Length: 286 pages
Publication: October 11, 2016 by Riverhead Books
What it’s about: It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty. Mourning her own mother’s recent suicide, she takes up with the local pastor’s son. Luke Sheppard is twenty-one, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a diner. They are young; it’s not serious. But the pregnancy that results from this teen romance—and the subsequent cover-up—will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth. As Nadia hides her secret from everyone, including Aubrey, her God-fearing best friend, the years move quickly. Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults and still living in debt to the choices they made that one seaside summer, caught in a love triangle they must carefully maneuver, and dogged by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently? The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.
What I thought:
I probably came to this book with too many expectations. I’d seen it talked about on other book blogs and literary social media, so I was pretty sure I would like it based on the almost universally positive feedback I’d been reading. And I did like it, to a degree, but it didn’t work for me overall.
This is a first novel from a talented writer. The language is simple but powerful and the characterizations strong, but there is also an emptiness to it that made it less convincing to me than it could have been. The character of Nadia is troubling; as a girl of 17, she knows exactly what she wants. Her only doubts come in the form of her feelings about Luke, with whom she has a natural and easy relationship except for the fact that he isn’t there for her when she needs him the most. Even though he later explains his behavior, she doesn’t ever completely accept his feelings and remains equivocal in her treatment of him.
Nadia never really shows uncertainty in her decisions, even if she might regret them later. She acts without any internal deliberation–she decides what she wants to do and she does it. This applies not only to the choices she makes at 17 but also when she is older and returns to her hometown to pick up old relationships. She doesn’t give any evidence of considering the feelings of those her decisions may affect.
I believe the purpose of the novel was to illustrate the “what ifs” of being in a similar situation to Nadia (even the description above would suggest that), but I wasn’t convinced by this because she never seems ambivalent to me. She makes choices and they have consequences, but she doesn’t hesitate or falter. In this way she is very like her mother, a point that is made throughout the book.
The trope of the Mothers didn’t work for me, either. I never understood the importance of their narrative voice or why they had any say in things, anyway. The story belongs to Nadia, Luke and Aubrey, and the figures of the church leaders and members didn’t resonate with me as anything more than background noise.
I would read more from Bennett because she is a good writer, but I wasn’t invested enough in this novel to be able to recommend it.