‘Love Me Back’ serves up sex and regret

Once you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to “Love Me Back,” the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages.

Tierce, a former waitress who drew heavily from her experience in the Texas restaurant business, merely hints at what Marie has lost by getting sucked into a life she never wanted. Instead, scarred by her father’s disgust and the church elders who blame her for her fall from grace, she brings her high achiever’s perfectionism to the extraction of pound after pound of flesh as penitence for her sin.

She cheats on her husband and gives him an STD. She gets pregnant again, by a fellow waiter — she’s not sure which one, as she’s slept with them all: “September was John, October was Luke, and November was Damon.” Her husband divorces her. While caring for her daughter she cuts and burns herself and finally loses custody. She stays in the restaurant business, scoring a job at a high-end steakhouse in Dallas.

There, her self-immolation revs into high gear. The unprotected and frequent sex takes place in the same spirit Marie reserves for waitressing: to serve, to organize (often with two or more men), to let herself be used. But she clearly has another goal in mind: obliteration. “It wasn’t about pleasure,” she tells us, “it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.”

Between threesomes and foursomes Tierce portrays in graphic detail, Marie labors like an ox. She has no ambition to climb any ladders, only to remain in a purgatory where “if you have an affliction, or any remorse or anguish, eat it, drink it, snort it, [expletive] it, use it … kill it.” Even when she manages to find a way to spend a day and night with her daughter, Annalise, she leaves the child alone to watch TV while she burns herself with a fondue fork in the kitchen, telling her daughter afterward it’s an insect bite.

“What kind of bug would do that?” Annalise asks. Indeed.

Marie’s sadness over losing her child, her husband and her Ivy League future still lingers, buried beneath a stack of dirty dishes and dirty sex. It shines through in jagged flashbacks that reveal Marie’s back story: the church trip to Mexico, her regret over a husband “whose kindness is as rare as genius,” how no one trusted her alone with the baby.

The restaurants of the book are grounded in the kind of authenticity that can only come from an author who’s tag-teamed a party of 30 “all white, fat, and over 50 men” who tell crude, sexist jokes while she’s “setting out steak knives and crumbing.” Portraits of owners, managers, sous-chefs, bussers, servers and customers, even a piano player, make up an alternate family far more real to her than the one Marie fled.

“In that restaurant all of us were off. Chipped. … Maybe that’s just what it is to be alive, you’ve got that broken sooty piece of something lodged inside you making you veer left.”

Tierce originally wrote the book as a collection of short stories, then added extra material, notably the chapters about Marie’s daughter, “to provide some connective tissue.” If at times the novel feels stitched together, it also echoes Marie’s disconnected psyche and how far from home she’ll always be.

“Love Me Back” resists a happy ending and offers no illusion that Marie’s choices are redemptive or character-building, nor even many reasons for the reader to love her back. The author has given us a 21st-century Suzanne, à la Leonard Cohen’s muse, who takes us on a mind-blowing tour of “the garbage and the flowers” in the lives of everyone who’s ever had to say, “My name is Marie and I’ll take care of you tonight.”

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