Unteachable Book Review

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Review:

It’s kind of funny what a 180 degree turn Unteachable was from my last summer read, despite being very similar in genre and setting. I identified pretty strongly, maybe even overidentified, with the characters of Fangirl. I have almost nothing in common with the characters of Unteachable.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. The main character and narrator, Maise O’Malley, is pretty severely fucked up – major daddy issues thanks to the father she’s never met, as well as a mother who’s a meth addict and dealer and who turns tricks on the side – but she’s vibrant and alive in a way that makes it pretty clear why men in general (and one man in particular) are drawn to her.

Her personality leaps off the page via vivid, impressionistic prose. In fact, I bought the book kind of on a whim, without checking the sample like I usually do, but I knew I was going to enjoy it as soon as I read the opening line:

When you’re eighteen, there’s fuck-all to do in a southern Illinois summer but eat fried pickles, drink PBR tallboys you stole from your mom, and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl till you hurl.

Maisie is cynical, blunt (“Thanks, Dad, for leaving a huge void in my life that Freud says has to be filled with dick“), and often funny, but desperate to escape her small Illinois town and sad, messed up life. In the way of smart, creative teenagers everywhere, she swings sometimes into melodrama and pretentiousness, but she’s also very raw and honest in a way that makes you feel for her, and root for her even when she’s making mistakes. Her dream is to direct films, and she experiences the world in a very immediate way, like a series of overlapping but often fleeting sensations, so the book is filled with evocative sensory descriptions, from the steamy sex scenes to the sights and sounds and smells of the carnival. I tore through it really feeling like I was experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes.

It was a bit less clear why Maise felt so drawn to Evan Wilke, the stranger she hooks up with at a carnival shortly before the start of her senior year of high school, who’s soon revealed to be her new Film Studies teacher. Neither Maise nor Evan is shy about admitting the lure of forbidden fruit for both of them, but the extent to which their relationship exists outside of mutual lust, mutual fucked-upedness, and the irresistability of the taboo is left a little ambiguous. (Deliberately, I suspect.)

The book ends hopefully, but if you like your endings Happily Ever After, it’s the sort of hopeful ending you don’t want to examine too closely with a realistic eye. As someone 10 or 15 years older than the intended audience of the “New Adult” genre, there were several things that set my alarm bells clanging about Maise and Evan’s real prospects for a happy future together, including, most alarmingly, the revelation that Maise wasn’t the first student Evan had slept with. (In real life, girls, this is the point where you run the fuck away and don’t look back.) By the end, it seemed clear to me that despite the 15 year age gap between them, Maisie was in many ways the more mature of the two of them and the one who really knew what she wanted out of life and was willing to do what it took to get it. Evan finally took action toward the life he wanted for himself at the end, but will it be enough to change it or will he continue to drift? The book leaves the question open, and frankly you could easily make an argument for either outcome.

In short, it’s not a comfortable book with characters or actions that are easily slotted into neat pigeonholes, but if you’re okay with complicated people in complicated and not always healthy relationships making complicated and not always healthy choices, it’s an intense and absorbing read that you may find will stick with you for a long time.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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