I have a weakness for debuts. There’s always the hope that I’m about to be introduced to an author who will make their mark or take me somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s not unusual, either, for a writer’s first novel to be their best. Perhaps it’s all that time spent perfecting the writing, none spent on the endless round of promotion that authors must indulge us readers in once they’re published. Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back repaid that hope handsomely. It’s the story of Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. It may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into.
Pregnant at sixteen and divorced by seventeen, Marie conceived her daughter while volunteering on a church project in Mexico, scuppering her chances of going to Harvard. Briefly married to Ana’s eighteen-year-old father, Marie finds herself unable to cope with motherhood, moving out of the marital home and finding work as a waitress. Working her way up, she lands a job at The Restaurant, catering to the demands of the Dallas rich. She knows exactly how to work her clients, what she has to do to reap the rewards of the staggeringly large tips that take her from living in a sleazy apartment to a smart duplex. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with Ana. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty.
Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that, of course, is what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic: ‘I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body’ thinks Marie of the morning after Ana’s conception while ‘Her body was like an outfit she never took off’ neatly fits the startling figure of a regular with whom so many men seem besotted. The novel’s structure is episodic rather than linear – snippets of Marie’s story trickle into a stream of anecdotes about restaurant life – a brave choice for a first novel but it works, intensifying the chaotic inner life disguised by Marie’s carefully constructed professional persona. Inevitably Tierce’s novel brought to mind Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential with its portrayal of high adrenaline restaurant life. Hard to imagine that Tierce hasn’t spent some time working in the trade. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.