control her/ they were doing it because they loved Clay) but she could get over that. The person she would never, ever forgive was Clay.
I never wanted to forget and I never wanted to forgive. I wouldn’t let myself.
Mending fences with Clay would mean surrender. It would mean he’d won, that biting me had been worth the trouble. He’d have his mate, the life partner of his choice, the realization of his own domestic dreams. Well, I had my own dreams, and Clay had no role in them. Werewolf or not, I couldn’t bear to give them up, especially now when I’d finally caught a glimpse of the possibilities in my life with Philip. I had a good, decent man, someone who saw and encouraged my potential for goodness and normalcy, things Clay never saw, didn’t care about, and certainly never encouraged. Maybe marriage, kids, and a house in the suburbs weren’t in our future but, as I said, any variation would do. With Philip, I could envision a satisfying variation, with a partner, a home, and an extended family. My brass ring had come into sight. All I had to do was muddle through this mess with the Pack, get back to Toronto, and wait for the chance to grab it.
Before the book began, Elena had been living away from Stonehaven for a year, pretending to herself that she’d cut away all ties. In her mind, she was single. She met a man, Philip, and began a relationship with him. When the book began they’d been living together for months.
But when an urgent call came from the Alpha, Jeremy (a man who was friend, mentor and father to her though she would never admit it) she had to return to Bear Valley again to find out what was happening.
Almost within the first day of her return she has sex with Clay. Then she tells herself that it was Stonehaven, it sucked her in like it always does. That when she was there Clay was part of that ‘other’ life and she couldn’t escape it. That it wasn’t her fault. That it was a mistake.
But she does it again a few days later when Clay needs to be comforted. She has no trouble waking up the next morning and accusing him of having done something behind her back that (were she really thinking clearly) she knew he wouldn’t do, or at least he would never lie to her about, and then spending an hour in the study telling herself that he hadn’t changed, that it was a mistake. Again.
She keeps excusing her the fact that she was hurting Clay (half deliberately) and badly using Philip. I love it when Clay calls her on it.
“…What’s the plan then? You run back and forth between us until you’ve made up your mind?”
“I’ve made up my mind. Anything that happened at Stonehaven was a mistake, like it’s always been a mistake. I never misled you. You knew there was someone else. It was the same damned thing that happens every time I go back to that place. I get caught up in it. I lose myself.”
“In what? The house? A pile of bricks and mortar?”
“In that place,” I said, gritting my teeth, “That world and everything about it, including you. I don’t want it, but when I’m there, I can’t resist. It takes over.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “Bullshit. There is nothing in this world or that world or any world that you couldn’t fight, Elena. Do you know what magical spell ‘that place’ has you under? It makes you happy. But you won’t admit that because, to you, the only acceptable happiness comes in the ‘normal’ world, with ‘normal’ friends and a ‘normal’ man. You’re bound and determined to make yourself happy with that kind of life, even if it kills you.”
I didn’t dislike Elena for her acts of infidelity. I couldn’t even make up my mind on who she was actually cheating on. Clay or Philip. But Clay knew the score and having just spent a year without her he was willing to go through a lot to have her back. So he kept his peace as long as he could. Tried to forget about Philip. But Philip didn’t know, he knew nothing about Elena. Later in the book when she forgets herself and says something sarcastic and waspish to Clay, Philip looks at her as if he couldn’t recognise her. He thought she “didn’t even have a temper”. To make up for her hidden self, she tailored her personality to what she thought Philip wanted. He’s a good guy, he didn’t deserve a woman who gave only the fake version of herself to him.
No, I disliked Elena for her utter, unremitting self absorption. Maybe that’s something that hits me harder than others because I struggle with my tendencies towards selfishness too.
She was so involved in trying to find a ‘normal’ stable family in the human world that she nearly lost the family she’d had for years, people who patiently waited for her to come back to them. At the end of the book, knowing that she realized all of this herself you can feel sympathy for her, understand that her childhood had made her cling hard to her dream for a normal home and to have that dream snatched away, to be forced into a life so far from normal when she’d never known what that was to begin with had to be traumatic.
But she was unfaithful. To both Clay and Philip. And maybe some would agree that Clay deserved the punishment but Philip didn’t. And not once in the novel did Elena ever worry or even consider that Clay would move on, that he might leave her and find someone else. She knew him. She knew him and still she painted him an arrogant, self absorbed, selfish man. You could see her trying to hate him.
As Clayton eloquently puts it -
“…God forbid any truth should complicate your convictions.”
And I wonder, would she have come to her senses quicker if Clay had been different? If he could have walked away from her?
No, because then Clay wouldn’t have been Clay. For him, Elena was it.
So to come back to the title of this post, by the end of the book I’d forgiven Elena and Clay never held it against her to begin with. Philip mattered very little really. The author had successfully made me love the romance of the lead pair in the story and forget the issue of infidelity completely. To be honest if it hadn’t been for some enthusiastic discussions on goodreads I wouldn’t have given it much thought on my reread. My issues were with Elena’s purposeful blindness and her selfish stubbornness. I didn’t doubt by the end of the book that no lasting damage had been done to Philip, that he would move on.
Infidelity is one of those issues that I think no amounts of debating will ever resolve. Every person has a different perspective on it and circumstances beyond your personal principles often decide whether or not you can/should forgive the one who cheated on you.
But there’s no doubt that we often forget the hurt that the secondary characters in fiction suffer when the lead pair walk off into the sunset breaking their trust (and their heart) with only the slightest pang of regret.