Fiction: “The Cove” by Catherine Coulter

Oh … my god. Oh, my god. So I’m not even sure why I grabbed this for my vacation. I think I had been wanting to re-read some of Catherine Coulter’s stuff, but clearly, I had been able to block out the memory of reading this the last time. Because oh my god, you guys, I found a book that’s written worse than either Twilight or anything Patricia Cornwell’s spit out.

Because look: Twilight has bad messages and bad characters. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta is a snobby bitch, pure and simple. But in spite of the stuff that makes me rail against them long and hard, at the end of the day I am still able to find good things to say about them: Twilight, as bad as it is, at least is able to stay true to its own canon, and the violence is pretty decent in the Scarpetta novels. But this … I’m pretty sure that if there were a rating worse than “twilight stars,” this would get it. Maybe “die in a fire stars”? I mean, I could see myself burning this at some point.

Why do I want to eradicate this from my existence through the cleansing power of fire? Because it’s badly written. And not just a couple of typos here and there like in Twilight; it’s just … awful.

The plot. Susan “Sally” St. John Brainerd escaped from a sanitarium in Washington, D.C. to hide out with her Aunt Amabel in this tiny town called The Cove, Oregon. She is hiding because she is suspected of killing her father, Amory St. John. James Quinlan ends up in The Cove as well, ostensibly to bring Sally back to DC, but he ends up falling in love with her, like, immediately, so instead he decides to protect her. Because she seems to think that her father is still after her, even though he was buried two weeks ago.

But then! James gets conked over the head and Sally gets kidnapped back to the sanitarium! And then! James enlists his FBI pal Dillon Savitch to help break her out! And when they do, Sally learns that James isn’t the private detective he said he was, but an FBI agent! So she runs away, but gets caught by James and Dillon again when she tries to escape a biker gang! So she decides to hide with James, who she is also falling in love with, until the evil Dr. Beadermeyer (not making any of this up, by the way) tries to kidnap her again, but he is thwarted. And then there’s the Poirot-esque solving of the mystery — her father wasn’t really dead! Because Beadermeyer isn’t a psychiatrist, but a plastic surgeon, and put Sally’s father’s face on a random dude so he could escape and continue to sell arms to Iraq and other naughty places. So James and Sally return to the Cove because there’s still a mystery of where some random tourists disappeared to, and it turns out that the Cove is such a perfect town because the old people citizens keep killing the tourists and stealing their money in order to beautify the town, and there are tons of mass graves in the cemetery, and when the seniors are found out, they kidnap James and Sally (again), and Sally is kidnapped by her father, who is NOT DEAD, and it turns out that he’s been sleeping with Aunt Amabel for years and also, he is NOT HER ACTUAL FATHER, which is good because when he would visit Sally in the sanitarium, he’d beat her and abuse her sexually (but not rape her, because that would be awful), and eventually all the old people die and are put in jail, and Sally’s not-father is gunned down when he tries to escape from the FBI again, and honestly, I expected Sally to be kidnapped one more fucking time before the end of the book but luckily, even Catherine Coulter has her limits.

So how, aside from the plot, is it written poorly? The entire story is told via dialogue. And look, I am notorious for telling stories via dialogue — well, maybe you guys aren’t aware, but I have numerous half-written stories in My Documents wherein the action is primarily told through dialogue between parties. Rather than have an omniscient third-person narrator (which I do employ frequently), I love when characters already have a relationship and refer to shared moments in conversation, and that is how plot points are moved along.

What Catherine Coulter does is tell the story through dialogue, but shoddily and in a disjointed manner. And boy, do I have examples. Like, she doesn’t understand that there is a balance between “Show and Tell,” and instead, she uses Telling to Show.

For example: in this scene, Sally has just fallen off her motorcycle after trying to evade both Quinlan and Dillon and a motorcycle gang, who were actually decent people after all, as one of them is a doctor:

Quinlan dropped to his knees. “Can I take off her helmet?”

[The doctor biker dude replies:] “No, let me. I guess maybe we should wear helmets. If she hadn’t had one on, she might have scrambled her brains and not necessarily left them inside her head. You’re really FBI? She’s really a criminal?”

“Of course she is. What are you doing? Okay, you’re seeing if her arms are broken. She’d better be all right or I’ll have to flatten you. You scared the shit out of her. Yeah, she’s your typical criminal type. Why isn’t she conscious yet?” [200-201]

In addition to some shitty phrasing, we are also thrown in a shitty PSA that equates to “Wear Your Helmet, Kids.” But seriously, if I were Ms. Coulter’s editor, this is how that last paragraph would sound:

“Of course she is.” The doctor started patting Sally’s arms. Quinlan reached out and grabbed his wrist. “What are you doing?”

“I’m checking to see if her arms are broken,” said the doctor, in an offended tone.

“Oh. Okay.” Quinlan sat back on his haunches, duly chastised. Sally still wasn’t waking up. “Why isn’t she conscious yet?” he asked, worried.

HOW MUCH BETTER DOES THAT SOUND? You know why? Because some of the action is being described instead of narrated, and it doesn’t feel as clunky as a ten-pound bowling ball being carried by a ballerina. (Think about it.)

AND THAT’S JUST ONE EXAMPLE. I LITERALLY HAVE 21 MORE, and those are only the WORST OF THE WORST. (I will not show all 21. But know that, at any time, I could whip one out.)

Oh, speaking of Blazing Saddles, here’s another example: Quinlan wants to get the major players together for his Poirot-dump.

He handed [Sally] the phone.

“Mom, then Scott, then Beadermeyer.”

[After hanging up with her mother …] She started to dial Scott’s number. Quinlan lightly touched his hand to hers and shook his head. “No, I think your mom just might get the other players there.”

“He’s right,” Dillon said. “If she doesn’t, then we’ll talk to her alone. We need to anyway. We need to know exactly where she stands in all of this mess.”

“James is right,” Sally said and swallowed hard. [240-241]

Okay, first of all, who else went in their heads, “Howard Johnson is right”? Second of all, YOU JUST ASKED HER TO CALL ALL THREE PEOPLE. Thirty seconds later, you decided to let her mom do the dirty work and NO ONE QUESTIONED THE CHANGE OF MIND?! I — I —

Then, when they finally do get to see Sally’s Mother, she is just as clueless to how dialogue should sound as the rest of them:

“Mrs. St. John, we saw the car parked on Cooperton. Sally was here. Is she still here? Are you hiding her?”

Noelle St. John stared at his ID, then at Dillon’s. Finally, after an eternity, she looked up and said, “I haven’t seen my daughter for nearly seven months, Agent Quinlan. What car are you talking about?”

“A car we know she was driving, Mrs. St. John,” Dillon said.

“Why are you calling my daughter by her first name? Indeed, Sally is her nickname. Her real name is Susan. Where did you get her nickname?” [176]

Wouldn’t … if you were curious as to a stranger using your daughter’s nickname, wouldn’t that, I don’t know, immediately follow the stranger’s use of said nickname? And not remember three questions later?

And then there are the moments when characters answer the same question multiple times in the same line of dialogue. Have a few:

“Please tell me you believe me. I wouldn’t kill your father.”

“Yes, Noelle, I believe you — although if you had shot him I would have applauded you. But no, I never really believed that you did.” [174]

“You found him?”

“Not yet, but I found his footprints beneath your bedroom window and the indentations of the ladder feet. Yeah, our man was there. What size shoe does your husband wear, Sally?” [113]

“She’s going to her mother’s house. Not her husband’s house. You know my intuition, my gut. But to be honest about it, I know her. She feels something for her mother. That’s the first place she’ll go. I’ll bet you both her father and her husband put her in that sanitarium in the first place. Why? I haven’t the foggiest idea. I do know, though, that her father was a very evil man.”

“I assume you’ll tell me what you mean by that later?”

“Drive faster, Dillon. The house is number 337 on Lark. Yeah, I’ll tell you, but not now. Let’s get going.” [172-173]

You know what else I’m noticing? Catherine Coulter has never embraced the awesome punctuation mark that is the semicolon.

Which also leads me to believe that, for her original draft, she was paid by the word. Because otherwise, there’s no reason for extraneous information that doesn’t move the plot along, or come back to be recalled later. For instance:

Quinlan told him about the old couple he was looking for. He didn’t say anything about the townspeople lying to him.

“Over three years ago,” the sheriff said, looking at one of Amabel’s paintings over Sally’s head, this one all pale yellows and creams and nearly blueless blues, no shape or reason to any of it, but it was nice. [57]

Why? Why describe the painting, as if it were going to have a clue in it later on down the road? What’s the point? Or how about the bajillion times the old lady told Quinlan and Sally about the gyrowhatevers her husband What’s-His-Face made before he died of pneumonia the year Eisenhower was elected? Dudes, I didn’t have to look that up to paraphrase it, it was mentioned that frequently.

And then there’s the times when characters just get confused about what they were talking about in the middle of a scene. For your amusement, the first page I dogeared with a sigh of disgust:

Suddenly she stood up, her eyes fixed on something just off to the right. She shook her head, whispering, “No, no, it can’t be.”

He was on his feet in an instant, his hand on her shoulder. “What the hell is it?”

She pointed.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Stay here, Sally. Just stay here and I’ll go check it out.”

“Oh, go to hell, Quinlan. No, I don’t like Quinlan. I’ll call you James. I won’t stay put.” [49]

CLEARLY, Sally sees something that scares her. Instead of merely voicing her protest at being treated like a scared female (which is something else I may discuss, if I still have the energy later), she also in that moment decides what she’s going to call Quinlan. In the middle of being mad at him. That sentence does not make logical sense!

And before I get into the Sally-as-Damsel, I have to say that she’s not the only person afflicted by What Was I Talking About-Itis. Even the villain gets in on it!

“I should have known you two goons would fuck it up. Pick up the damned needle, you idiot. Jesus, it’s dark in here, but not dark enough. I knew I should have just knocked her out. Or shot the little bitch. Damn, let’s just get out of here. Forget the needle, forget her.” [233]

And just think — these aren’t even the best of the worst! I realize that, by this time and this many words, I have made my point and made it well. But when have you ever known me to stop? And besides, if this little post does anything, I’m hoping it will ensure that you, dear reader, never picks up The Cove. I was actually having a conversation about this very book last Sunday with some friends after midnight, and I was discussing what I hope this blog does. I hope it inspires people to pick up books they may not have picked up. Sometimes (and what I hope is the majority of the time), I hope it inspires the reader to pick up a book that sounds interesting. However, I admit, that there are times that it could inspire a reader to pick up a book by saying, “No way is it that bad.”

For a prime example of that, I’d like to take a moment and redirect y’all to the fun time I read Decadent, and that was all because my friend Sarah saw that I had read Bound and Determined and said “ALAINA you HAVE to read Decadent because one of the lines in it is, hand to God, ‘Fucking her ass, saving her life.'” And I said, “It can’t be that bad.”

And lo, it was. So guys, if you’ve gotten through all this and are still contemplating picking it up because it can’t be that bad, please: allow me to continue with a couple more.

Because now we get into the good stuff. The ludicrous stuff. The I Can’t Believe This Got Published Stuff.

The Melodramatic Stuff.

She waved away his words. “Someone was after me, James. Nobody was after you.”

“It didn’t matter.”

She began to laugh. “Actually there were two someones after me, and you were the second, only I was too stupid, too pathetically grateful to you, to realize it. I’m leaving, James. I don’t want to see you again. I can’t believe I thought you were a hero. God, when will I stop being such a credulous fool?” [162]

Oh, this is a good one. Here’s the quote, and it’s Sally telling James about a family incident.

“Once when I’d been visiting Noelle, after I left to go back to my apartment, I realized I’d forgotten my sweater. I went back into the house and there he was, kicking my mother. I went to the phone to dial 911. As far as I was concerned, it was the last straw. I just didn’t care anymore. He was going to pay. You won’t believe it, but my mother crawled to me, grabbed my leg, and begged me not to call the cops. My father stood there in the library doorway and dared me to do it. He dared me, all the while watching my mother sobbing and pleading, on her knees, her nails digging into my jeans. Jesus, it was horrible. I put down the phone and left. I never went back. I just couldn’t. Nothing I did mattered, not really. If I was there for a while, he just waited until I left. Then he probably beat her more viciously than if I’d never been there at all.” [238-239]

Now, if you had flipped back about fifty pages [pages 171-172, to be exact], you would have seen this exact same scene, but given with the dialogue as Sally remembers it to herself. So instead of saying something along the lines of Sally told Quinlan about the last time she had seen her father beat her mother, Ms. Coulter recounts it nearly exactly from when she had first introduced the scene fifty pages ago. I maintain: paid by the word.

So, remember that Sally was institutionalized by her father and her husband because they thought she was crazy? Here’s her husband’s rationalization for her insanity:

“Why did you believe I was sick, Scott?”

He didn’t say anything, just waved his pipe at her. “You weren’t a good wife. Your dad swore to me that your career was just something for you to do until you got married. He said you were just like your mother, a woman who really wanted a husband to take care of and children to look after. I wanted a wife to stay home and take care of me, but you wouldn’t do it. I needed you there, to help me, to understand me, but no, you never stayed there for me.” [259]

I’ve decided I’m too tired to get into the misogyny found in this novel — from Sally’s multiple kidnappings to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Dr. Beadermeyer, his assistant, and her not-father, there’s plenty enough to talk about. So I’m not even going to bring up the fact that apparently Scott only wanted Sally to be barefoot and menial in the house.

What I am going to bring up? The fact that Scott’s gay. And has a lover in London. What type of gay man would want a female beard to clean the kitchen? Because lemme tell you, that kitchen is spotless.

This … this one, I’m not going to say a word. Just read it.

She gave him a long look, and again that look was filled with quiet rage. “You are nothing more to me. None of this is any of your business. Go to hell, James.”

She turned away from him and walked down the wooden steps. It was chilly now. She wasn’t wearing anything but that too-small shirt and jeans.

“Come back, Sally. I can’t let you go. I won’t let you go. I won’t see you hurt again.”

She didn’t even slow down, just kept walking, in sneakers that were probably too small for her as well. He didn’t want her to get blisters. He’d planned to go shopping for her tomorrow, to buy her some clothes that fit her, to — damn, he was losing it.

He saw Dillon standing near the water line, unaware that she was walking away.

“Sally, you don’t know where you are. You don’t have any money.”

Then she did stop. She was smiling as she turned to face him. “You’re right, but it shouldn’t be a problem for long. I really don’t think that I’m afraid of any man anymore. Don’t worry. I’ll get enough money to get back to Washington.”

It sent him right over the edge. He slammed his hand down on the railing and vaulted over it to land lightly only three feet away from her. “No one will ever hurt you again. You will not take the chance of some asshole raping you. You will stay with me until this is over. Then I’ll let you go if you don’t want to stay.” [163]

And finally, the piece de resistance. The ultimate in Badness. You are going to be astonished, I promise you.

So Sally has been kidnapped for the umpteenth time, this time by her not-father. And her not-father is monologuing about his reasons for institutionalizing her and making her life a living hell. And here is where he brings up her gay husband:

“And, you see, I knew all about his lover. At least I made sure you didn’t get AIDS.” [316]

At least I made sure you didn’t get AIDS. THANKS, NOT MY DAD. Thanks for caring about my immune system’s health while you jacked off to the sight of my drug-addled body.

I can’t even, you guys. I can’t even. All I know is about halfway through the book, I would read a page, roll my eyes, and then proclaim loudly, “I am reading a book with substance next. I can’t take this shit anymore.”

Alaina Patterson: Reading Shit So You Don’t Have To (since 1986). You’re welcome.

Grade for The Cove: Twilight stars


2 thoughts on “Fiction: “The Cove” by Catherine Coulter

  1. I was searching for something, I don’t even know what anymore and i found you. I love you a little bit, are you on goodreads?

    • I am on Goodreads! You can search for me, or follow through my “Currently Reading” widget. I think… I think that’s how that works.

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