NOVEMBER 27, 2019
LISKA JACOBS’S The Worst Kind of Want opens with our narrator, Pricilla Messing, or Cilla, 43, acting as a responsible adult. She’s taking care of her elderly mother in Los Angeles, then gets called away to Italy to keep an eye on her 15-year-old niece. Hannah is the daughter of Cilla’s dead sister, Emily, who becomes the central ghostly figure of this novel.
Cilla, we soon learn, has been taking care of other people her entire life, and we meet her in a moment of burnout. She’s tired, she feels old, she’s ready for an escape from her reality, all elements of which seem rather depressing: a dying mother, a halted career, and a long, non-exclusive relationship that she might not like very much, but seems to have accepted. His name is Guy. They started fooling around when Guy was “much older” and Cilla was 15, the same age Hannah is now.
From the moment Cilla lands in Italy, she backslides into girlhood, swapping out her heroic selflessness for the selfishness she perhaps grew out of too early. She knows her focus should be acting as zia to Hannah, and it sort of is, but more interesting to her is Hannah’s handsome friend, Donato, who’s in his last year of high school. “The boy’s name is Donato,” is this book’s revealing first line. The literal translation of Donato’s name, “given,” also turns out to be quite revealing, once we get to the unexpected ending. Donato is beautiful, full of bravado, and described in such luscious tones that we’re on edge about Cilla’s motives from their initial encounter.
Rome, “the original Hollywood,” is the perfect complementary backdrop for a tale about a woman who wants to escape reality — or from whom reality has already begun to slip away. “Hollywood has ruined me. I’ve lived in an imitation world my whole life.” To Cilla, who grew up in show business, the city seems like a set, and perhaps it is this, the feeling of being in a pretend world, that inspires her to lean into her irresponsible fantasies, which she’s beyond ready to do. One gets the feeling that Cilla’s dreamy inner state could conjure any place into a hallucinatory experience, but Italy, in its summertime grandeur, makes it especially easy.
As we follow Cilla from Rome to Puglia, where Hannah and Donato’s families rent a masseria at an olive farm, we are watching a woman unravel, and Jacobs does an incredible job of painting an achingly true portrait of what that’s like. While there’s a lot going on plot-wise, this is a narrative that’s focused deeply on Cilla’s mind. Quickly we realize that she’s not very present, and then we might start to think she’s obsessive.
It is in her current preoccupations that the creepiness of this novel shines. From the get, Cilla is observing herself in comparison to Hannah. She compares their periods, for example. “[Hannah’s] womb probably gushes blood and mucosal tissue,” whereas hers is “like dried seeds, crushed together to make a stain.” Later she steals Hannah’s lip balm. The spirit of this silent contempt is sisterly, because in Hannah, Cilla sees Emily. “Her pout is exactly like her mother’s and for a moment I think she might be Emily incarnate.”
Soon after swiping the lip balm, Cilla takes off her top for Donato in a window to show him her bra. The next day, she wears the same bra to a spa where his mother is present. Cilla knows this is something to feel guilty about, but she can’t seem to stop herself, and we don’t really want her to either. Watching Cilla careen into more bad choices is the naughty fun of this book, and Jacobs nails the slow burn as tension builds first between the lovers and then between the lovers and the world. Their forbidden, sexy rendezvous make for a gripping arc, above which hangs the best suspenseful question: will they get caught?
As the story drives forward, equal weight is given to the present and the past. Jacobs is adept at guiding us through a pungent, breathtaking Italy, as seen by Cilla, who’s romanticizing all of it. We don’t stay scenic for too long though. We constantly boomerang back to Cilla’s interior narrative about Emily.
While hefty portions of backstory chop up the drama in a way that makes for a bumpy ride, they are also masterfully constructed, building upon themselves over time to form a satisfying under-layer of history that illuminates why Cilla is the way she is. Jacobs is particularly smart about how and when new details are doled out. Still, there is the sense while reading the historical bits that we are doing it out of a sense of duty to Cilla, who’s drawn so well. There is also, perhaps, the desire that they be shorter, because it’s the Notes On A Scandal–esque romance we want to get back to.
As things steam up between Cilla and Donato, Hannah reveals that she has a crush on the boy. This reignites the complicated rivalry that Cilla felt with Emily, who was, Cilla tells us, the pretty one. It is worth noting here that Guy also considered Emily to be the star. In fact, he thought she had real potential to be a child actor, and he did not feel this way about Cilla.
Descriptions of Donato’s young body are horribly dazzling. Jacobs does not shy away from a sex scene, which, in a book like this, is a good idea. Other dramatic moments, however, are given to us in the form of a hit-and-run. We get a big piece of information, a heightened moment we want to sink our greedy teeth into, and then the section or chapter ends and suddenly we’re far into the future, looking back. It’s almost as if Cilla blacks out in these moments, and perhaps that’s in line with her character profile as a trauma survivor, if she could be identified as such. She’s absolutely not identified as such, however. The concept of trauma and the identity of Cilla as a survivor are barely given a nod, and this seems like a missed opportunity.
The cruelty of the hourglass is weighing heavily on Cilla, who’s lived her life mistaking the crumbs for the cookie, but it is not just the fact of getting older that causes her to have an affair with a high schooler:
There must be something to prevent menopause, just for a little while longer. I have not done enough, there hasn’t been sufficient time. Men are lucky. […] I think of Guy, ordering the film crew around, how this always impresses the starlets. I imagine Donato at the club with his friends. The world makes room for them at any age.
The anger here is Cilla’s motive — anger about being a female, sure, and anger about living so passively, as well, but what about her anger over her relationship with Guy, and the obvious and unexplored parallel between that and Cilla’s affair with Donato, which seems like a direct retaliatory move? As Guy sucked the youth out of Cilla, Cilla sucks the youth out of Donato, and this is why the translation of his name is so on point. He’s “given,” like a sacrificial lamb.
Unlike the HBO movie The Tale, in which Laura Dern’s character as an adult comes to understand that maybe her much older “boyfriend” was actually her victimizer, Cilla has no such realization. She doesn’t even come close. In fact, she continues to see Guy. Instead of focusing on this rich role reversal, with or without Cilla’s full consciousness of it, the text draws us back instead to the haunting of Emily. This might work better if Emily, though dead, felt more alive on the page. And it might work better, too, if Cilla came to understand that her memories of Emily are faulty, and still seen through the scrim of petty adolescence. Cilla spends a great deal of this book recounting memories she does not question. It feels like watching someone go to endless therapy sessions and emerge untreated.
The action moments at the end of The Worst Kind of Want are wonderfully surprising and a pleasure to read. Then, in the very last sentences, we take a quick swerve back inside Cilla’s mind for a final epiphany, which dutifully braids the elements of this plot together, but perhaps not with the strands we most care about.