Book Review: Pedal, by Chelsea Rooney
Pedal, by Chelsea Rooney
Pedal
By Chelsea Rooney
Caitlin Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So let’s just acknowledge right off the bat that it takes a writer of superior skill to even attempt to pull off what Canadian author Chelsea Rooney so successfully does here in her debut novel Pedal, first published in 2015 but that was just acquired by my local library about six months ago; namely, it’s a thoughtful and nuanced look at the inherently tricky subject of sex between adults and children, one that deliberately avoids terms like “abuse” and “victims” in order to do a much more complicated examination of where exactly the line lays between willing and unwilling participants, and whether it’s possible for these kinds of incidents to ever not result in some kind of trauma in a child as they grow older.

That’s a giant can of worms for any author to open up — sheesh, I’m a bit nervous even publishing a review of a book like this — but to save you the suspense, Rooney here is successful at it, delivering a fascinating character-based story that both acknowledges the reality of what happens in most cases of sex between a minor and a non-minor, but also opens up the possibility that not 100 percent of all cases are the same, and that even when there is cause for alarm (as is almost always the case), these situations are often exploited by medical professionals looking to sell more drugs, to come to tidy conclusions so to get patients off the books, and other various issues that have nothing to do with the act at the center of the controversy.

A self-described semi-autobiographical novel, in it we follow the misadventures of 25-year-old Vancouver slacker Julia, a grad student who drinks too much, does too many drugs, and can’t seem to stay in a relationship long enough to even be bothered by its breakup. She’s doing her thesis on the question of whether there are adult “survivors” (another term she consciously chooses not to use) of childhood sexual experiences, who look back now and don’t consider what they went through to be particularly harmful or to have caused any particular lasting bad effects, exactly the way she herself feels about her own experiences with childhood sexuality, having been fondled on a regular basis by her father before he finally left the family when she was a teen, never to be seen again.

Needless to say, the research project makes every other person in her life extremely uncomfortable, from her current boyfriend to her sister (who was also molested as a child by their father, but in a rougher and more violent way that definitely did leave scars), to her horrified academic adviser who originally thought the focus of her thesis was going to be on the prevalence of psychiatrists to falsely diagnose such victims and to overmedicate them. It’s essentially become the main focus of Julia’s life at the point where we join her, rapidly starting to turn obsessive, which she often uses as a way to ignore the fact that nearly all other aspects of her life these days are turning into a complete trainwreck.

The plot itself goes into odder and more unexpected directions starting from there, which I’ll let remain a surprise so to not spoil things for you; but the main point to make is that Rooney successfully treads a very fine line in this novel, crawling right up to the unacceptable edge of “edgy indie lit” and then redeeming herself while backing away a bit, then edging up again before pulling back some more. As simply a character study it’s fantastic, the kind of deep dive into a messy and complex woman that fans of MFA literature love the most about contemporary novels; but there’s also a lot going on, in terms of the story structure and what happens to everyone involved along the way, a great blend between character and plot that will remind astute readers of such other critical/popular hybrids as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen.

@ChelRooney's #Pedal is a nearly perfect novel, wise and funny and tragic and illuminating Click To Tweet

I can’t in good conscience call it a “perfect” novel — there are some who will simply be horrified by the book’s very concept itself, no matter how good a job Rooney does with it — which is why it’s not getting a fabled perfect score of 10 today (making this the longest CCLaP has ever gotten into a year of reviewing without presenting even one perfect score). But that said, it’s certainly close to perfect, a novel that is simultaneously wise and funny and tragic and illuminating, playing our emotions like a fine violinist as we go on both a metaphorical and actual journey with our riveting, infuriating hero. Both fast-paced and contemplative, for both younger and older audiences, at once tackling ultra-controversial issues while still delivering the most traditionally framed three-act story you might ever want, Pedal has something for just about everyone, a rock-solid recommendation today that will undoubtedly be making our best-of-the-year lists come December.

Out of 10: 9.9

Read more about Pedal | Official site | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing |

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd