“Some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.” That’s a quote from Merritt Tierce’s debut novel Love me Back as well as the entirety of the novel captured in one sentence. I don’t imagine I’m anything like Merritt Tierce; the Iowa Writer’s Workshop alum who finished her undergraduate degree at the age of nineteen is certainly smarter and more motivated than me, but we do share a history spent in restaurants. If you haven’t been there, worked a line, tended a bar, served a table, then you probably think it’s a small thing Tierce and I have in common but I assure you it’s not.
Love me Back is the story of Marie, a young woman and cautionary tale. As a teenager she’s church-going, Yale bound until she says yes to something that feels good and right one day and then she’s pregnant, married, and applying for a job at the Olive Garden. Marie moves from merely sad to self-destructive remarkably quickly as she descends into a world where her worth is determined by the speed with which she can bring someone a glass of chardonnay.
If you’ve been there then it’s all there, the manager rubbing the remnants of his coke on his gums, the bar regular who touches you more than you’d like but you let him because his tip is your gas money for the week, the middle-aged server who always has a plan for how he’ll get out of restaurants and get a job with a desk when you know this is all he’s ever done and all he’ll ever do. If you’ve been there then the whole book will feel like pressing on a bruise; it’ll hurt but you won’t be able to stop because it’s a type of hurt that feels better than nothing. Then you’ll put down the book and go to your desk job, thankful you got out but maybe missing the life just a little bit. Or maybe you’ll grab your six pens, tie on your apron, do a line and press back down on the bruise.
Marie spends all of Love me Back in an immense amount of pain. The book is dark and unyielding but it made my experiences feel legitimate even as it brought me back to that sort of dark place where I spent almost ten years. A first novel, especially one by an Iowa alum, is often autobiographical and I know that Tierce couldn’t have written this book if she hadn’t lived most of it – she knows too much. I can’t wait to see where she goes next, where her fiction ends up now that she’s cast out these demons.