Sex and Death

Bryn Lovitt
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If Rome were an actress, she’d be washed-up—at least according to forty-something Pricilla Messing, the protagonist of Liska Jacobs’s second novel, The Worst Kind of Want. While standing inside the Forum at the center of the city, she cannot help but survey the ruins like the jaded Hollywood producer she is. Pricilla—friends and family call her Cilla—is “suspicious of the flowers growing between crumbling brick: it looks entirely too picturesque. It can’t be real. A good set designer could make a more believable ruin than this.” 

Consider her cynicism a hangover caused by the Los Angeles life she ran away from. Bored by Hollywood and suffocated by her position as the eldest daughter of a legendary industry power couple, Cilla is a world-weary social climber with nowhere left to climb to. With her famous father dead and her ill, querulous mother languishing in a nursing home, Cilla wrestles with her family’s unraveling legacy. She lives in her parents’ empty Malibu mansion, stuck in a foggy seaside malaise. She feels her career is an undeserved result of nepotism, and struggles with questions of self-worth and aging as her boyfriend, Guy, continues to string her along as a backup. To make matters worse, Guy is a protégé of her father’s who first seduced Cilla into a secret romance when she was a teenager. (Is there any name better suited for a morally ambivalent, creepy older man in 2019 than Guy?) 

This is Cilla’s hell. But the unexpected death of her younger sister, Emily, presents an opportunity to escape. Her brother-in-law needs a role model for Cilla’s teenage niece Hannah, who is rebelling against her father’s decision to drag her from Southern California to Italy in the wake of her mother’s death. The problem is that Cilla and Emily were estranged; for Cilla, who joins them in Italy, opening herself up to Hannah means confronting the weight of a loss she can barely bring herself to acknowledge. Confrontation is not her strong suit: even as she embraces Hannah, Cilla distracts herself through a dangerous flirtation with her niece’s seventeen-year-old neighbor Donato. 

Donato becomes the innocent target of Cilla’s desire, which begins to look more and more like a pathetic lust for youth. As she traipses around southern Italy with the charming boy, it becomes clear that this is a version of herself she likes presenting to the world: despite how stale the rest of her life may look, she’s still got it. Cilla knows the damage she’s capable of, and that engaging in a sexual relationship with Donato makes her no better than Guy, yet she finds the impropriety alluring. “I can feel them thinking it,” she says about people who see her in public with the boy. “Mother and son? She could be old enough. But then again, maybe it’s something else…” Their perverse chemistry is squirm inducing, until we remember that Cilla is a victim too: a surprise visit from Guy puts her trauma into perspective and illuminates the cycle of abuse.

Even as Jacobs steers the affair into increasingly salacious territory, Cilla maintains a compellingly blasé attitude. We’re left to wonder if she’s truly unflappable, or just too far gone to care about the danger she’s putting the boy in. Her aloofness seems unyielding, and it’s hilarious to see it get tested by the many historical splendors of Rome. Cilla’s Hollywood-bred cynicism is so thick that the beauty of her environment cannot penetrate it. “It’s no use,” she laments. “It still doesn’t feel real. A backdrop for a big-budget thriller, or an independent melodrama, maybe.” Cilla’s inability to connect with the landscape mirrors her inability to feel any kind of empathy. She charges ahead despite the repercussions her dalliances might have and without considering how her actions might harm Hannah and Donato, who start to feel like collateral in her quest for rebirth. 

Rather than confront the agony of Guy’s destructive hold on her or the untimely death of her estranged sister, Cilla embraces an impulsive need for adventure in a country she thinks will heal her. In this sense, The Worst Kind of Want parodies comfy carbo-loads like Eat, Pray, Love. Jacobs uses, to interesting effect, backdrops that threaten to become cliché, fashioning them into the book’s central conceit: that beauty can be a distraction, a mask we use to obscure trauma. Her vision of Rome as a Hollywood set in which she performs empowerment becomes a metaphor for how we conceal ugly histories through artifice. That irony feels particularly pointed when Jacobs sets Cilla’s trysts with Donato amid ancient Roman burial sites, the waters above a sunken city, and inside catacombs where Cilla sees bluntly that “for Italians… there is only sex and death.” If this is the wake-up call she finally needs to hear, it may have come too late.

Ultimately, The Worst Kind of Want presents Jacobs at her best: thinking through the fraught ethical problems and pitfalls of desire. The novel’s title is actually a line from Jacobs’s debut novel, Catalina. This echo suggests that Jacobs is establishing herself as a novelist who can probe what it means to be both selfish and vulnerable, asking with bald-faced earnestness: What, in 2019, are adult women allowed to want—and at what cost?

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