Toronto writer Kerry Clare’s sophomore novel begins with the fall of superstar politician Derek Murdoch. Standing accused of sexual assault, Derek denies the anonymous allegations at a press conference, viewed via livestream by his most recent girlfriend, Brooke. From there, the novel unspools through flashback, as Brooke not only reckons with the shocking and very public news but mourns the painful disintegration of her doomed-from-the-start relationship with Derek.
Known as much for his high-minded principles as for liking a “good time,” Derek first meets Brooke at a local dive bar when she is a high-schooler. (“I would have voted for you, if I’d been old enough,” she quips ominously.) Derek has a habit of recruiting young “girls” from the dance floor and Brooke becomes a member of his staff, trusted confidante, and eventually secret girlfriend.
Brooke is 23 – a fresh yet practical young optimist in love who feels like she is being taken seriously and that her work actually matters. She tolerates Derek’s myriad manipulations as necessary, accepting his excuses to the point where she starts making them on his behalf. Derek is a supposedly wiser 38, ever the consummate politician, hiding behind convenient, opaque phrases and wielding subtle gaslighting techniques to his advantage. Stereotypically charming and a beloved “feminist,” he exposes his puppy-eyed vulnerabilities just enough to keep Brooke exactly where he wants her.
A sickening feeling grows along with their relationship. Walking a fine line between run-of-the-mill jerk-slash-idiot and monstrous emotional abuser, Derek is largely protected by Brooke’s justifications, and the reader must look beyond her narrative to discern who he really is. When Derek is ultimately at his most egregious, Brooke predictably lets him back in. As one wise friend remarks, “Is there anything this guy has ever done that you can’t misconstrue as noble?”
In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.”
It is painful to watch Brooke being manipulated by Derek, but Clare thankfully hasn’t painted her as naive or foolish for believing in him. Instead, she’s shown how easy the descent into defending your abuser can be and how hard it can be to pull yourself out once you’ve fallen into that trap. The novel argues we are all potentially “that type of woman,” despite how rampant ridiculing, blaming, and shaming from afar can be.
Waiting for a Star to Fall lacks clear resolution but it does a more accurate job of depicting reality than any tidy closure could. There is rarely any satisfying outcome for what young women like Brooke endure: “You just get on with it. You have to.”