Book Review: Don’t Poke the Bear
Reviewed by Alexandra Barbush
Living, loving, and struggling in ‘90s New York
Don’t Poke the Bear is a fresh and gritty take on the Sex in the City set-up—women trying to have it all in New York City. But these women (Allie, Rihanna, and Natia) aren’t trying to have it all, or even much of anything. They just want enough money for rent and enough food and booze to survive.
The novel starts with Allie’s nice and somewhat stable boyfriend, Jim, battling back and forth with his urge to satisfy his punk girlfriend and his need to stay on the wagon and sober.
Early on he’s not heard from for days, a not so uncommon phenomenon for the nineties, except when his mother and Allie are forced to collide to find out the truth—that he’s ODed. This is a traumatic circumstance, but it’s also something she is surrounded by—the reckless use of drugs in their underground scene.
Rihanna is introduced as a sensible but romantic person in love with her charming boyfriend Dylan. She’s in love enough to move onto his boat with him and his friends and to overlook his constant philandering.
Last is Natia, a good girl from a strict Serbian family who moved to New York to be herself. When she falls in love with a struggling Black music producer (Danny), her parents cut her off and her mother refuses to acknowledge her.
All of these women seem to have one thing in common—they are more or less supporting their do-nothing boyfriends with their freelance and part-time gigs and struggling to make ends meet. Their boyfriends don’t seem overly concerned with having enough food or a roof over their heads, which occupies much of their focus.
Through a series of trials and errors, each comes to a low point with their job, their relationship, and their sense of self, before pulling themselves up and making it work. The story goes back and forth in time and character prioritization but focuses heavily on Allie.
However, both Natia and Rihanna, and sometimes their boyfriends, get dedicated chapters from their perspective. Slowly, the reader learns the backgrounds and families of each of the girls and comes to understand how they’re all connected. In the end, they all have hard decisions to make—to choose themselves, or the idea they’ve built around themselves, of who they thought they were.
I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in raw reads of a life contained in a specific time-frame. Answering machines, punk rock, rent controlled apartments—these sharp details help transport us to a New York not far past but definitely no longer here.
Don’t Poke the Bear serves as much as a quirky read about a bunch of misfit women as it does about the very specific time and era it portrays. It tells its own story and traverses through a Sex in the City narrative that runs parallel to the popular series and discusses women’s love, sex, and work in New York.
It’s pitted with painful experiences: STDs, cheating boyfriends, creepy bosses. And through it all, the girls are mostly on their own. It features more of them as individuals, making it or struggling to do so, than as a small community of women dependent on each other. It takes about halfway through the story to understand how and why these women are connected at all, so they have little face to face time.
Don’t Poke the Bear is engaging with painful but knowable characters. While they’re each struggling against the same backdrop, they manifest pretty differently. D’Amato paints this painful sort of love with clarity and sincerity. The fourth character, of New York City itself, is a clear portraiture.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Literary & General Fiction / Women’s Fiction
Print Length: 354 pages
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