Grade : D-

I love a good enemies-to-lovers story. But when what’s depicted on the page is actually abuser/abused-to-lover, I call foul. Despite its overwhelmingly positive reception (it has a 3.88 star rating on Goodreads), Penelope Douglas’s Bully is one of the worst representations of enemies-to-lovers out there.

Next-door neighbors Tate Brandt and Jared Trent grew up together and used to be inseparable. Then Jared went away the summer before their freshman year, came back, and now he hates Tate. Hates her. Lives to make her suffer and cry. He’s such a negative presence in her life, she actually leaves the country to spend a year abroad as an exchange student.

Tate comes back from France determined to enjoy her last year of high school and to ignore Jared completely, taking to heart her best friend K.C.’s advice to finally fight back. Things start off promisingly. She stands up for herself, and guys are noticing her and interested. But it doesn’t take long for Jared to start up again, viewing this stronger, more self-assured Tate as a challenge. He sets out to make her life hell, and he succeeds.

But Jared is hot, and Tate can’t ignore that even though he lives to make her cry (that’s not hyperbole, he actually says this: “Letting out a fake pitiful sigh, he declared, ‘I’ll have you in tears in no time.’”), he also causes her to tingle in all the right places.

Bully depicts one of the most toxic relationships I’ve read since Jamie McGuire's Beautiful Disaster. Jared is in no way a hero. None. I lost count how many times he shoves his way into Tate’s space in a physically threatening manner. He’s cruel and hateful. He actually tells Tate he doesn’t care if she’s alive or dead. He manipulates people into helping him bully her. He uses girls for sex. Seriously, other than a six-pack and a cool car, what did anyone find the least bit appealing about this guy?

Perhaps more insulting than framing this guy as a potential love interest is the reason we’re given for his visceral hatred of Tate. Of course I can’t tell you here because spoilers, but the excuse we get for why Jared turned evil is beyond lame.

And after two years of treating Tate like garbage, Jared needed to do a whole lot more apologizing and explaining than we get to see. He needs to seek help for his emotional damage, anger issues and potential substance abuse problems. He sure as hell doesn’t deserve to be trusted in any significant way for a very long time.

The idea that Tate would ever fall in love with Jared after what he did to her is beyond sad. It sends a horrible message – that abusive behavior is okay if he’s a) super hot, b) super popular and c) was abused in some way himself.

And yet Tate is ready to drop her panties because…?

I have no idea. He’s hot. Once upon a time, he wasn’t a monster. He’s hot.

Then again, Tate isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. When Jared returns the summer of their fourteenth year and starts treating her like absolute crap after they had been practically inseparable besties for years, why doesn’t that girl get up in his face and insist on knowing what’s wrong with him? She just accepts that he’s going to be a total ass to her from that point on.

The secondary characters are almost as hateful as Jared. Tate’s best friend K.C. actually dates Jared, her attitude a flippant ‘get used to it’ despite the years of friendship they shared. So much for loyalty. Jared’s friend Madoc is a heinous little toady who’s on the road to becoming a full-fledged sexual predator. He has a mild redemption arc because he’s hot and he’s sequel bait.

The slut shaming. OMG, the slut shaming. Every girl who isn’t Tate is a slut or a girly-girl who only thinks about shopping. And along with that lovely trope, we have the All Boys Become Rapists Because The Heroine Is So Hot thing, just so Jared can enter beast-rage mode when Tate is threatened. I do have to give credit for Tate fighting for herself and having things under control when she’s assaulted. Multiple times. Guess the girls in that school get lots of practice fighting off sexual assault and harassment.

Tate’s dad works out of town and leaves her alone for months at a time. Jared’s mom is a neglectful alcoholic who leaves him alone to have massive kegger parties every weekend. What kind of neighborhood do these people live in that no one has an issue with underage kegger parties all the time? And what kind of police don't put a stop to it?

Sadly, the book is chock-full of straight-up wrong information. It’s set outside Chicago, and as a resident of the Windy City, I can tell you that 1) you will NEVER smell lilacs out your window in August, 2) you will NEVER have sex outside in an October rain shower, and 3) you will NEVER be reluctant to crawl out of your toasty warm bed on an steamy, humid August night.

“The evenings had turned chilly, so I was reluctant to step out of my warm bed.”

Literally four sentences later:

“It was either the warm, August evening or my nerves, but I had to roll up my sleeves to cool down as I left my yard and traipsed into his.”

This makes me nuts. As does the fact that Tate takes a basic high school level French course despite spending a YEAR in France and becoming fluent in French.

And while we're here, Tate is one of those most special-est of special unicorns, the orgasmic virgin. How lucky for her. Then again, there's nobody like an eighteen-year-old man-ho who knows how to get it done.

This book is billed as an enemies-to-lovers story. Except Tate and Jared are not ‘enemies’, because that implies some form of power balance between the two of them, which does not exist. Jared has all of the power, physically and socially. Tate is the victim of his abuse, and while she has more power than she uses to fight back, she is never put on equal footing with him.

“He wanted me to know he was in control. Time after time, I let the jerk force me into hiding just so I wouldn’t have to endure any embarrassment or upset.”

This book is the modern day equivalent of a bodice ripper in which the victim falls in love with her rapist. No, Jared never rapes Tate. But he sexually harasses, and mentally and emotionally abuses her. That's assault and violation, and to have her forgive him without some major intervention is just crazy.

And this is unfortunate, because there are the seeds of a good book here. What if Douglas had asked the hard questions as to why Jared had become a bully and treated it as the serious problem that it is, with Jared seeking help and making actual amends to Tate? And what if Tate had to deal with her own emotional damage at his hands and to work through the process of forgiving him? What if we saw Jared honestly and seriously working to regain Tate’s trust and friendship, and their relationship slowly healing and returning to a place of love?

Instead, we get a story of a ‘bad boy’ who is abusive and the sad girl who doesn't see that she is so much better and deserves so much more. Oh, plus a six-pack, fast cars and hot sex. So - why not an F instead of a D, you might ask? Because there were a couple of times - only a couple - where Tate showed some cleverness. And I did finish the book.

Reviewed by Jenna Harper
Grade : D-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : March 21, 2024

Publication Date: 02/2014

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Jenna Harper

I'm a city-fied suburban hockey mom who owns more books than I will probably ever manage to read in my lifetime, but I'm determined to try.
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