Unteachable by Leah Raeder
My rating: 5 of 5 teacups
I’ve had several comments on my reviews of the NA experiment books asking why I insist on putting myself through all this torture. The simple answer: to find books like this one. Unteachable isn’t a perfect book. It sits comfortably within the contemporary romance genre that we’ve come to expect from New Adult and – plot-wise – it cannot be considered groundbreaking. But the writing, the mood, and the characters made this a book I couldn’t put down. You want to get some idea what this book is like? Look at that cover. Look at the explosion of bright colours winding off into a neon portrait of a young woman. That might give you some idea. A gif to represent this book? Here you go:
But really, what is Unteachable? I’ll tell you. It’s a lyrical, intoxicating novel that creates an atmosphere of such feverish intensity you feel a little high, a little out of control, just by reading it. I fell into this story and got lost amongst the lights of the carnival, the smell of beer and sweat, and the MC’s apprehension. I felt the pull of this story from the very beginning when Maise takes a ride on that fateful rollercoaster at the carnival and her life starts to change forever. Because this book is a romance and the romantic aspect is the foundation of the story, but it’s also about something else. I suppose it is really a coming-of-age tale. Of being a young woman balanced between childhood and the scary world of adults. It asks what it means to grow up. And if any of us ever really do.
Maise O’Malley is the star of this show and I loved her instantly. I didn’t expect her to be so funny. She’s wickedly sarcastic, she’s shamelessly rebellious, she’s not afraid of being more than a little crude at times. But, of course, she’s so much more than all of that too. Maise is a fascinating combination of:
And a bitter, sad fragility. She feels more real that any of the NA protagonists I’ve met with recently, there’s something genuine about the way she boxes her troubles up and locks them away behind doors with sexy, devil-may-care smiles. I feel like there’s something known about pain here. All these NA novels I’ve read about girls with issues, girls running from dark pasts, girls who were abused… and none of them seem to capture that darkness, that melancholy of being fucked up for a very long time. There’s something sadder about the way Maise brushes it off with a shrug and a joke about Freud, it affected me more than the melodrama of other novels. I don’t know the author’s story, but she certainly writes with a convincing flair that suggests some level of firsthand experience with the thoughts and emotions swirling away behind Maise’s closed doors. I love it when an author writes something, a thought or a feeling, that you never realised was exactly how you felt at a certain time or in a certain situation until it was laid out before you in a book. Inexplicable sensations are suddenly explained and it’s hard not to smile or laugh or cry along with the characters.
Raeder’s writing was, for me, perfect. Atmospheric, pretty without quite hitting the purple end of the scale, just beautiful. Like this:
I biked up to the water tower on the hill overlooking the prairie. Climbed the rust-eaten struts up to a crow’s nest some stoners had hammered together out of Mississippi driftwood. It wasn’t as hot tonight, and a restless wind raked through the grass, smelling of loam and barley. From here the carnival lights looked like fireflies swirling madly in place, trapped under an invisible jar. Just like me.
I especially love the use of past tense in this book, the way Maise tells the story from a present the reader is far away from reaching. She keeps talking about how “I didn’t know back then” and “I wonder what would have been different had I made another choice that day” and I actually loved it. The hindsight makes the whole thing seem somehow tragically inevitable. It works. You know certain things are coming and, rather than dampen the tension, it heightens it an incredible amount. I was sat there with a pounding heart, knowing what was coming, and sometimes wanting to hide behind my hands and not watch what I knew would happen. This, combined with the film metaphors woven throughout, made for a stunning, exciting novel.
Images and words flash past too fast to parse, like the cliche dying moment in film, when life flashes before someone’s eyes. Except that isn’t what happens when you die – it’s what happens when you live. It all flashes past. You barely have time to feel it before it’s gone.
Now for the relationship. Teacher and student. All kinds of wrong. All kinds of room for a really hot mess. But I think this relationship is used well here, not just to feed the reader’s forbidden fantasies. For one, it’s legal (phew) and they “hooked up” before the awkward classroom encounter and she had lied about her age. For another, he is so adorable I do not have words. I’ve got used to expecting a certain type of love interest from these NA novels. Arrogant, self-obsessed, controlling, annoying… Evan is none of those things. He is sweet, kind, considerate, he puts her first (which adds up to more than letting her come first) and he still manages to be totally sexy. His character development extends beyond his looks, he has faults and he has his own past that isn’t so peachy – I think if I could write an ideal NA male love interest, it would be exactly like him. I find it amazing that the NA relationship that is technically most inappropriate is the one that has felt most real and honest to me.
And because I liked Maise and I liked Evan… I loved them both together. And that made the sex scenes really hot. Just sayin’.
Now to get a couple of negatives out of the way. The most notable blemish to this novel’s perfection occurs around the middle where there is a slow chunk made up of nothing but sex. I know, I know, I’m such a spoilsport. But there were one or two sex scenes too many if you ask me. Your sex shouldn’t get tedious and there was a point somewhere between orgasms when I was hoping it would just move along a bit. Don’t worry, though, it picks up again. My other issue was with the handling of Hiyam’s character. I would have liked her to have been more well-rounded rather than just a mindless villain used as a tool to threaten the novel’s harmony. I also wish Maise had used a different term to describe insecure teenage girls than “bulimic”, it didn’t sit well with me and seemed to trivialize a serious illness. I understand it was Maise’s skewed view of them, but I ‘d just rather it wasn’t in there.
Now, let’s get back to the good! I haven’t mentioned the cast of secondary characters that I feel were extremely well-developed for a romance novel. Wesley, Siobhan… and I personally think Maise’s mum deserves a novel of her own because we barely scratched the surface with her. She is one of the worst mothers ever, but I’d love to get her story. The strength of all of them, I felt, was in the witty dialogue zipping back and forth. You could almost take out everything but the dialogue and it would still be a four star novel. I recall what I said in my recent review of Hopeless about how I wished the author had the guts to write a typically unlikeable “slutty” protagonist and make us love her. I got that here. I also got the closest thing to a feminist I’m probably ever going to find in these NA books. I imagined myself and Maise as partners in crime when I read this:
I looked at my desk. Someone had carved RIHANNA = SLUT. I thought about adding CHRIS BROWN = DOMESTIC ABUSER, but Mr Wilke probably would’ve caught me before I finished.
I really did like this book. A LOT. A lot more than I thought I was going to. It does the one thing I really wanted the NA genre to do from the start: capture that feeling of loneliness and desperation that occurs when you have no idea where you’re going next or who you’re going to be when it comes time to “grow up”. It’s about how teens grow up, and it’s about how sometimes adults never did. I don’t even care that the ending had more than a touch of cheese. I was ready for it. I was like an empty toasted sandwich, waiting to be cheesed <<<<<< Don't judge me, I will likely never again have chance to use that sentence.
One last quote, Emily? Well, if you insist:
That’s all life is. Breathing in, breathing out. The space between two breaths.
I'm Emily May - a twenty-something year old book blogger from the North of England. Currently going wherever the wind or the storyline takes me. Find me on Goodreads
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