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Easy Connections and Easy Freedom by Liz Berry

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You know how, when you’re a child, you have a favourite book that you return to again and again? 

I know that for many teens in the 1980s that book was the controversial and somewhat disturbing Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews (a book that at some point I may just have to re-read and review). For me, the books that I kept on re-reading, were a duology. Easy Connections and Easy Freedom were released in the early 1980s, written by the British-born artist Shirley Pountney under the pseudonym Liz Berry.

Despite both of these books having somewhat problematic central themes; as a teenager, there was a part of me that actually wanted to be the main female protagonist, Cathy Harlow. I have no idea why, especially as I re-read the books as an adult. Her life was not picture perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that being said, there is one character I still feel never got a proper ending, but that was likely the dead romantic in me!

Because this is a duology that could easily have been released as one book, due to the nature of the story-telling, I am going to be reviewing the two as one.

Despite the content of these books and the majority of the readers now being far more self-aware adults, now, almost 40 years after they were first released, they have attained something of a cult status.

For a long time, all of Liz Berry’s books were out of print and I discovered that my hardback copy of Easy Freedom, due to the difficulty in getting hold of the books, had a relatively high resale value. Now, of course, they have been added to sites like Amazon in eBook format, so if you have a Kindle, Nook or any other eReader, they are much easier to find.

I have already mentioned that the books have a somewhat problematic premise and there are multiple moments where I, as an adult, wince just a little bit as I am reading them. As a teenager, I thought that the lead antagonist, Paul Devlin, was the sort of partner I should aspire to. A rock star, talented artist, wealthy, handsome. Everything that you should want in a man. However, there is darkness hiding beneath all the glamour; drug addiction, alcohol dependency, violence, mood swings, and obsessive tendencies. None of these items makes for a list that any girl should want in her perfect man, right?

Oh boy…young teenage girls have very low standards, and it appears that the trend continues if the popularity of books like After by Anna Todd and the toxicity of the relationship between Harden and Tessa is anything to go by.

As I have already said, I am going to look at these books as though they are a single unit, because to review the second one could be considered spoilers for the first. 

No more exams. No more boring holiday work. Just two blissful weeks painting in the country – then, art college at last. Just paint, paint, paint!

Cathy Harlow is a gifted painter. She is seventeen and three glorious years at art college stretch ahead of her. But when she meets Paul Devlin, lead guitarist of the famous rock band Easy Connections, and a millionaire superstar, her dreams are shattered.

Dev is beautiful and brilliant but with an explosive violence lurking just below his cool and easy charm. Cathy is attracted and repelled in equal measure, but Dev is determined to have her – and Dev usually gets what he wants.

Finally, Cathy gives in to the pressures around her and agrees to marry rock musician superstar, Paul Devlin, and to keep his baby.

But Cathy is still filled with doubts, for her art is the most important thing in her life and at only seventeen she desperately fears being overwhelmed by Dev and his fame and money. Her relationship with Dev has inflicted wounds, which she can’t forgive or forget. She feels threatened too, by Dev’s best friend Chris, who sees Cathy and Dev and himself, as bound in a kind of mystical triangle.

Cathy’s struggle to overcome the stresses of her new life and her attempts to find herself and regain her lost freedom makes an unusual and compelling love story that leads to a moving climax.

Set in the vivid worlds of rock music and art, Easy Freedom is a gripping story about redemption and forgiveness, and also has much to say about the real problems faced by a girl with a vocation.

The story starts out harmless enough. Cathy is staying with her brother Jim and his wife Mary in their home in Nethercombe. She has won a place at a prestigious art college and is staying only until her room is available in London. She’s talented and painting is pretty much all she cares about. 

Having not visited her brother for years – they aren’t the closest, he has decidedly misogynistic views of women and his wife seemingly goes along with them – she is unaware that a place she used to frequent when much younger has been purchased by someone who wants their privacy. So, one day she sneaks onto the farm and starts to paint. She gets distracted by some cows, falls into the stream and strips off her shirt to dry off (you know, as any girl would in an isolated location on their own!)

She’s caught by the farm’s new owner and his best friend who drag her back to the farmhouse. They call the police but then change their mind about Cathy, deciding that she should, instead stay with them and help them wind down. Jim, as the local bobby, doesn’t see anything wrong with this, despite the fact that his sister is pleading with him to help her leave. So he is essentially handing them to these two men as though she has no autonomy.

It’s clear to Cathy that both men are on edge. They are drunk, maybe high and tempers are frayed. Understandably, she’s terrified.

The whole incident is very much a power play, with Dev, the owner of the farm, wanting to assert dominance over this girl who dared to trespass on his property. He also wants to prove a point to his friend, Chris, who seems to initially side with Cathy until he doesn’t.

Having just finished a tour, both Dev and Chris are in heightened states. Exhausted, drunk, high, they’ve just finished a tour of the US and want nothing more than the ‘finer comforts’.

Cathy is not at all receptive to Chris’s charms. However, not to be put off, Dev makes a bargain with his friend and the tone of the evening changes.

What started as a day of art and sunshine for Cathy, ends with shame and something that, try as she might, she won’t ever be able to forget.

Though Cathy does her utmost to escape from the consequences of that night, they are going to follow her, especially when she finds out that not only is Dev proving to be obsessed, but she’s also pregnant and he’s determined that they’re going to marry.

For a while, it seems as though everything is going smoothly, for Cathy. She has settled into a new flat, made friends, and even a possible romantic connection with fellow artist, Nick. However, with Dev on the scene, things start to go incredibly wrong. 

To many, it may seem awful when she tells him that she doesn’t want anything to do with him, that she doesn’t want the baby that is the product of a night she wants to do nothing more than forget. But the comments appear to be water off a duck’s back. She hates what is happening to her life, but more than that, she hates the fact that when she forgets what happened in the beginning she is attracted to Dev.

When Dev finally realises that Cathy is serious about not wanting him in her life, about hating him and wishing that she weren’t pregnant, he leaves and it seems as though it’s going to be okay.

Unfortunately, this is where the unscrupulous element of his personality steps in. He ties things up tighter than a noose, using the press to manipulate his fans and convince them that he’s the innocent victim. 

Cathy is trapped. She can’t leave her flat, her friends have abandoned her and think that she should give in and she loses the one thing that means anything to her, her art.

Dev’s actions show the darker side of the press and the way that they can be used as a tool to show only one side of a story. Cathy is painted as the villain, the girl who wants nothing to do with the man who loves her more than life itself. He does interviews, and a press conference, essentially, uses all the tools in his arsenal to ensure that Cathy is forced into a corner. 

For a man who claims to love her and wants the baby she’s carrying, he’s doing his best to prove that their well-being is at the bottom of his priority list.

I am not going to spoil the book, because I don’t like spoilers, but at the same time, with this one, it’s not easy because the sequel, Easy Freedom, which came out in 1985, was a perfect continuation. The story begins the day after the events that occurred at the end of the Easy Connections.

Dev has managed to get everything he wants, but for all that he says Cathy is his priority, he certainly changes tack very quickly. Her light, which is what we are to assume he was attracted to in the beginning, has been blown out by his cruel games. He treats her like he would a drunken one-night-stand. He forces her to spend hours watching him rehearse, on nights out with his bandmates and his friends, he treats her like a toy. At one point she tells him that she’s exhausted, that she needs rest and as with every conversation they ever have it turns into an argument.

“You don’t love me, Dev, You love the thing you made, a pretty dolly in a cushioned box saying ‘Da-da’.” She shivered. “A corpse in a coffin.”

Dev got up. He let his glance move over her body, suggestive and insulting. He said, viciously, “At least I could take dolly to bed with me,” and walked out, slamming the door.

All of their arguments have a similar starting point and a similar catalyst, that of Dev’s best friend Chris.

In the first book, Chris Carter is there, but he’s on the periphery, he’s the one sleeping with the hangers-on, the one who seemingly supports his best friend. In Easy Freedom the gloves are completely off. Chris makes it clear that he is no longer going to hang around watching from the sidelines. In the first book I was rooting for him to find someone, to get his ideal woman. I felt sympathy for him. But that all changed with the sequel. 

He wants exactly what Dev has. And by exactly, I mean he wants Cathy. He seems to take joy in the fact that their relationship is falling apart as he watches. Which, I have to admit, feels like a strange thing for a friend to be happy about, especially when he claims to love both of them!

With Chris always there, always watching, always waiting for an opportunity to make things even worse, it seems like Dev and Cathy don’t have a chance.

Of course, this is made 10 times worse by the fact that Dev blames Cathy for everything that goes wrong. She suffers bleeding late in her pregnancy, it’s not the fact that she is exhausted by Dev’s taunting and use of her weaknesses to get her to go out until all hours, it’s her fault because she never wanted the baby.

As an adult reading this, who has been in a relationship with someone who made them feel like proverbial rubbish constantly, I can see that this is blatant gaslighting, and Dev is a master. However, as a young reader, a lot of this went over my head. Sure, I thought he was being a jerk, but that was as far as it went.

Dev is on tour when Cathy has the baby and neither of them is very good at communicating. She is focused on the fact that the baby wasn’t marred by the fact he was conceived during rape – a very odd observation on her part – and he tells her that at least she got the dirty thing out of her body, harking back to something she yelled at him before they were married. It’s as though he wants to make her feel like rubbish and neither of them knows how to make it better. 

Their relationship is toxic!

Through the book I feel incredibly sorry for Cathy. She had her whole life set out in front of her. She wanted to be an artist, she wanted to go to college, she wanted the sort of romantic relationship that most girls dream of when they spend their formative years devouring Sweet Dreams teenage romance novels.

What she gets is a partner who has lived, who knows how to manipulate, knows how to twist and turn things until you don’t know which way is up.

Dev is an expert at making Cathy feel as though she’s in the wrong. 

When he returns from his tour the relationship has already become so sour that if it does get fixed she is going to be the one who gives up everything. 

He is outright cruel, while she has the hope that perhaps they could turn a corner.

When he brings some girls back with him to the farm, Cathy walks out. This finally makes him realise that she meant it when she said that she wouldn’t take what he was giving any longer. And more power to her.

This is the point when the book takes a much darker turn. Okay, it wasn’t exactly light-hearted and fun before, what with the mentally abusive digs Dev takes at Cathy and the insidious manipulation from Chris, who seems to want everyone to be as miserable as he is under the cloak of constant womanising and drug-taking.

For all that Cathy was thrown out of college and her dream of studying was taken away, she still has a contract with a prestigious gallery and now that she is away from the farm and all the memories that it holds, very few of them pleasant, she does nothing but paint.

If the first book was a lesson in the power of the press when you need it to be used to your advantage, then the second book is all about how freedom is an illusion when you have ties that bind you to something.

I know that sounds rather cynical, but when looking at Cathy’s case, as this is Cathy’s book you can see that while she believes she has freedom, she still has a son with Dev, a son that she loves. And she is dependent upon his good grace to find out anything about him. She is a good painter, but access to the celebrities she paints and draws comes with the knowledge that they are Dev’s friends first.

The words to Kris Kristofferson’s song, Me and Bobby McGee “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, come back to haunt every single character in this book, whether they intend to or not.

For me, these books were a very big part of my so-called young adult life. As I re-read them now I realise that a lot of what happened in them went right over my head and buried itself in the ground behind me.

Easy Connections is a strange fantasy. It’s scary because the theme of rape and reform has not vanished, it is still the core of romances that are written today. Women who are abused by a man that is then somehow made out to be the hero, the man who rescues them from their dull and dreary lives.

In Easy Freedom, you think that you’re going to find the book in which Cathy finds herself, steps out on her own and makes her own way. But as she rightly points out earlier in the same book, she can’t be free because he tied her to him as tightly as he could and all the time she feels love for her son she will never be free of the bonds Dev ensured were there.

Sometimes I think that as much as Cathy is trapped, Dev is too. However, that doesn’t justify his behaviour. Every step he takes is another on the path to hell, and he’s being led there by the man who is meant to be his best friend.

I am not going to romanticise it and say that Dev and Cathy are Adam and Eve while Chris is the serpent, but the analogy is quite accurate.

As a very naive teen I really didn’t understand the nuances of the book and everything that Dev was doing. I was sure that he was the romantic hero, he wanted nothing but to love her. As an adult I can see him for what he is, and at the core that is ‘not a very nice person’ with way too much power! 

He uses his life-experience and his previous relationships as a tool to hit Cathy with. He knows that she is nowhere near as worldly-wise as he is, she hasn’t lived the life he’s had and this leaves her wide open when it comes to manipulation. Snide comments, vindictive behaviours and subtle digs are the ways he turns her from the vibrant teenager she was into a shadow of her former self. 

Fortunately, when push comes to shove, she finally pushes back. But her time with Dev and Chris has affected her mentally. 

Though gaslighting has been around for millennia, the term wasn’t popularised until the early 2010s, which is why it’s not used in this duology. Had it been, there is no doubt in my mind that this the term that would have been used where the destructive relationship between Cathy and Dev is concerned. Especially when referring to his behaviours throughout their marriage. He knows he has her trapped and sure, some may say it’s his insecurities coming out, but he plays a very toxic game all the same.

There is one very important thing that I glossed over when talking about the beginning of the book, and that is the horrific treatment that Cathy received after the truth comes to light. Her brother is dismissive, blaming the way she was dressed. Her sister-in-law is focused on the baby, not Cathy’s own emotional state. Dev is smug, self-satisfied and even brags about it. And though you can tell from some actions that her flatmates feel sympathy, there is also this overwhelming star-struck atmosphere.

This reaction is actually rather sickening. However, victim-shaming is something that has not gone away, even though it should never have existed in the first place.

There is no denying that both Easy Connections and Easy Freedom are well-written novels. They are very different to the standard YA stuff that was being released in the 1980s, as that was primarily Sweet Dreams romances and Sweet Valley High. This was such a contrast to those books. 

Dev should have been every girl’s fantasy, and for many in their teens he was. But look beneath the surface and what you have is a very twisted, distorted and destructive story of love gone wrong. True love became a nightmare before it had a chance and this story tells you of the ways so many lives were destroyed in the process.

The end of the duology leaves me with so many questions. And in many ways I don’t know if I want the answer.

 

Positives

  • Well-written
  • It was not the norm for YA in the ‘80s
  • Dug beneath the glitz and glamour of fame

Negatives

  • Was seen/sold as a romance
  • Doesn’t really address the important issues it brings up
  • Could have been one book
3-5 star rating

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