I am one of those readers who is constantly looking for that book, the one that stands out among countless others, a story that owns me from the very first sentence and challenges every single preconception I might have about a particular topic, ‘re-wiring’ my thoughts and sending my book junkie wheels spinning. Well, let me tell you, this book overwhelmed me, thrilled me, ignited me and brainwashed me. It was perhaps one of the most enjoyable ‘rides’ I’ve been on and it left me stunned. In awe. Speechless. I have a very special rating for stories that push the norm and do so through the most spectacularly unique writing style, and this book truly deserved every single one of those six stars of greatness.
“In this flyover, flyaway town that barely topped five figures, one of them was a man with an angel’s face, a man who’d asked me my name before he f*cked me in his car on a fearless August night. I couldn’t get him out of my head.”
This is the story about a forbidden romance between an eighteen-year-old high school senior and her somewhat older teacher. Maise and Evan met at a summer carnival, two strangers seeking an innocent thrill, and finding the love of their life. They meet, connect, consummate their attraction and permanently mark each other’s hearts, all before they find out Evan would soon become her teacher. But, as much as the taboo nature of their relationship sets the pace of their story, this is not a tale of forbiddenness – this is a tale of two ageless souls drifting through life, without purpose or fulfilment, and suddenly finding each other and finding themselves in the process.
“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.”
Maise is a fearless young woman, her mother’s questionable parenting skills having made her resilient to disappointment and determined to become her own person. She is driven and confident, outspoken and opinionated, she wants to live life to the fullest and refuses to be a victim of her dysfunctional childhood. Maise has sheltered herself from feeling any affection for people, so when she meets Evan, she not only falls in love for the first time, she actually ‘feels’ affection for the first time. That love makes her see herself in a different light – she no longer sees the world from the shadows she used to hide in, she is now standing fully in the light, seeing everything differently, her heart basking in the sunlight.
“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.”
What starts as a forbidden romance, slowly grows into something neither of them can or want to deny. On one hand, we watch them pursue their clandestine affair by hiding it from the world, stealing moments with one another, touches, glances, kisses, and on the other, we see them as they are when they are alone together – raw before one another, fully exposed emotionally and unable to get enough of each other. They are selfless in their love, passionate but extremely tender, and that poignant tenderness between them during their most private moments makes us blind to all else. You soon forget their vast age difference, their disparity of life experiences or general future aspirations. Life might be pulling them in opposite directions, but all we see are two people genuinely in love, and that love making both of them better and more complete human beings.
“He looked at all of me, my fresh teenage skin, my adult certainty, my old soul. No one had ever looked at me so completely. No one had ever seen me as such a whole, rounded person.”
This story is so expertly put together, presented to us through a cinematographic lens, its unique prose holding us captive and engaging our imagination as much as the story itself. A taboo romance might have been the premise of this story, but I found it very hard to keep perceiving it as that. I fell in love with these characters from their first love scene in a carnival parking lot inside an old Chevy Monte Carlo with a stuffed sad-eyed pony sitting on the dashboard. I loved their connection, their dialogues, the way their minds complemented each other as much as their bodies did. For me this was a beautiful love story between two flawed characters I loved from beginning to end. I loved their selflessness when it came to each other, I loved them together, I hated when they were apart, and I shed a tear in the end.
This book changed me. It affected subsequent reads and it made me crave certain scenes every time I thought about them. A spectacular debut novel, I’m almost afraid to find out what else might come to us from the skilful hands of Ms Raeder. I am giving it nothing less than a standing ovation.
“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. That’s all life is. Breathing in, breathing out. The space between two breaths.”
Room 209 was at the end of a hall, a huge window beside it like a portal straight to the sun. I spent a second soaking in the light, photons beaming through my eyelids. When I walked into the room my vision danced with microscopic explosions of blood vessels, a hazy red sparkle.
I saw him first.
I didn’t blink. Everything inside me came to a full stop. He wore pressed slacks and a collared shirt, clean-shaven, hair combed neatly, a silver watch gleaming on his wrist, but it was undeniably him. I knew those hands. I knew that mouth. I’d pictured that face, grizzly with stubble, his eyes half-shut, nuzzling at my neck as I lay in bed and got myself off.
I knew instantly, unequivocally. Evan Wilke. Starting his new job as a teacher at Riverland High.
10:15-11:45, Intro to the End of the World.
He raised his head and swept a generic, acknowledging smile over the room, starting with the far side. It took all of two seconds to reach me but I felt it coming like thunder, sensing my imminent doom and yet paralyzed, unable to run.
He reached me and paused. His face fell. Not into dismay—all expression went out of it. Shock.
A kid nudged me aside and walked in. I stood stupidly in the doorway. It felt like a series of small eternities, but it was only seconds.
Evan stared at me dazedly. I think he was confused. I don’t think he realized I was a student yet. I made myself step in and took the seat nearest the door.
His mouth opened slightly.
What did we do wrong, Your Honor?
I was eighteen. He wasn’t my teacher yet.
I drank. Everyone drinks.
He purchased alcohol for me. I lied about my age. Not his fault.
I rest my case.
My eyes were open, but I wasn’t conscious of having seen anything for a minute. A gray-out, Mom called it. You didn’t pass out but you just…weren’t there for a while.
The room was starting to fill up.
Evan shuffled papers around his desk. Then he stood there, staring at the surface, only his eyes moving, a rapid back-and-forth like REM.
Was this a dream? It felt distinctly nightmarish.
He straightened and walked toward the door, pausing beside me.
“Can I see you outside?”
Soft, discreet. No hint of emotion.
I stood without looking at him, feeling exposed. I hadn’t brought anything to this class. I thought I had everything I needed in my head.
He waited in the sun. Kids streamed past in and out of a bathroom. All their noise seemed fuzzy and far away, behind glass.
I’d imagined what I’d do if I ever saw him again. Rush into his arms. Apologize for skipping out. Touch his face. Kiss him, kiss him.
Instead we stood with two feet of solid sunlight between us.
“Maise,” he said.
My head rose as if his voice had lifted it.
“Is that your real name?”
“I am so sorry.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. I’d expected anger. You lied to me. You ran off. “Why?” I said.
He only shook his head.
“I’m eighteen,” I said quickly. Darted a glance at the kids around us. No one seemed to see anything out of the ordinary—just a teacher talking to a student. “I was eighteen then, too. So—don’t, you know. Be sorry.”
“Are you okay?”
I think I’m starting to be. “Yeah.”
He rocked on his toes. It made him seem young. God, how old was he, anyway? I figured past his twenties, but I had no real fucking idea. Two feet of sunlight wasn’t enough to block out that suede smell, tame and subtle now, but unmistakable.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “You tell me what you want. You can transfer to another class. Or I can—I can submit my resignation, right now. I’ll do it. Just give the word.”
He was talking crazy, and it made my heart expand like a balloon. You’re guilty, I thought. Flustered. You know this will be a disaster if we pretend like nothing happened. Because you still feel something.
The warning bell rang. One minute.
Evan didn’t move. His gaze focused unerringly on me.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I whispered, conscious of the emptying hall. “And I don’t want to transfer to another class.”
“Maise,” he said. Just my name.
“And I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have left like that.”
Thirty seconds. Lockers slammed. Footsteps hurried.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said.
“It’ll be fine.” I swallowed every bit of spit in my mouth to add, “Mr. Wilke.”
We were staring at each other when the final bell rang. Together, we walked back into class.