"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." --C.S. Lewis
I first learned about this book from Wendy's beautiful review, so if you want another opinion, check out her review!
You can find more of my reviews (plus discussions and giveaways) at Christina Reads YA.
Questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether to read this title:
1. Does this topic make you uncomfortable? No, really. Ask yourself this. It seemed like most of the negative reviews I'd read suggested that they were not able to stomach the idea of the teacher/student relationship. If you can't read about them, you won't like this book, even if it addresses some of the underlying social aspects behind those relationships.
2. Do you need a lot of plot? A lot of action? This book doesn't have a lot going on. In a sense, it reminds me of Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Eleanor & Park or a Sarah Dessen novel. It's a lot of descriptions about the every day life of Maise. You may get bored if you're looking for something more than that.
And now here's the review:
Obviously this book addresses an uncomfortable topic for some, but what made it work, in my opinion, was both Maise's voice and the fact that the taboo aspect of the teacher/student relationship was explored. From the start, you learn that Maise's a very take-charge heroine, honest, bold, brave. Very aware of her effect on others:
"I smiled at no one, sauntering past stalls stuffed with popcorn and pretzels and corndogs, flavor ice and cotton candy. The air was drugged with sugar and salt. It made my head spin. A bell rang nearby and someone whooped triumphantly. I passed the rigged games— milk bottles, darts— where people stubbornly threw money at the carnie, desperate to win some giant lice-ridden teddy fresh out of a Taiwanese sweatshop.
Mr. Wilke says I’m both cynical and worldly for my age. I choose to take them both as compliments.
I wasn’t ready to face the rollercoaster yet, so I rode the merry-go-round for a while, going for the full Lolita effect as I lifted a leg high and slowly, slowly draped it over a painted horse, reveling in how uncomfortable I made all the parents."
I love the confidence, the way she knows of her own power as a woman - she's not an "innocent" in this affair, though she is a tad naive at times. I love her cynicism and the way it mixes with her both old and young soul. I love that while she may not fully see the consequences of her actions as they are happening, she has the bravery to embrace life with the sort of raw zeal that you don't get from a lot of YA/NA heroines. Her fears were always palpable, strung bright for you beneath the glitter of the mask she wears for everyone else. The intensity of her emotions came through clearly in every description, so much so that at some points, the romance almost feels like a portrayal of insta-love, but it's not. Definitely not--but it does abound in descriptions of not only their sex scenes but beautiful portraits of the intensity of first love. It's like a grittier, more cynical and obviously more morally questionable version of the romance in Eleanor and Park. And her voice -- God, her voice was by far one of the best I have read in all of the NA genre. It's not just the intensity of or how smart she seems in her narration, but her unflinching honesty and camera woman's observation of the world, both the lighter and darker aspects surrounding us all. It's what Wendy Darling said in her review: "[Unteachable is] filled with the kind of lust and sweat and regret that you rarely get in New Adult titles, maybe because so many of them are too busy trying to appeal to YA readers that they aren't pushing the envelope enough, or maybe just don't have that much insight to share."
And the other point I have to make is that the taboo aspect of their relationship is actually addressed. I've read some other professor/student relationships in NA that don't go into the depth that this one does. It's more than the taboo aspect too; there's some subtle social criticism and some very interesting questions about actual NA concerns: your career, identity, future, parental and friend relationships. Although there aren't many secondary characters, they're flushed out well too. I like reading about morally ambiguous situations (character depth, hello!), but what really took the cake for me about this novel was the beautiful writing. It showed in the graphic sex passages--there are a bunch but fear not: this book has the sort of emotional connection that often seems lacking in NA & erotica--and regular descriptions of everyday life for Maise. This book does come with the slew of familial drama that's rampant in NA, but I thought the drama was developed enough and contributed rather well to the character growth Maise underwent.
Okay! This was supposed to be a mini-review, so now here are some passages that struck me:
"He fucked me slowly, his eyes open, on my face. My fingers and toes curled and then sprang loose. The funny thing was that his kiss had felt like fucking me, and his fucking me felt like being kissed, everywhere, every bit of my body unbearably warm and buzzing." (The sex scenes are more graphic than this, but I figured I ought to include a passage from one so that you're adequately aware.)
"We walked through the white fleece lying over downtown, Evan in a wool coat, me in fur boots and knit stockings and a parka, like a little girl. I felt like a little girl, laughing at the snowflakes colliding gently with my face. They collected in my eyelashes and when I looked at Evan he said, “You’ve got stars in your eyes,” and I kissed him, his lips warm and sweet in the cold. Our breath wrapped around us in scarves of steam. On the smooth white cloth spread before us, pastel lights rippled in soft, diaphanous waves, like auroras."
“You are so alive, Maise. You are so here, so present in the moment. You’ve taught me that happiness is possible now, not in some distant future. You’ll scale a mountain without a second thought, face your fears, throw yourself into danger, and you’re not reckless, but bold, proud. You have a lion’s heart. You’re not afraid to live.”
"This is what being in love feels like, Wesley. Gratitude. Gratitude that you exist in this fucked up, beautiful universe."
"You should love something while you have it, love it fully and without reservation, even if you know you’ll lose it someday. We lose everything. If you’re trying to avoid loss, there’s no point in taking another breath, or letting your heart beat one more time. It all ends.” His fingers curled around mine. “That’s all life is. Breathing in, breathing out. The space between two breaths.”"
"We undressed each other, cool air and warm hands gliding over skin. He laid me on the bed on the icy silk sheets, and the gravity that had threatened to throw us into collision finally did. I held him close as he moved inside me, hard and deep and with an urgency that felt somehow final, and we gave ourselves to it, fully, without reservation. No future and no past, only an endless now. Afterward, as we lay with our limbs tangled and stared at the pipes on the ceiling, his words ran through me. What if this is all we have? This closeness, this space between breaths, holding each other like air in our lungs, the oxygen metabolizing into our blood in a thrilling, ephemeral rush?"
I'm definitely going to watch for more work from this author. Although there were a few things I did think could have been done better, they were overshadowed by the gorgeous writing, the wonderful voice, and the fact that this book actually addressed the fantasy behind the student/teacher dynamic as well as other NA issues like your identity and career.