by Molly Pohlig
- Genre: Gothic Romance
- Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
- Length: 288 pages
- Available: April 14, 2020
About the Author: Molly Pohlig graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English, and from University College Dublin with an MA in Film Studies. She is the associate editor for Vogue Knitting Magazine, and has written humorous pieces and personal essays for Slate, The Toast, Racked, and The Hairpin. Originally from Virginia, she currently lives in Brooklyn.
Summary: Iseult Wince, a Victorian woman with a reputation unbecoming of her role and social status, has, through a rigorously nurtured eccentricity, managed to repel every suitor her overbearing father has laid out in front of her. Aided and admonished by the spirit of her dead mother—who speaks to her from inside a scar on her neck—Iseult endures the life of an undesirable through compulsive self-harm and a litany of uncouth and unstable behaviors. That is, until her father forces her engagement to a silver-skinned man of similar disrepute in a desperate attempt to remove her from his care. Unable to deal with her rapidly changing world, Iseult must find a way to navigate between the new fiancé, her disgusted father, and a bipolar mother whose ghostly influence over her mind and body is becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable.
While the label of “Gothic Romance” will likely bring to mind a very particular sort of reader—someone like the dark and bookish English major you see sitting behind the window of a cafe, clutching a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre and surviving solely off of strong prose and even stronger coffee—it is clear from the the first few pages of The Unsuitable that you don’t need to be a loyal fan of the classics to appreciate what Molly Pohlig has accomplished. This dark, bloody, and depravedly funny novel pokes and prods at the boundaries of genre, creating a unique, stylistic voice that proves to be a “Dear John” letter to the typical Victorian ghost story. Not only does it shine as a singular approach to a well-worn format, but it succeeds in pulling the reader into a twisted journey that they were unlikely prepared for.
All of that aside, the element that stands out the most in this tale of compulsion, broken families, and the failings of traditional gender roles, is the unreliable narrator herself—Iseult Wince—whose appetite for self-deprecation and self-harm can occasionally be hard to stomach, but is never used for shock value alone. Instead, what the reader gets is a candid look at one woman’s struggle for independence in a culture designed to disparage her. Granted, the way she responds to her circumstances are never pretty, or healthy, but it is these very reactions—as violent and irrational as they may be—that really drives home the sense of loss and helplessness that she feels. Whether this behavior is symptomatic of extreme mental illness, or, as Iseult believes, merely a mechanism to help her cope with a distant father and the overbearing ghost of her mother, is up to the reader to decide for themselves.
What this marvelously grotesque, debut novel proves, above all else, is that the spirit of Gothic Romanticism remains alive and well today. Whether you read it as a Victorian ghost story, or are donning your critical lens to explore the horrifying realities of mental illness, this gripping, visceral tale of a woman destroying herself to spite the world will be sure to please. Do yourself a favor; draw the curtains, slip into your blackest mourning attire, and dig deep into the uncanny world of The Unsuitable—you won’t regret it.