Age of Consent: A Novel
“Age of Consent is a strong novel about a troubling subject.”
When does a relationship become sexual assault? Marti Leimbach approaches the question clearly and compassionately in her latest novel Age of Consent.
Bobbie was just 13 when she won a radio station contest. Her single mother’s favorite DJ brought the prize to their home; so began his “grooming” of Bobbie. Over the next two years, through a combination of flattery and force, their relationship became sexual. Eventually Bobbie could stand the coercion no longer and fled.
Fast forward 30 years, and Bobbie is a successful business owner, living on the opposite side of the country from her mother, who has married the abuser. When Bobbie learns that another young girl recently lost a molestation case against DJ Craig, she decides to take a stand and press charges against him for her long ago abuse.
Child molestation is a taboo subject, an uncomfortable topic; it is never more so than when it goes unreported for years and leaves few or no visible scars. When a child hovers on the edge of adulthood, as does Bobbie in this powerful novel, the topic becomes complex for many people, who question whether the sex was consensual or why the young person didn’t tell someone. Marti Leimbach hits those questions head on, beginning by titling the novel Age of Consent.
Through the literary device of travelling back and forth in time between 1978 and 2008, Leimbach showcases Bobbie’s thought processes at 15 and at 45, and allows the reader to feel the shame that infuses her life from the time of the molestation. Her child’s devotion to her widowed mother and her desire not to hurt her is used against Bobbie when Craig threatens to tell her mother what has occurred. He insinuates that Bobbie led him on, and her child’s mind begins to question whether he might be right. Even at 45, she lives “a life with deep shadows everywhere” and questions whether she was at fault.
Time jumps in books are all too common in modern novels, but are seldom used as effectively as Leimbach uses them in this novel. Each segment flows naturally into the other as more of Craig’s abuse and the effect it has had on Bobbie’s life is revealed. Bobbie’s own strength is demonstrated in the flow of these passages as she first is lured, flounders in despair, and then finds strength within herself to leave the situation. A similar cycle is played out in the 2008 passages.
Bobbie is an everywoman of a character, an all-American girl in a terrible situation. Leimbach made a curiously bold decision in not giving Bobbie a last name, further emphasizing that she could be any girl, any woman. There is very little physical description of the protagonist of the novel; what is important here is that she was a child. She was unable to consent.
Craig is a thoroughly loathsome character. He is a modern day Humbert Humbert, viewing Bobbie as his own Lolita. Bobbie “recalls freshly how he would invent his own moral world, deciding in his mind the rightness or wrongness of an act": he could do whatever he liked with the frightened girl, but she was “not old enough yet to handle porn." He is verbally abusive and personally repugnant in nearly every scene of the novel. This might have been a slight misstep on Leimbach’s part, as it’s difficult to discern why June, Bobbie’s mother, is devoted to him, or how he was able to abuse other young girls 30 years past his nasty prime.
Readers who are enamored of courtroom drama might want to skip this novel. Though Bobbie does return to town for a court trial and there are passages from the trial itself, this is not a John Grisham-style fire-and-brimstone trial. Leimbach skips fireworks for an aching dissection of how the judicial system is not equipped to deal with cases where there is not strong physical evidence of wrongdoing. Bobbie’s integrity, memory, and sexual history are questioned and disparaged. “The witness stand is a terrible place to be, like a set of Colonial stocks in which the whole community sees you,” Bobbie reflects, the use of “stocks” giving a clear image of personal culpability.
In Age of Consent the real story is the near universal cultural debate over what constitutes rape and what expectation a victim can have for justice. Leimbach makes a choice to be realistic: more than once, Bobbie is forced to face the likelihood that she will not win her case. “there is no evidence and no other witnesses . . .”, Bobbie’s lawyer reminds her. “We’re going to lose, aren’t we?” she asks, and it’s not a surprise when the answer is, “Probably.”
Leimbach’s story of victimhood and eventual personal triumph stumbles a little right at the end, with a neat and tidy denouement, but that is not enough to derail this powerful narrative. Age of Consent is a strong novel about a troubling subject. Survivors of rape or sexual abuse might beware of triggers in the form of a couple of graphic sex scenes.
Marti Leimbach’s novel and should add to the cultural conversation about abuse, victimization, and re-victimization by the judicial system. Not light reading, but absorbing and timely.