In 2019, Marlon James wrote, “Genre is such a ridiculous convention, as ridiculous as the idea of the Great American Novel.” Yet walk into any bookstore, or search a bookselling website, and you will see how fiction has become balkanized and genre—crime, fantasy, romance, horror, sci-fi—has become a barrier rather than a prism through which to discern collective truths.
What, then, to make of Patricia Wants to Cuddle, the debut novel by Samantha Allen, whose 2019 book, Real Queer America, was a moving red state travelogue–cum–queer memoir? The setup is simple enough: Four women and a man arrive at the fictional Otters Island in Washington State’s San Juan archipelago, camera crew and host in tow, to film the penultimate episode of The Catch, a down-market version of The Bachelor. Although the locals are happy for the business, the producers are here only because they lack the budget for a splashier location such as Tokyo. There is also the matter of three female hikers who disappeared some 25 years ago.
The “Catch” is Jeremy Blackstone, leering cofounder of the social media platform Glamstapix, who must winnow the four contestants down to two, who will then join him for a glamorous but angst-filled nail-biter in Palm Springs. Competing to make the final cut are Amanda Parker, a preternaturally perky fashionista who’s been caught in flagrante with Blackstone; her frenemy, Vanessa Voorhees, a sharp-tongued, knives-out car-show model with a secret; Lilah-Mae Adams, a Christian social media influencer with an untidy secret of her own; and Renee Irons, a Black HR specialist kept around to set a “Big Important Precedent.”
Of the four, Renee seems out of place, not just owing to her race but also because her compliant on-camera persona disguises a persistently bleak outlook on life and a disdain for the fraught goings-on. “Reality show contestants aren’t unlike the two half-empty bags of pretzels Renee throws out as the flight attendant walks past her row,” Allen writes, “mostly air, empty calories consumed rapidly and forgotten just as fast.”
All of the women have self-serving reasons to be on The Catch, detailed in chapters that present their divergent points of view. They are abetted, and often thwarted, by the show’s crew, including host and “America’s matchmaker” Dex Derickson, an alcoholic empty suit, and longtime producer Casey Collins, who is roughly their age but is treated almost as if she’s their mother.
For Collins, the rewards of the show are complicated, with roots going back to her youth. “These Catch girls are exactly the type who would have bullied her back then,” Allen writes. “But when they’re on the show she produces, Casey becomes their queen bee—and she loves it.”
Her shameless manipulation of the contestants, and theirs of one another, gives the novel a piquant edge reminiscent of the scripted television series UnREAL. Also adding flavor to the book are blog and social media posts that serve as a gossipy Greek chorus, commenting on the season’s twists and turns.
But things aren’t all snarky fun and games, as Allen introduces more sinister elements, including flashbacks to the sister of one of the missing women, who writes about the quest to find her sibling until she, too, disappears. If the frisson recalls Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Allen thickens the plot with a secret ingredient borrowed from slasher films.
Given some early sightings by the crew, it is not giving away anything to say that there’s something, or someone, lurking in the background of the narrative. Allen, however, uses that presence to play off the trope of the Final Girl—in slasher films, the last woman left standing to confront the killer. In the process, Allen turns her queer sensibilities on the fascinating parallels between reality TV and slasher films, not least their shared obsessions with survival, sex, and the fear of being eliminated.
Is Patricia Wants to Cuddle a satirical comedy, a horror mystery, or a queer coming-of-age story? The answer is all of the above. In a literary gumbo this exhilarating and thoughtful, our expectations can’t help but be redefined. •