By Meg Tilly
St. Martins Griffin
After quitting acting some years ago, Meg Tilly (Agnes of God, The Big Chill) turned to writing novels. Tilly who was a very good actress proves to be an even better writer, but let’s first get the unpleasantness out of the way: Gemma is disturbing; Tilly doesn’t pull any punches with any of the details, but that’s what makes Gemma such a gripping story.
Told from Gemma’s point of view, readers first meet the 12 year-old while she is still at school, telling us that Buddy, her mother’s boyfriend, has arrived to pick her up. She’s surprised and says that it’s out of context for him to be there. From there we learn that Gemma enjoys going to school and studying. She likes learning new vocabulary and using the words. Although she has a bit of an edge to her, Gemma is a charming little girl.
However like most tweeners who like to talk, Gemma has a tendency to say too much; the reader discovers early on that Buddy has been molesting her since she was eight years old, telling her that if she says anything she will be going to jail. So Gemma has kept quiet, wondering if her mother even suspects of these nightly visits. Now Buddy feels that he can make an easy $100 and sells her for the afternoon to his friend Hazen Wood, who becomes obsessed with the girl.
A few days later, Wood kidnaps Gemma, throws her in the trunk of the car and embarks on cross-country trip a la Lolita. But Hazen is by no means the sophisticated and non-violent Humbert Humbert. Wood is a monstrous beast. He repeatedly rapes and beats Gemma, yet deludes himself to think that Gemma will eventually love him.
Tilly skillfully switches narratives often. From Gemma’s point of view, we read how she copes through “Gemma Travel,” imagining safe beautiful places where she’s far from the reaches of men like Buddy and Hazen, while Wood’s thoughts are twisted dreams of a child bride and family (Tilly includes a chilling passage that harks back to Lolita about fantasies of incest).
By the time Hazen and Gemma reach Chicago, the nightmare ends for the girl. Wood is taken into custody and Gemma goes to live with a sympathetic foster mother who was also sexually abused as a child. Tilly ends Gemma on cliff-hanger with Wood going to tria,l and Gemma telling her story to the jury.
Some readers will probably want more psychological drama, angst, and backstory, but there is no doubt that Gemma will leave readers raw, angry, and even dazed. Tilly’s characters jump from the pages in a realistically and frightening manner that overly sensitive readers might find the first half the book difficult reading, but given that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys are sexually abused (U.S.Department of Justice Statistics, 2002) it’s a story that needs to be told often and read by many. Kudos to Tilly for writing such a heartbreaking book.