book review: lies you never told me

Lies You Never Told Me by Jennifer Donaldson
Razorbill, 336 pp.
Published May 29, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from the publisher via BookishFirst for review purposes. This in no way informed or influenced my opinion

Gabe and Elyse have never met. But they both have something to hide.

Quiet, shy Elyse can't believe it when she's cast as the lead in her Portland high school's production of Romeo and Juliet. Her best friend, Brynn, is usually the star, and Elyse isn't sure she's up to the task. But when someone at rehearsals starts to catch her eye--someone she knows she absolutely shouldn't be with--she can't help but be pulled into the spotlight.

Austin native Gabe is contemplating the unthinkable--breaking up with Sasha, his headstrong, popular girlfriend. She's not going to let him slip through her fingers, though, and when rumors start to circulate around school, he knows she has the power to change his life forever.

Gabe and Elyse both make the mistake of falling for the wrong person, and falling hard. Told in parallel narratives, this twisty, shocking story shows how one bad choice can lead to a spiral of unforeseen consequences that not everyone will survive.

The impressive debut of Jennifer Donaldson, Lies You Never Told Me features two equally compelling point-of-view characters, a pervasive sense of dread, and an equally satisfying twist and conclusion at the end. Most of the thrillers I read are not geared towards a YA audience because many teens-in-peril situations come across as too outlandish or improbable to hold my attention. Donaldson sidesteps this issue by finding tension and uncertainty in scenarios more plausible in an average teenager's life. Unhealthy relationships, emotional manipulation, and absent parents all contribute to a growing crisis that feels disturbingly possible.

Gabe balances a full life; between a small circle of close friends, caring for Vivi, his younger sister with Down's, and school, it's a wonder he has room for the high-maintenance demands of his queen bee girlfriend, Sasha. None of his friends approve of the relationship and her parents clearly disapprove of their daughter dating a Mexican-American. Gabe stays with her for more than just Sasha's looks, though. She's a master manipulator who makes a sport out of humiliating and ostracizing those who irritate her. His consternation over the repercussions of a break-up is a painful reminder of just how small high school can feel. It's also well-earned. Once Sasha's revenge extends beyond school and begins impacting his friends and family, those frightening violations subtly play into race and gender biases in a he said/she said argument.

His story is interwoven with that of Elyse, a shy and talented girl living halfway across the country. Her mother suffers from a debilitating drug addiction; Elyse works at a local movie theater to keep food on the table and is careful not to speak too explicitly about her home life in order to keep social services at bay. At first only her best friend knows how bad things have gotten, until a poorly directed crush develops from a mentor, to a friend, to crossing clearly drawn boundaries. Her hunger for normalcy and the rewards of an early adulthood, rather than just the stresses, make Elyse instantly sympathetic. That desire to be seen, to be treated like an equal and appreciated by someone you admire is so recognizable, even when she directs it towards a person who should never take advantage of those feelings.

As she and Gabe both get caught up in toxic relationships, events tumble out of their control astonishingly fast. Of the two, I found Elyse's half of the story more compelling and sympathetic, although both she and Gabe are fully realized characters. The supporting cast in Gabe's narrative are a little more cliched, though. Sasha comes across like the generic "crazy ex" at times and his friends function mostly as placeholders. By contrast, Elyse's best friend Brynn is treated with much more nuance. She genuinely cares and gets to show it through actions, not just words. Her mother also takes a more active role despite her initial struggles with addiction.

What I most appreciated—and what has drawn some criticism—is how Elyse reflects on an unhealthy relationship at the end of the novel. Something that began as an adolescent crush quickly grew beyond the bounds of anything she was capable of controlling. Rather than magically breaking free of both her original feelings and the extent to which they were manipulated, Elyse remains conflicted. She knows what happened was wrong and she suffered for it, but she still remembers the warm glow of her attraction too. I can understand some readers' desire for an outright condemnation through Elyse, but her equivocal response feels much more honest.

Although one story arc felt more robust than the other, Lies You Never Told Me still boasts two outstanding main characters whose troubles actually reflect what teens today might encounter. Donaldson writes at a quick clip: this is easily a one-sitting read if you can manage. The much-publicized twist may have been telegraphed by the time it's revealed, but both it and the conclusion are emotionally satisfying and well-suited to the overall story. Lies You Never Told Me is the perfect mix of realism and escape, kicking off the summer reading season in style.


No comments:

Post a Comment