Kate Holden is the Australian author of the amazing memoir In This Skin. The Romantic is a follow-up to this memoir.
A bit about Kate Holden, she’s a woman from Melbourne who grew up in a respectable middle-class family. She then broke away from her stable family life and became a heroin addict and a prostitute, living and working on the streets of St Kilda in the 90’s.
Her first book In This Skin was the honest, frank and lovely telling of that turmultuous period of her life. Her first book was really amazing and unforgettable. It revealed what it was like to be a 20-something woman selling your body on the streets and in brothels. It gave insight into a side of men that most women never see.
Yet In this Skin was far from salacious and cheap. Instead Holden’s elegant prose elevated her dingy lifestyle above the mundane into something deeply profound. I remember that her words were transcendental and her stories of lonely male clients were told with care, fondness and excruciatingly intimate sensitivity. This book pretty amazing, one could even say it’s a timeless.
In this second book, Holden has overcome her heroin problem and has left sex work behind. Now she has got a writing grant and has winged her way over to Italy.
In the Romantic, Holden floats like a frond of a dandelion from one end of Italy to the other, going by train from lover to lover, feeling in turns full of sadness at leaving them and longing to see them again. She allows herself to be coerced willingly into group sex and has dalliances with men she doesn’t even like very much. She only seems to even enjoy the sex on one occasion, the rest of the time it seems she’s just going through the motions.
There is a real sense that she’s just travelling through Italy and blowing guys off because she needs a place to stay. Which is fine, no judgement, but there’s no indepth self-analysis in that…like why would I be doing this, what do I actually get out of this? how am I feeling with this? Which would make for more interesting writing.
The irony is this novel, The Romantic is anything but romantic. Perhaps the title is ironic then, a better title would be Self-Loathing,
The main reason it’s frustrating is there is no narrative arc here of self-discovery. No, instead there seems to be a lot of mindless, jarring fucking with a lot of men who just treat her like an object, and her open willingness and acceptance of being treated this way, which can be really cringey to read.
In the end, Holden doesn’t seem to learn anything from it, or rather come to any moment of self-realisation from it. I suppose that’s just like how life can be sometimes, with tragic or confusing events layering upon each other and nothing deeper to glean from it. But still, this is not a fulfilling or satisfying to find at the end of a novel. When one gets to the end, there needs to be a change, a shift in circumstance, or a psychological resolution of some kind. On a positive note, despite all of this, it was still very readable, she is a very skilled writer.
Kate Holden talks about how a brothel works