Content warnings: graphic sex, drug use, suicide, rape, murder, victim blaming
This novel is a modern retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a classic which I unfortunately have yet to read. So this review will not be analyzing A Face without a Heart in comparison to the original story, but instead relaying my experience of reading it as a independent novel. Still, I began this book with expectations for it to be an examination of youth, hedonism, and depravity which makes more explicit the homoeroticism of Dorian Gray that I have heard so much about. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Prose usually isn't a huge deal to me. I've read prose that others find over dramatic (Nevernight) or overly descriptive (Wheel of Time) and though I can acknowledge the flaws, I usually get past them fairly easily. However, the prose in this novel did bother me. It wasn't necessarily awful, but it was lacking in nuance. I'm not one for flowery writing, but the writing here was so straight-forward that I found it unpleasant to read sometimes. There seemed to be a good deal of telling, rather than showing. Something I am a bit more picky about is dialogue, which felt unnatural to me throughout most of this novel. If nothing else, the plainness of the righting made it quick and easy, though not necessarily enjoyable, to read.
Yet, the biggest issue for me was the characters. Ignoring the fact that "Dorian" was named Gary of all things, I simply didn't connect with him, Liam, or Lady Henrietta. I realize that these characters weren't supposed to be likeable (except perhaps Liam who I think I would have liked if we had seen more of him). I can appreciate unlikable characters who are bad people so long as they're still good, well-developed characters. In this case, however, they felt one-dimensional and unrealistic. Henrietta, in particular, seemed like a conglomeration of stereotypes whose defining features were being excessively outspoken and pessimistic.
At around 250 pages long, this novel is much shorter than most others I read. On the one hand, this was good for me because if it wasn't so short, I probably would have stopped reading about halfway through, and the book does get much better in the second half. On the other hand, I think the quick pace of the novel is part of what contributed to its unbelievability for me. I know that an in depth narration of Gary's entire adult life isn't possible, but I think I would have been much more convinced by his character development, such as it was, if it occurred more gradually and we got more insight into his inner dialogue. There were even a couple of critical scenes that we only heard about in retrospect as he talked about them with Henrietta, which is a decision I didn't understand at all.
In the end, I'm most disappointed because I didn't find much of a point or takeaway from book unless it was "don't do too many drugs" or "don't promise to marry someone you've only just met." Of course, not every book has to have a meaningful takeaway, but I was expecting that this one would since it is a retelling of a well known, philosophical classic. I think the message was perhaps supposed to be that hedonism doesn't make for a satisfying or happy life, but the depravity in this book was almost too extreme for that to be a convincing conclusion. (I could easily argue that one could live hedonistically, pursuing the pleasures of life, without complete disregard for their own well-being or that of others and thus might have a better life than Gary did.) Having never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I can't say whether it shares this downfall with A Face without a Heart or not.
Finally, I feel I have to mention that if you're looking for a retelling of Dorian Gray with a greater focus on homo/bisexuality, this isn't it. Not that it really claims to be, but I think some people will come in with that misunderstanding. There is no M/M romantic relationship, and though Gary has sex with other men, I (as someone who is bi) don't think you could label him as bisexual; he only does so when he's too drugged up to care and even then doesn't seem to receive any pleasure from it.
Despite my lack of enjoyment of A Face without a Heart, I am giving it two stars rather than one because it's not truly a bad book. I can see how many people who didn't have the same issues I did with the prose and pace might like it, and I did find myself slightly more invested in the second half of the book even if it was too little, too late for me.
Many thanks to NineStar Press and Netgalley for a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.