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Music was always an escape for Iris Black. It also turned into his golden ticket out of a traumatically abusive home situation on Chicago’s south side. Together with his band, Pretty Broken, and especially the guitarist, Caspian Locke, Iris thought he had found a way to survive. It didn’t take long, however, for the patina to start wearing off. Instead of satisfying his need to create through music, the pressures of superstardom began to weigh on him. Iris yearned for ways to numb himself. Everything was made unfathomably worse because his younger brother, Marc, was still living in the same horrible circumstances that Iris had escaped. Guilt doesn’t come close to describing the despair Iris suffered when he learned his brother committed suicide. Time hasn’t healed him and, thanks to a manipulative manager, neither his music nor the band can touch the grief that consumes Iris.
Caspian fell in love with Iris the first time they met, and countless times thereafter. The man simply filled Caspian with such joie de vivre, he couldn’t help but want to keep Iris for himself, to protect this precious person from every horrible thing. That feeling jumped into overdrive when Caspian learned just how abusive Iris’ family was. Starting a band and launching a career as a musician should have been fun. But the glitter of fame paled compared to the fleeting moments when he acted on his love for Iris. After months of orbiting each other, but too afraid to act, Caspian and Iris began a romance that ended in heartbreak when Caspian trusted their manager over Iris’ express wishes.
Caspian and Iris have run hot and cold ever since, though the times they run cold far outnumber the times they run hot. Caspian is just starting to realize who holds the real power over their lives: the manager who refuses to give anyone in Pretty Broken a break, least of all Iris. Caspian finally starts to make inroads towards at least being amicable with Iris. But that’s exactly when the depth of their manager’s maniacal greed and self-interest threaten to push them all past their breaking points.
Pretty F*ucked is book 4 in J.R. Gray’s Pretty Broken series; it forms a duology with the next book, Pretty Black, and first three books focus on different characters in Iris and Caspian’s band. I read the blurb and was immediately intrigued by the set-up. The idea that two lovers were torn apart because one of them betrayed the other and now the character who did the betraying somehow has to make peace with maybe never getting back together? That’s angst on a level I could not refuse.
When the blog was offered a copy of the duology for review purposes, we clarified with the author’s representative whether these two stories could stand alone and were assured that it was not necessary to read the prior books in the series in order to enjoy and understand this one. However, when I started the book, it became clear that this story doesn’t stand alone after all. The more I read, the more I realized these characters have rich backstories not included in this book. This made it incredibly difficult to review the story as written, as I was coming from a place of having none of the backstory and my feelings about the book would be, at least to some degree, influenced by all that I was missing. Given that, we made the decision that I would share my thoughts on the story, but not provide an official rating. (As a note, I am assuming that at least some of this backstory is explained in earlier books, though I have no way of knowing for sure.)
The story intentionally skips forward and backward in time to show Iris and Caspian at various points in their careers and relationship. I wish this had served as a narrative device to explain how past events precipitated current events, like little waves that crested with “aha” moments. Instead, I felt like I was jumping arbitrarily through time and between narrators where the purpose was simply to show time and again how Iris and Caspian fail to communicate, thus giving them something to hold against each other. A significant portion of the drama circles around how Iris and Caspian clearly love each other, but that love is seemingly irrevocably ruined because Iris feels that Caspian betrayed his trust. The details of this betrayal get painfully teased out, mostly through Iris and Caspian sniping at each other with comments like “you know what you did” and “how could you?” (Iris) and “why can’t you forgive me” and “I did it to save you from yourself” (Caspian). Iris and Caspian are reduced to variations on this theme until, finally, we get to a flashback scene where Caspian is just about to spill the beans to their manager about Iris’ erratic behavior except…the scene just cuts out immediately before Caspian says the words and it’s not followed up at any point by the ramifications of Caspian having confided in their manager.
There is angst, and lots of it, but it feels very distant because it’s so completely shrouded in vague language and references to scenes and events that just simply do not appear on page. There is also a frustratingly large number of things that the characters mention, but that do not get explained or explored here. Iris’ traumatic upbringing and the guilt he feels over not being physically present for his little brother is one. Who Iris’ lover in Seattle is and why he was bad news is another. Why Iris destroyed their manager’s office? Why it’s so important to Iris that he not be the receptive partner in anal sex and, conversely, why it’s such a big deal when Caspian gets to penetrate him? Instead of teasers that turn into ways that move the plot forward or develop the characters in some way, these felt like buzzwords that harken back to shared experiences from the characters’ past, but sadly not shared with me, the reader.
Overall, I just felt grossly disappointed by the reading experience. The story overall lacked any cohesion. I really missed any sense that all this jumping forward/backward along the band timeline and swapping narrators built the story up. This made it impossible for me to find any connection with the characters or what they were going through. If anyone is interested in this book or the themes it touches on, I strongly urge you to start at the beginning so you have the full story on these characters and their history.