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Katerina by James Frey

Katerina is a sweeping love story that alternates between Paris 1992 and Los Angeles 2017. The protagonist, the aptly named Jay, is 21 when he moves to Paris to live the writer's life. There he falls madly, deeply in love for the first time. Cut to 25 years later and he is a middle-aged married family man living in California. It is there when he receives an anonymous message that draws his back to the life, and possibly his love, he abandoned years earlier.

Katerina warps the lines between fact and fiction. Frey has said it is a fictional retelling of his time in Paris, where he too fell in love and went to write. But the constant references make you dance between wondering if this is a biography or a fictional piece of work.

There is a lot of Jay's life that mimics Frey's - the same cover graces their first book (for Frey A Million Little Pieces), and both of their first books feature a dramatic jolt back to earth and a dressing down by a famous talk show host.

The alcohol and drug addictions (and sex addiction too if we're honest) is depicted in the raw, gritty detail that made Frey's first two novels the success they were.

This is Frey's first book in a decade that he has been able to write in his own style, a style that draws readers in and gets them excited.

As Jay states in the book, he wants to write a book "designed to break rules and conventions and traditions". This is exactly what Frey does. His signature style is ever present - commas, quotation marks, sentence length and structure, all are challenged and twisted and absent. It can be hart to adapt to at first, but a few chapters in you'll be able to go along with the ebb and flow of his writing.

The story itself is a little over done - boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl breaks boy's heart. Written in Frey's style though it does have a little more edge to it. However, it does get repetitive. Jay seems to be on an endless repeat of booze, drugs, sex, blackout, repeat. It leaves Jay (or is that Frey?!) coming across a loathsome dirtbag junkie.

The ending is, sadly, a little predictable. The major twist you could see coming a mile away. However, Frey did add in a little extra that will make you catch your breath. This is where the whole 'fact or fiction' really starts to play with your mind and you're left unsure where exactly that line is.

Frey does, on occasion, leave bright sparks of brilliance on the page. Long soliloquies of rambling end up forming conscious pearls of wisdom that will have you reaching for a highlighter, or turning down the corner of the page.

While Frey failed to turn Jay's story into a "book that makes history because they changed the world", he did succeed in returning to his natural style. Those of us who enjoyed his previous offerings will appreciate Katerina.

As Jay says about his potential book, "read it as it is. Love it or hate it. Cherish it or throw it in the fucking garbage can...Judge it however you please".

I can't help but think that line was all Frey; he really has experienced it all as a writer and he has nothing to lose.

Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser

Hachette, RRP $34.99


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