REVIEW : Catboat Road – Kate Rounds

Catboat Road Book Cover Catboat Road
Kate Rounds
Lesbian Romance, Lesbian Fiction, LGBTQ Fiction
Bywater Boks
Sept 8, 2022

Mrs. Robinson, meet Holden Caulfield—if Holden were a smart, sexy teenage lesbian in love with her mother’s best friend.

For Candace “Ace” Ragsdale, Mrs. Forest is an irresistible force of nature: luscious, tantalizing—and maybe not completely out of reach.

No one in her family is moored to social convention—but they’ve each learned to surf the wave of the unfamiliar and make the most of chaos. From Ace’s womanizing-yet-worshipful brother to her elusive-yet-loving parents, we watch this well-meaning family weave its way into a rich tapestry of townspeople, often to comic effect.

The backdrop is the Massachusetts seaside town of Horton, cut off from the world. On the surface, boats sway on their moorings, while below bubbles a primal brew of salt and sea life—much like the Ragsdales, a decidedly modern family whose humor and goodwill skim breezily above an ocean of smoldering emotions.

Into this infinite chaos careens a rebel grandmother who shows up to help the family save the town windmill, whose mysterious energy whips up the coastal disturbances of a changing world. As this spectacle of public conflict and private anguish unfolds, we’re fully on Ace’s side as she pilots the turbulent waters of love, sex, and traditionally non-traditional small-town values.

Review By S.C. Principale

Member of the Paranormal Romance Guild Review Team

Catboat Road is home to a family of zany misfits who are free to be themselves—even when it leads to unexpected consequences. We open to find our female protagonist smoking weed with her brother as they watch their mother comfort a neighbor, the future love interest, who has just discovered her husband is having an affair. From the moment the narrator begins to talk about the neighbor, Mrs. Forest, you know that there’s some secret teenage longing going on. Candace obsessively describes the details of Mrs. Forest’s body… and we know that something is stirring. The problem? Well, Mrs. Forest is still married and Candace is a teenager, not an adult of legal age.

The story’s events unfold with painstaking detail and excellent wordcraft. Kate Rounds could probably give Samuel Johnson lessons… but it doesn’t erase a very problematic situation with the main plot—the romance between an underage girl and a needy adult desperate to feel attractive after her marriage cracks. Right from the beginning, as Candace says her parents let them do anything they want in terms of drugs and body art (but not ghosting people—that would be wrong), readers know that Candace is going to have to navigate this situation on her own. “Bill” (her mother) isn’t going to pass judgment, nor will she warn Candace about the dangers of this unorthodox experiment in pursuing the much older Mrs. Forest. In fact, as soon as Mrs. Forest leaves, Candace, her brother, Sawyer, and their mother discuss events in detail, using some pretty shocking language for a parent-child relationship. Early on in the book I struggled to continue as it was such an over-the-top shattering of family structure, as if Rounds was trying too hard. However, I chose to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that this would all play out in the plot.

And it does… kind of. We meet a whole zany cast of characters from political activist grandma, laid back Rags, the newspaperman dad, and Sawyer, Candace’s brother and best friend. We spend a lot of time getting to know this close-knit, peculiar New England town, where dirty secrets are no secret. There are several chapters of information that make you feel as if you’re lost in a modern day Dickens where drugs, gossip, and politics weave their way through a host of supporting cast members. From all of this, the truly important takeaway is that Candace’s fascination with Mrs. Forest began when she was just eleven years old. The story feels like an unsettling mix of creepy and cute at this point—almost like reverse grooming. Candace (now called Ase), although playing an innocent ingenue, has secretly been lusting and longing for the chance to claim the delectable Mrs. Forester for herself.

Through the swamp of smalltown gossip which is heartwarming and entertaining, we see the threads Ase and Mrs. Forest weave. Mrs. Forest wants Ase’s help with some ad copy that will go in the newspaper, and as a newspaperman’s child, this is Ase’s part-time job. When they meet to discuss the ad, Mrs. Forest begins to unload information about her past sexual history, her previous abortions, and her probably rape by an uncle. With her history, she ought to realize that what’s happening between her and Ase isn’t appropriate, but maybe because of that same past, she ignores it. Ase, cast as the more knowledgeable one, doesn’t steer the woman she admires out of the murky mess of starting a “jailbait” relationship. It’s tense and dark, under the guise of happy chatter, leaving the readers unsettled. Then—the bombshells start to fall. Mrs. Forest knows all about Candace’s spying and lusting. She doesn’t tell her to stop. Ase knows this is the secret “green flag” and she begins to plot her seduction and sexual conquest of Mrs. Forest with her brother.

Predictability soon sets in on Catboat Road. Ase and Suzie Forest start their almost-sexual relationship, spending hours making out while they’re supposed to be working. Bill, for all her hands-off parenting, can’t idly let her best friend, who is old enough to be her underage daughter’s mother, have sex with her child. But who is it she’s afraid of losing? Suzie, her best friend? Or Ase, her only daughter? Fragments and cracks appear in the solidarity of strange.

The novel has periods of frantic activity and then drags as people stew over problems and life with little action. Suzie and Bill’s relationship is stretched as they talk about the strange sexual affair they’re dancing around. Sawyer and Ase begin to fragment as Sawyer wants his sister out of Mrs. Forest’s clutches. Is rudderless Suzie Forest actually so helpless? Is Ase’s love so devoted and pure?

The gossipy tale of a town and one family’s entanglement in it starts to become a twisted horror instead of a romance.Look at this passage as Ase attacks and almost strangles Suzie, only stopped as the older woman forces herself free by violence. “I finally let go. Through one swollen eye, I glimpsed her leaning against the wall, then sliding down it, sitting on the floor, head on knees, arms crossed, my blood on her torn shirt, one bra strap slipping off her shoulder.

Blood ran down my cheek and into my mouth. Delicious, because she’d caused it.”

Rounds brings the drama and she isn’t afraid to show the ugliness of tainted love.

Catboat Road meanders on a dark and dangerous road which casually discusses sexual violence and underage sex with minors, putting both in the frame of “it was a different time” and “I wasn’t sure what was happening.” But Ase certainly does. Suzie Forest does now. They apologize to one another, and that should be where it ends.

But it isn’t. “Mrs. Forest muscled me under the turbine. It was urgent, maniacal sex. It wasn’t about getting off; it was about surrendering to something uncontrollable.”

This was never a romance. This was a story about destruction, and how it sometimes masquerades as love. The story is messy, entertaining, riveting—but also upsetting, disturbing, and dismissive. In the second half of the book, Suzie and Ase get it together—but Suzie still manages to get pregnant during a one night stand in New York. (There are so many layers to this book.) But all of the trauma, drama, and sleeping around is okay because eventually all of the families will move in together in one big house and raise Emma Lazarus Forest Ragsdale together. Ase and Suzie are together, despite all of their ups and downs, and Ase is now of age. It’s a happily ever after that I hope most readers appreciate, but it still feels strange and unsettled, rushed, even at 260-some pages.

Catboat Road is a book that will earn sharply divided opinions, with some probably comparing it to Lolita and others panning it as pretentious and trying too hard. As for my opinion, after reading this book, I give it an A for effort but only three-stars for content, story, character, and plot, as I’m unable to decide if this is a great work of literature or a deeply problematic quasi-romance. I’m riding the middle of Catboat Road.

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