Jane of Battery Park
By Jaye Viner
Red Hen Press
Jane, a nurse who escaped an ultra-conservative evangelical upbringing to live in hiding in LA, runs into her college crush Daniel, the lesser-known brother of a womanizing movie star. As Jane and Daniel rekindle their romance, they try to hide their dark pasts from each other: for Daniel, the traumatic event that put him in a prosthetic leg, and for Jane, her estranged family’s notoriety as Christian terrorists.
Jane of Battery Park opens as a deceptively cute rom-com—a Tinder date gone wrong, a Kardashian-esque confrontation at the home of Hollywood elites—but then suddenly gets very dark. Jane’s from a “Vanguard” family, a covert group of extremists who kidnap and publicly torture celebrities for “sins against family values” via livestream. As far as she tries to run, the Vanguard always catches up. Daniel, meanwhile, has permanent physical and psychological damage from losing his leg, and with it his passion of competitive surfing. Both are entwined with the Vanguard more than they know, and the story’s suspense hinges upon gory flashbacks revealed piecemeal between the tender beats of a modern romance.
The thriller-romcom structure makes for a roller coaster of a reading experience. One scene is surfing and tut-tutting about a dysfunctional open marriage; the next is running from the police, and also, the terrorists. The fuel of their relationship drama has little to do with exes or career paths, and everything to do with the trauma they’ve endured and of which they’re terrified to mention. Ironically, the trauma is one and the same, and they finally learn that by working together they can build little moments of peace for one another. The result feels somewhat like the conclusion to the horror hit It Follows: a couple on the run from a shared past demon that never quite goes away, pledging to help each other escape—for now.
Everything about Jane of Battery Park is unexpected, precarious, paranoid, and quirky. Viner’s dialogue is at once banal, punchy, and self-aware, with as many laugh-out-loud moments as kick-in-the-gut ones. Her knack for counterintuitive pairings doesn’t disappoint: Midwestern nurse dating Hollywood royalty, a motherhood story embedded in a heist, right-wing extremists lurking in the shadows of Hollywood decadence.
In a similar way, the characters bring a unique perspective to oft-overproduced tropes. Viner paints a fun, lurid, grimy, and shiny picture of LA that only a Midwesterner could accomplish: her narrators are generally unimpressed with LA, keeping their heads down as they try to survive, pushing back stubbornly when the city’s chaos threatens their fragile peace. Another example is Jane’s body dysmorphia, which comes not from admiring the eternally starved celebrities of LA as one might expect, but by the guilt she feels about failing to be a mother—something incurred by her religious upbringing, not her current secular life. Her hourglass figure she perceives as a point of shame, not “hotness.” In literature, that common female experience of being “technically hot but unable to like it” or “good for the male gaze, bad for self-respect” is rarely represented, often in favor of certain male writers’ propensity to lavish lusty word count on women’s curves. In fact I could hear such a male writer rambling on about Jane’s breasts in all her interactions with Daniel’s egomaniacal brother, Steve.
Jane of Battery Park is not a formulaic book. It is not a romance nor a thriller nor a heist, but all at the same time. The plot is chaotic, because these people’s lives—their families, and emotions, and their city of LA—are chaotic. The “suspension of disbelief” required to enjoy a romance, thriller, and heist is required to enjoy Jane of Battery Park thrice over. For me personally, a number of plot points strain believability. That being said, Jane of Battery Park will not sit easy on my bookshelf, and I’ll certainly be seeking out more romantic thrillers of this sort in the future.
Jane of Battery Park is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.