Some Thoughts About The Heroine In Kelley Armstrong’s “Bitten”

30 Mar

armstrong-kelley-bitten

Elena Michaels seems like the typical strong and sexy modern woman. She lives with her architect boyfriend, writes for a popular newspaper, and works out at the gym. She’s also a werewolf.

Elena has done all she can to assimilate to the human world, but the man whose bite changed her existence forever, and his legacy, continue to haunt her. Thrown into a desperate war for survival that tests her allegiance to a secret clan of werewolves, Elena must reckon with who, and what, she is in this passionate, page-turning novel.

As I already said, this is the second time I read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. I read it again because I wanted to read the second one in this series, Stolen, and I remembered nearly nothing about Bitten except that I liked it a lot the first time I read it.

This post covers my thoughts about Elena, the heroine of Bitten, because damn, I have a lot:

The heroine

In the post linked above, I asked if Elena is a kick-ass heroine because Bitten is the only urban fantasy novel I’ve read so far. Nath said she isn’t a typical one “as in, tough attitude and language. She has her weakness, but she’s strong and smart” and I agreed with that. She also can be quite sarcastic at times.

Elena is strong in that she overcame her horrific past. She survived being bitten by a werewolf. And while she is strong physically, she knows she can’t take on every other werewolf and knows that sometimes it’s better to run. There are also things she’s squeamish about doing. For example, she can’t stomach watching someone getting tortured. Much of that is due to her struggle to not lose her human side to the werewolf side.

So yes, Elena is a mix of strong and weak and she faces one of my favorite problems in novels: the question of identity. She’s not sure who she really is. She wants to be human but – from her perspective – her werewolf side keeps messing this dream up.

The rant

But GROWL!, for roughly three hundred pages I was writing a major rant in my head about her while I read the novel and I constantly asked myself why I had liked Bitten a lot the first I read it. What had I been thinking!?

Elena starts the novel on the wrong foot for me: she struck me as a barely concealed Mary Sue character I so often encountered in fanfiction back when I read a lot of it. Only something in the world? Check. Orphan? Check. Molested by foster fathers? Check. Thinks of herself as rather unattractive? Check. But still highly favored by males? Check. (Yes, I know, it’s only the male werewolves that slaver over her, and that’s only because she’s the only female werewolf in existence but the effect is rather the same: Elena is very “special.”) “Loved little sister” statues with with quite a few men? Check.

This is accompanied by quite some interesting but rather unattractive character traits. Such character traits combined? Uh-oh. Very exhausting when you’re stuck in the head of that character for the whole story because it’s written in first person. Like Bitten is.

Elena is full of anger. She’s also stubborn to no end and argues and digs her heels in over nothing but barely bats an eyelash when she has cause to argue. She’s totally without self-awareness, coupled with stubbornness this means that she’s right and the others are wrong. All the time. I didn’t trust her one bit.

She engages is juvenile battles for supremacy with Clay, she lets herself get cuddled (and carried around) like a pup by all male werewolves of the pack (except Jeremy, the alpha, of course), she gets into trouble mostly because of her stubbornness. In short, she doesn’t act like what I would expect from a mature woman of thirty years.

And I haven’t touched upon how she handles her werewolf side and her relationship with Philip, an architect she’s living with in Toronto. Totally irresponsible.

Mediating factors

Of course, the point is that Elena has a lot to learn about herself. As I said, Elena’s struggle with her identity, her needing to accept her werewolf side, is the major story line in this novel. My problem is that for over 300 pages, there is not one ounce of self-awareness discernible on Elena’s side, and that, after ten years, she doesn’t at least have some kind of grip on and acceptance of her werewolf side. Even more, for three hundred odd pages, Bitten doesn’t exactly read as if Elena’s struggle with her identities is the major story line.

The balance is off. During that time, I didn’t understand Elena. While I don’t need to like characters, I need to understand them. At least some.

Maybe I was prejudiced by my Mary-Sue impression of Elena, maybe there is actually more in regards to her identity problem in the first three hundred pages and it was just too subtle for me to catch, maybe Elena was supposed to be a heroine you can’t trust, maybe it would have been better to see the “black moment” in Elena’s and Clay’s relationship (although I really liked that it happened off stage) to not snicker at dialogs like this [words in bold are in italic in the book]:

“You’re miserable because you don’t have what you want. Not because you want me.”
“Goddamn it!” Clay swung his fist out, knocking a brass penholder off the desk. “You won’t listen! You won’t listen and you won’t see. You know I love you, that I want you. Damn it, Elena, if I just wanted a partner, any partner, do you think I’d have spent ten years trying to get you back? Why haven’t I just given up and found someone else?”
“Because you’re stubborn.”
“Oh, no. I’m not the stubborn one. You’re the one who can’t get past what I did no matter how much–”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Of course you don’t. God forbid any truth should complicate your convictions.”
Clay turned and strode from the room, slamming the door behind him. (249/250)

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

For whatever reason, the characterization of Elena failed to engage me for three quarters of the novel and several times, I really was tempted to put the book down and be done with it.

The turning point

I’m glad I didn’t.

While I wouldn’t say that the last one hundred pages more than made up for what went before (the balance thing), at least there I found what I was looking for for the first three hundred pages: Elena’s two identities get confronted. Her struggle for identity – barely hinted at before because Elena was determined to be human – finally took center stage. What before read as an angry and stubborn chick bungling her way through a few days turned into a psychological interesting drama that forced Elena to face her two identities and deal with them. No longer was it possible for her to separate them and keep them in different worlds.

And yes, on the last few pages of the novel, Elena finds her self-awareness. She’s still argumentative, stubborn, aggressive, violent, moody, and all that (429), but she’s now aware of herself and accepts these traits as part of herself. And that turns her from a whiny and self-absorbed character into an interesting character. Now I’m looking forward to reading Stolen when before I was dreading it. A lot.

Hard to believe but I have more to say about this novel. So later this week: my commentary about Bitten.

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4 Responses to “Some Thoughts About The Heroine In Kelley Armstrong’s “Bitten””

  1. nath Monday, March 30, 2009 at 7:29 pm #

    LOL, great rant Taja πŸ˜€ well like I said in my review, I’m not sure I would have continued reading the series if it wasn’t the fact that I already had Stolen. I think that Elena is very different in the rest of the series. Also, I’m a bit confused at the “molested by foster fathers” part. I think that Ms Armstrong added that bit to make Elena darker and stronger, but it’s never mentioned again and actually, in one of the novella, I think Ms Armstrong forgot about this part and made Elena a virgin again LOL.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that Elena is very Mary Sue, but for the rest, I don’t disagree with you. She’s stubborn and ugh, while reading, you want to knock her on the head… and seriously, you just can’t help but root for Clay πŸ˜€

  2. Taja Monday, March 30, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

    Nath – Thanks! πŸ˜‰ It felt good to get it all out and ups, my review got much too long with it, so…

    Re the “molested by foster fathers” thing – I read it as her being touched and groped by them, not necessarily raped. I agree with what you see as the reasons for making it a part of Elena’s past.

    As for my Mary Sue comment – I agree, Elena certainly is not a fully fledged Mary Sue character. For example, she’s missing the common best-at-everything trait. But she’s so eerily close to the having-a-difficult-difficult-past! Mary Sues I found in fanfiction (the ones where the author throws in a non-canon character), I couldn’t help but see her like that. It’s there I first learned of this term. Maybe this explains my impression.

    “knock her on the head” – like that. πŸ˜€

  3. nath Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Ahhhh… when I re-read Bitten, I thought she’s been raped… but I guess groped makes more sense.

    True, true… but like I said, I think that the whole difficult past was to make her character darker. I wonder now, if Ms Armstrong had the choice, would she choose the same background for Elena.

    Can’t wait for your review πŸ˜€

  4. Taja Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 7:53 pm #

    Nath – ah, I think I get it now what you meant re: dark past/Mary Sue. Okay! πŸ˜€ Yep, I’m slow sometimes. LOL

    Thanks!

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