When I requested Leah Raeder’s Unteachable off of NetGalley, I had quite a few thoughts:
1) “Wow, this cover is really beautiful.”
2) “This will be a nice, quick read after slowly making my way through The Beautiful and the Damned.”
3) “I’m pretty sure I will download any book that features a relationship between a student and a teacher, and I totally do not want to analyze what that means right now.”
What didn’t I think? I didn’t think that I would find, what I am now terming, my book soul mate.
Soul mates are something I’ve often imagined as being purely romantic, until that famous quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love garnered a lot of attention and gave the idea a whole new kind of weight:
“A soul mate’s purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master…”
So why do I see Unteachable as my book soul mate? Why has this New Adult title, published by Atria, resonated with me so much?
“You can call it love, or you can call it freefall. They’re pretty much the same thing.”
Maise O’Malley, the newly-eighteen-year-old protagonist of Unteachable, has lived a pretty difficult life. An absent father figure has made her crave male attention (the humor of this is not lost on Maise: “Thanks, Dad, for leaving a huge void in my life that Freud says has to be filled with d*ck.”). An addict mother who can barely take care of herself ensured Maise had to grow up, fast and on her own. Our protagonist is bitingly sarcastic and intelligent, full of sexy confidence and bravado… although as a reader I wanted to know how much of this was truth and how much was a coping mechanism.
When Maise meets and has (well-written, oh-so-steamy) sex with a handsome stranger at a carnival, she finds herself feeling something foreign: Attachment? Attraction? Her fear of these feelings prompts her to run away. She can’t run too far, however; that handsome older stranger, Evan Wilke, is her new high school film teacher.
The chapters that follow detail the undeniable, obsessive attraction between Maise and Evan. Can their relationship be wrong if it started before either one knew of the other’s position? Is love like this true, or is it all based on taboo circumstance? While the romantic relationship is certainly at the forefront of the novel, it’s also a story of personal development. Maise struggles with identity, responsibility, her dreams of being a filmmaker, and her relationships with friends and family.
The protagonist’s humor, her dedication to her art, and her vulnerability make her an incredibly likable character in my eyes. She also seemed familiar to me, and I wasn’t quite sure why. And then I realized.
When I read Maise’s voice, I hear the main character in my own novel-in-progress.
Now, don’t worry: this isn’t some post about stolen ideas or anything like that. Some of the similarities had my head spinning, though: sarcastic narrator, future USC film student, unreliable/absent parental figures….
I was hooked. Aside from being an enjoyable, thought-provoking read in its own right, reading Unteachable was exciting because I was seeing something I wanted to do, something I thought daily about doing, being done well. \
My own main character was poking me in the side as I read, saying, “Look! There are other sarcastic, intelligent girls getting their stories told. When is it my turn?”
I’ve been working on my own novel, which began as a short story for a writing class, about four years ago now. Circumstance and procrastination have kept me from pursuing this writing seriously. Recently I’ve returned to the idea of JUST SITTING DOWN AND WRITING, and it’s scary and exhilarating. Reading a novel like Unteachable, which uses first-person narration with great success, made me realize that the thoughts inside my own character’s head could be interesting and worth a read. Envisioning these supporting characters so fully helped me understand how the little details an author chooses to include can really make a story and its inhabitants come alive. Reading these passages made me appreciate the beauty that can be achieved when humor and poignancy are in perfect balance.
“There are moments, when you’re getting to know someone, when you realize something deep and buried in you is deep and buried in them, too. It feels like meeting a stranger you’ve known your whole life.”
To bring it back to the Gilbert quote about soul mates: I feel like reading Unteachable was the (confusingly pleasant) slap in the face I needed. A shouting “Look! There are books out there that can make you feel so many beautiful things! Now get out there and finish your own, lazybones!”
I read this book hungrily, whenever I found a spare moment. I read it on the subway commute to the office, shifting my eyes to see if anyone was reading over my shoulder when a particularly erotic scene unfolded. I read it on the elliptical at the gym, the prose making my 45-minute workout fly by in an instant. I read it while I was waiting for water to boil for pasta, and while waiting for water to boil for tea, and while waiting for a mud mask to harden on my face. My quick grins at Maise’s sarcastic lines or some devastatingly charming lines by Evan had the mask cracking at the corners like plaster, but I didn’t mind.
And so I will carry Unteachable with me (physically, on my Kindle; emotionally, in my heart) as a reminder that books can be wonderful and addictive and true. So I will sit down when I have spare moments, when I’m waiting for water to boil or when I am commuting on the subway, and I will finish writing my own. And maybe one day, in some fictional universe, my main character and Maise will see each other at a film awards ceremony, and they’ll give each other a little nod of recognition.
So thank you, Leah Raeder, for shaking things up. I’m off to write.
Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page. Tweet @daniellevillano.