Bad Reputation Book Club: After

Bad Reputation Book Club is a monthly book review series where Autumn James Haworth looks at books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved. This month, he’s taking a look at After, a Harry Styles inspired fanfiction by Anna Todd.

Autumn James Haworth is a bi and trans author from the north of England. He likes to write short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.

Back to the world of Fanfiction that Managed to Get Published Somehow. Welcome back to the Bad Reputation Book Club, where we’ll be looking at Anna Todd’s Harry Styles Wattpad fanfiction, After. The names have been changed, but unlike E.L. James, Todd doesn’t hide from her past. ‘Wattpad sensation’ gracing the cover tells you everything you need to know. This really blew up when Netflix made an adaptation, and I’m here to discuss whether it deserved the reputation it’s earned.

Content Warnings:

  • Sexual content
  • Sexual assault
  • Dubious consent
  • Rape
  • Violence
  • Toxic/abusive relationships

The prologue is a monologue from female lead Tessa. It’s basic foregrounding about how her life changed in a short space of time all because she happened to move in with someone.

The story begins with Tessa lying awake, her alarm about to go off, nervous for her first day of college at Washington Central University. We’re introduced to how Tessa likes to plan every aspect of her life and how she’s ‘not like other girls’. Apparently, the thing that sets her apart is that she studies.

If you have any knowledge of the stereotypical fanfiction voice, then you know just how dull Tessa sounds. I hoped there would be some development in her character to make her a bit more interesting, but I was left hoping until the final page.

We’re introduced to Tessa’s mother who is controlling from the outset. That only gets worse as the book goes on. We’re also introduced to Tessa’s boyfriend, Noah. They’re basically the same person: studious, pretty sheltered, ‘good’.

They get to the dorms and meet Tessa’s roommate, Steph. This is the first real sign that nobody in this book talks naturally. Steph sounds like she’s using a customer service voice. That could be a good joke, but she just talks like that.

Tessa’s mum doesn’t like Steph because she’s got tattoos, dyed hair and dresses promiscuously. She’s also in a mood because Steph has boys over (God forbid a woman have male friends). Among them is a mysterious stranger that Tessa seems to be strangely drawn to.

The next morning, Tessa goes for a shower, and when she gets back to the room, the mysterious stranger is sat in there. He’s immediately a bit of a smarmy sod. This is Hardin Scott. It’s clear from here that Todd is going for a kind of enemies to lovers vibe, riffing off Pride And Prejudice. The issue with that is that a) Pride And Prejudice is enjoyable, and b) Darcy is standoffish but not an outright terrible person.

Steph invites Tessa to a frat house party. She’s reluctant but goes mostly to spite Hardin.

I wanted there to be character development with Hardin. I pretty much despised him from the outset, but I thought he’s just like this now so he can become a good person by the end. Spoiler alert: he’s a prat throughout.

We meet the group of misfits that make up the friend group. She’s not exactly best mates with any of them, but they’re the people she hangs with. They’re all two dimensional. They’re either filler or for Hardin and Tessa to grow jealous about as their relationship develops. Molly is the one that gets under Tessa’s skin, and Zed gets under Hardin’s.

Monday: classes start. She meets a guy called Landon, and the two of them hit it off. He knows Hardin, and isn’t his biggest fan, though it isn’t clear why. Well, beyond Hardin being… Hardin.

There’s a time jump to the end of the week. Molly sees Tessa in a coffee shop and invites her to a party, but she declines.

Later on, there’s a discussion in lit class about Pride and Prejudice. Tessa is the hopeless romantic against Hardin’s insufferable snark. It’s such an obvious ‘LOOK, IT’S WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE PLOT.’

Back in dorms, Steph talks Tessa around to going to the party.

At the party, they play truth or dare. Hardin is really rude to her the whole time. I know she lives with Steph, but that doesn’t mean she has to hang out with this group of people.

During the game, Tessa chooses truth, and it comes out that she’s a virgin. For some reason everybody is shocked and gives a damn about this despite being 18-21. Why are you bothered about someone’s virginity? Grow up.

Hardin is dared to kiss Tessa, but she says no. Because he’s a whiny child, he doesn’t like that.

She’d been drinking for the first time throughout the game, and when she stands up to leave the group, it hits her all at once. Anna Todd writes being drunk for the first time really well. Tessa can’t figure out if she’s enjoying herself because it’s all very overwhelming. There’s no filter between her brain and mouth. The ‘why don’t you like me?’ bit sums up messy drunkenness so well.

Internalised misogyny is ingrained in this book. It’s especially prevalent in the Madonna-whore complex. Tessa is a ‘good girl’ because she’s virginal and innocent. All the other girls are promiscuous and that’s presented as a bad thing.

As the party winds down, Tessa is hanging out with Zed which gets under Hardin’s skin. The men are as nuanced/likeable as the women. It’s hard to like a single one of them. Everyone is just mean to each other. It’s not ribbing your mates for fun; they’re actively hurting each other’s feelings.

It’s too late to get a bus so Tessa stays in a spare room. There’s a man already there but he seems like he won’t be a problem. During the night, she realises he’s by her bed, trying to feel her. When I was taking notes, I was going to jot down something about why there had to be a scene where Tessa nearly gets assaulted. I was near the end of the chapter, so I was going to write it down once done. My question got answered pretty quickly. It was so she could run to the safety of Hardin’s room, and they could make out. I couldn’t care less that it means that Tessa is a cheat. I want to know why Anna Todd thought writing about sexual assault was the way to bring her love interests together.

The next morning, Tessa heads out, grabs a coffee and makes her way back to the dorms. Hardin got there before her. It turns out Steph gave him a spare key. They don’t chat for long before Tessa’s mum and boyfriend arrive, surprised and irritated by the presence of Hardin. Everybody bickers for a bit until her mum takes Tessa and Noah to go shopping. It feels incredibly pointless but it shows the early rift being caused by Hardin.

After class on Monday, Landon tells Tessa that he and Hardin are basically stepbrothers. Landon’s mother’s seeing Hardin’s father.

Hardin comes to see her in dorms. After some back and forth, he has her pinned against the wall before they kiss. It feels grim because the consent on Tessa’s side is dubious at best. She’s into it once it’s happening, but it doesn’t seem like she wants it beforehand. I’m glad Steph walked in before it went any further.

After class, Tessa and Hardin argue about whether she’s really into him. In the end, she agrees to meet up with him at a later date for something ‘fun’.

He later picks her up from dorms despite him actually coming over to hang out with Steph. He was going to cancel on Tessa but his jealousy gets the better of him. Him ordering her into his car when they’re about to leave made me incredibly uncomfortable. He’s controlling of her just in their friendship and makes no improvement as their relationship develops.

They go through a wooded area to a lake. When they’re in the water, they start to get hot and heavy, and being impressed by Hardin getting explicit consent says so much about what I’ve been reading so far.

Once they’re out of the water, things become more explicit. Second base type stuff. Hardin comments on how she’s completely innocent. This moment amongst many others is an exercise in the virgin worship so prominent in fanfiction.

The sexual content itself isn’t that; I always just found it a little jarring. This book feels like such a teen drama that the explicit content always felt like a surprise.

He’s icy in the car and upsets Tessa. This back and forth gets really repetitive so quickly. I found myself exhausted by this book. The hot and cold happens within pages of each other.

They’re already back to arguing after class the next day. They continue not talking to each other for about a week.

It’s the beginning of the weekend, and Tessa invites her boyfriend, Noah, to stay for a couple days.

On his second night there, they’re hanging out in Tessa’s room. She gets a call from Landon. Hardin is throwing a drunken fit at his father’s house. He’s found out his dad is getting married to Landon’s mum. The scene of him causing all that damage is really well written. He’s genuinely frightening. It should serve as a ‘this man is emotionally unavailable. I shouldn’t pursue him’ but it clearly doesn’t.

Once beauty has tamed her beast, he says to her, ‘I want to be good for you’. A romantic partner is not there to fix you. Anna Todd, stop perpetuating this harmful nonsense.

They end making out and a little more. I’m still not annoyed that Tessa is cheating. I don’t care because I’m focussed on how Hardin is definitely still drunk.

Back at the dorms, she starts to explain the helping Hardin aspect of what happened to Noah, and then Hardin gets there. Hardin hits her with the ‘tell him or I will’ about what they did. This scene is funny as hell – brought out my petty side. I’m not sure Anna Todd wanted it to be funny, though.

Tessa gets a makeover from Steph and they head out with friends for drinks. While there, Hardin and Molly show up. Tessa gets up close to Zed to annoy Hardin. Jealousy ain’t cute, it’s a red flag.

Hardin drives Tessa home because she’s drunk. There’s a snarky comment from Tessa about Molly, and Hardin says, ‘she sure is fun when she’s drunk’ and I did not like the implications of that one bit.

A couple of days later, they’re hanging out at a diner, and Hardin’s father happens to be there. He’s very robotic in his speech, but so is everybody else. I just really noticed it with him. He invites the two of them to dinner. Hardin is reluctant to go but agrees for Tessa.

Todd could have used that family dinner as a way to show off some writing skills through use of tension. But no. It goes from calm family dinner to BAM Hardin is flying off the handle. It’s wasted potential.

After he flips out, she finds him in the back, agitated. They go from bickering to making out at record speed. Landon walking in on this is very funny, and I think it’s supposed to be.

Tessa stays the night as there’s a storm. She’s in her own room at first but runs into Hardin’s hearing his night terrors.

An argument on the car ride to Tessa’s explodes when they find that Noah is in the dorms. While they did get back together briefly, she calls it quits, sending Noah out to make a go of it with Hardin for some reason.

They go to his place. For once the explicit content isn’t with drunk people.

Before bed, Tessa showers and says she’ll go back to his room in a towel. Hardin could have just objected because frat houses are full of gross men, but no. ‘I just don’t like being told no’ is his response because he is nothing if not a petulant child.

During class the next day, Tessa is called to Ken’s (Hardin’s dad/ uni chancellor) office. He asks her to convince Hardin to attend he and Karen’s wedding. If he can pull Tessa out of class to ask, he can do the same of Hardin. If Hardin doesn’t want to go, don’t force him.

That night, Tessa is with Hardin wanting to know more about him. There’s just a whole info dump about Hardin’s past. Once again, this shows that Todd does not know how to write a compelling story. Eek out information like this so we get to know a character naturally. The scene also makes the co-dependency thing really prominent. It’s just not healthy but it’s portrayed as ideal here.

It was around this time I realised the robotic speech comes from a complete lack of contractions. It messes with the rhythm completely.

The next night, there’s another party. Tessa and Hardin use Zed and Molly, respectively, to make each other jealous. Obviously, they argue about this. As Tessa leaves, Hardin tells her he loves her. 1. It feels like manipulation. 2. They’ve known each other for about a month.

The next evening, there’s a dinner at Ken’s. It doesn’t look like Hardin will be there, but he shows up at the last minute. Afterwards, there’s another argument. I was so tired by this point. It’s not just that there are so many arguments, it’s that they’re all basically the same.

They head to a bonfire, and Tessa hangs out with Zed which obviously annoys Hardin.

She goes to see Hardin afterwards and he’s been in a fight. She takes him to Ken’s to get him rested and clean.

They argue AGAIN but Tessa blurts out that she loves him.

Afterwards, Hardin tries to make it up to her in that exact brand of manipulation that he loves. It’s a ‘give me one more chance’, as if she hasn’t given him hundreds already.

I feel a grand total of nothing when they tell each other they love each other. ‘You’re the person I love the most in the world.’ Good for you, I guess. I think apathy really started to take over at this point.

The next evening, they head to Tessa’s dorm, but her mother is there waiting and she is in a mood. I know people say stupid things when they’re angry, but Tessa’s mother levels such a laughable threat. It boils down to ‘this man is going to ruin your college career and future, so I’m going to do that first.’

Next day: first day at the internship. She’s surprised to learn she has her own office. This whole internship feels so much like someone writing their kind of fantasy internship after having to be the unpaid coffee lacky for a while.

Night-time in the dorms, and Hardin stumbles in drunk. They argue for a bit then he asks her to move into a new apartment together. Then things get hot and heavy leading to her losing her virginity. Yes, this is another damn drunk sex scene. Please give me some consensual content, Anna Todd.

After work the next day, Hardin and Tessa go shopping for clothes for the upcoming wedding. While there they bump into Zed and a guy called Jace who seems to be bad news. He’s not really that necessary. He’s used in the story to sort of be the ultimate bad guy, but there’s already a whole group of people Todd could have used. Don’t just have a random villain show up about 100 pages before the end.

They argue on the way home but make up straight away when they get to Tessa’s dorm. If you think the arguments are repetitive in this, you have no idea how many I cut for the sake of brevity. Their co-dependency really shows in this make-up moment. Hardin ‘you’re the only constant in my life. You know that, don’t you?’ latching onto Tessa good and proper.

They agree to move in together and do so a couple of days later.

Hardin is missing for a couple days, and when he comes back, he’s drunk and has clearly been in a fight. The morning after, Tessa is trying to get Hardin to talk about his past a little too much despite how clear it is the man does not want to talk about it.

‘You had me worried you were going to give up on me.’ See any of the above comments about co-dependency. There’s a further dive into Hardin’s trauma after this and finding out that Hardin did see therapists boiled my blood because Anna Todd isn’t just ignoring proper help with traumatised characters, she’s saying it’s useless.

The wedding goes surprisingly smoothly. There’s little to no incidents and I think it’s Todd trying to show growth from Hardin, but momentary lapses from being awful do not make him a good person who has shown any signs of growth.

Tessa goes looking for Steph and finds her in a biker bar. Hardin shows up and it all kicks off. Jace basically makes him tell the truth about what’s happened with Hardin. In the first game of truth or dare right at the beginning of the book, it turns out he accepted a bet that he could take her virginity. This news goes down about as well you’d think. This final scene is written well but had no impact on me. For a start, it’s just She’s All That, but I don’t even get Freddie Prinze Jr or Matthew Lilliard, so what’s the point? Secondly, my apathy had taken over by this point. I couldn’t care less about these toxic and rancid little characters.

It goes without saying this book beyond deserves its bad reputation. It’s one of the worst books I have ever read, and I have less than no plans to read any of the sequels. I got headaches from this thing. The characters are so unlikeable, and the relationships are beyond toxic. I wouldn’t wish this book on my worst enemy.

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