“Unteachable” by Leah Raeder

I read the e-book but I’m not a fan of the cover.

The problem with reviewing books weeks after I’ve read them is that time has passed and made my memory foggy so details aren’t as fresh in my mind anymore. I completed this book on June 11 and though my memory of the story is beginning to fade around the edges, I enjoyed it so much that certain parts are still holding out.

Quick summary:

Maise O’Malley is an 18-year-old girl from a broken home. She lives with her mother, who’s a drug addict and cares little for her. Maise has daddy issues. She admits it. She accepts it. But despite all the hard balls life has thrown her, or because of them, Maise intends to graduate high school and attend a university in California to study film. She will not end up like her mother — strung out on drugs and turning tricks to hit the next high.

But life throws her a curve ball — Mr. Wilke, her high-school film teacher. He’s fun, attentive, caring, and good looking. It sounds cheesy but from the time they met, they’ve found it hard to stay away from each other. They try, after all, they are student and teacher and though Maise is old enough, it’s still not accetable for a teacher to engage in an intimate relationship with a student, but self-control is impossible in face of such a strong attraction, and Maise and Mr. Wilke risk getting caught.

My thoughts:

Hey, that’s my first Quick summary write-up that’s actually quick! **Pats self on back**

I absolutely enjoyed reading this story. I found it on Refinery29’s list of 30 Young Adult Books Every Actual Adult Should Read, where the description sold me the story. The taboo—student sleeps with her teacher—pulled me in, the plot hooked me, and the prose held me tight. As you can imagine, I found it hard to put this one down when reading it.

It sounds like a slow read, but I was surprised to find that the plot developed quicker than I’d expected. It’s not very fast paced since the prose is detailed, but it’s not snail-pace slow either. It’s told in the first-person from Maise’s point of view, which leads me to another aspect of this story that I love — Maise’s voice. She is so cynical and direct. And if her unabashed, straight-laced, curse-filled talk isn’t your cup of tea, then you’ll know to drop the story from early on.

“Thanks, Dad, for leaving a huge void in my life that Freud says has to be filled with dick.”

Raeder didn’t hold much back when writing this and some passages are highly descriptive, for example, the sex scenes. Because of this, I disagree with Refinery29 in classifying this as a young-adult novel. It’s too sexually explicit to be classified as such. I think it’s new adult. The protagonist is 18, right at the generally accepted border between teen years and adulthood. Also, the explicit nature of this story doesn’t fit the content of other books that are commonly classified as YA.

As for the characters, they’re okay. I admire Maise since she sticks to her goals despite the obstacles that threaten to upend them. There is a point in the story where I’d feared that she would act like other silly female protagonists who give up on their dreams to chase the guy but Maise stays focused. She pursues her goals AND fights for her relationship. Often stories result in the character having to choose one or the other as if having both is always impossible. I like that such is not the case in this story.

Some readers might find it hard to believe that Maise is unscathed, for the most part, despite being raised in a dangerous household with drugs and lecherous men about, but I admire her for pulling through. I like how honest she is about herself, especially toward the end. At first she (and Mr. Wilke) deluded herself into believing that she’s more of an adult than her high-school peers but as the story progresses, she realizes how wrong, and young, she is and how much she needs her youth, especially the innocence that was robbed of her because of how she was raised.

“He was like me: not fully part of the adult or child world. An exile, watching wistfully from the outside.”

Mr. Wilke is pretty okay as well. I don’t think he’s a bad guy but he does make dumb decisions. Whenever I tell someone about this book, they are quick to paint Mr. Wilke as a bad guy because he has sex with his student. (By the way, none of the people I’ve discussed the books with has read it.) I do think Mr. Wilke should have known better because of prior experiences but I don’t think he took advantage of Maise. In some instances, it seemed to me that Maise takes advantage of Mr. Wilke. Of the two of them, she seems more aware of their relationship. She also seems more mature than him, sometimes. It’s odd, but both characters are stuck at the same age. That imaginary age is older that Maise’s 18 years and younger than Mr. Wilke’s 30+ years, so somewhere in the mid-twenties.

Though I think Mr. Wilke is okay, he scared me a bit when the characters try to uncover who he is and where he came from. I began to think that maybe he is leading Maise on or maybe the relationship is all in Maise’s head. And I began to get anxious because Maise’s life is already hard and she really shouldn’t have more shit placed on top of all she’s already dealing with. My imagination went wild and I began to think that maybe Maise is an unreliable narrator and was using her mom’s drugs all along and didn’t tell us and the whole relationship was sham and…. My mind OD’ed. I was too invested in the story so I took a short break from it before picking up the book again.

As for the taboo, I don’t know what to think. A small part of me thinks it’s horrible that Maise hooks up with her teacher but the larger part is totally fine with it, especially since she is 18, aware of what she’s doing, and is not forced or coerced into engaging in a sexual relationship with him. So I guess I see nothing wrong with it but then again, maybe my morals are fucked.

There are a few things in the book that either didn’t add up or didn’t work for me but they’re few. First is the mention of a psychologist in the first few chapters that’s not mentioned again later in the story. I like Maise’s discussion of her therapy session in the opening chapter, but there should have been a reference to it later in the story. Also if Maise’s mother really doesn’t care for her, then why would she bother making Maise see a psychologist? Speaking of her mother, I think she should have been fleshed out some more. We only have what Maise says about her and a few appearances to go on. I guess her absence in the story reflects her absence in Maise’s life but I still wish she had more dimension. I also did not like the ending. It was cheesy. But by the time I got to the ending, I was so committed to the story, that I didn’t mind its cheesiness much.

Overall: ★★★★★

It’s an entertaining read and I highly recommend it. The writing is great and the narrator’s voice will stick with you. It’s descriptive and raunchy in some spots but I think that adds to its appeal. Some readers might find issue with the characters since some are a bit one-dimensional and others don’t really ring true (what parent would be okay with a high-school student sleeping with her teacher?) but I liked them regardless.

Quotes from the book:

“Here’s a history of the world: Girl meets boy. Girl fucks boy. Girl gets scared and skips out on boy. Boy builds civilization to lure girl back.”

“Part of falling in love with someone is actually falling in love with yourself. Realizing that you’re gorgeous, you’re fearless and unpredictable, you’re a firecracker spitting light, entrancing a hundred faces that stare up at you with starry eyes.”

“That’s how you know someone loves you. When they want you to be happy even in the part of your life they’ll never see.”

“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.”


10 thoughts on ““Unteachable” by Leah Raeder

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