I will start this review by pointing out that love stories of forbiddenness and passionate affairs between teachers and students are my undoing. I love the illicitness, the hiding around, the inability to stay away from each other even when being together could cost them everything in their lives, so I dove into this story with a receptive frame of mind, expecting it to rock my socks off. But what it did instead is leave me distraught, shaking in a corner, desperate to get some of those images out of my head, wondering how something potentially so great could have turned out to be so very wrong. This was not the story I hoped to read, I only persevered with it because it felt like a car crash I could not take my eyes off, and part of me stayed incredulous until the very end that this was not a satire. This book made me angry, it ignited every maternal bone in my body and the protective lioness in me wanted to draw blood. I will say though that I strongly believe that we do not all connect with books the same way and that reading is a subjective experience, so my objections, as fierce as they may be, are just that – my personal objections. They are based on my personal set of beliefs and moral values and they should be taken as that.
“I knew this was all wrong, and I knew I had to confront the possibility that Mr. Connelly was a bad man. A user. An exploiter.”
This is the story about a very innocent and naïve seventeen-year-old high school girl from a sheltered and stern upbringing, whose one and only mistake cost her her life as she knew it. She lost all her friends, she lost the trust of her parents and the admiration of her close-knit community, leaving her bullied, ostracised, lonely and craving for human attention.
“I was never allowed to make a mistake, and when I finally did, I paid the ultimate price.”
Cadence is convinced that no one loves her, that she is being unfairly punished for her one and only reckless act in life, and hence when she meets Mark Connelly, her handsome math teacher who also happens to be ten years her senior, his attentions easily find fertile ground in this lonely little girl. What starts as an ordinary schoolgirl crush on a teacher, a foolish yet innocent infatuation with the usual hopes of being singled out by him and interpreting every look, every word, every touch as a declaration of love, very quickly changes once he starts actively pursuing her and making his intentions unequivocally clear. Cadence is aware all along that had he not made the first move, hers would have simply remained a secret crush on her teacher and she knows it is wrong to allow him to pursue her, but from the moment Mark makes his intentions known, Cadence is incapable of saying no.
“I was perfectly content to harbor a secret crush on my teacher – one I knew would go absolutely nowhere. It was one thing to fantasize about an inappropriate relationship. It was quite another to actually pursue it. And he was pursuing me.”
There’s an inherent inequality in their dynamic from the get-go. He wields power over her by sexually awakening her young body and then using those emotions to make her doubt her uncomfortableness with their relationship. The easiest thing to do when a person doubts their actions is to convince them that instead of questioning themselves, they should question those who taught them right from wrong. He effectively manipulates her thoughts to serve the purpose of keeping her in his bed.
“What I’m doing is wrong… Being with you. Sneaking around. Lying. Letting you do things to me. It’s wrong, and I feel guilty.”
“Do you really think it’s wrong that we’re together? Or do you think it’s wrong because that’s what you’ve been taught?”
Every interaction between them, every exchange of opinions, ideas, beliefs, shows us how different these two people are, how little they have in common and how unbalanced their relationship is. I did not feel the passion between them at all, all I kept seeing was an impressionable little girl, desperate to be forgiven and feel loved by her parents again, aching for even the smallest bit of attention and acknowledgement from them, failing to redeem herself in their eyes and finding solace in the arms of a man who should have known better than to abuse the control gained from making a girl fall in love for the very first time.
“I’ll be honest with you, though. There is something sexy about the idea of you cutting me off from the few people I know.”
It was impossible for me not to draw a parallel between Cadence’s authoritarian father and her need to please him, make him proud of her, and the way Mark sets the pace in their relationship, fully in control of each milestone of intimacy between them, and that way maintaining control over Cadence. Her parents’ expectations of her might seem high to a disgruntled young girl who has suddenly lost her driving privileges and her social life, but an adult like Mark should see them as what they truly are – a normal reaction by two very scared parents that they daughter might be losing her way. But instead of justifying their valid parenting methods and helping her see their point of view, he distances her emotionally even further from them by calling them “assholes” and validating her childish defiance.
“You don’t like me. You haven’t liked me since I got in trouble. You don’t show me love. You’re not there for me. But someone else was. He was there for me. And kind to me. And he showed me love… I was an easy target. You’re right about that. And whose fault is that?”
At the end of the day, I never stopped perceiving Mark as the predator in this story. I did not feel the passion, the depth of emotion that I expected to feel. I kept seeing a young girl who’s never even seen a naked man before being manipulated and used by a man who did exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it, and how he wanted it. All consequences be damned. There were too many cringe-worthy moments that prevented me from enjoying the storyline or becoming invested in the characters. At no point did I believe that Mark saw her as a woman and everything he ever said to her implied that he cherished her childlike naiveté more than anything else in their bizarre relationship. That made me uneasy and mad at the author for romanticising a relationship of blatant inequality.
“Do that again and I’ll f*ck that eighteen-year-old pussy of yours right here in this room.”
Scenes that were meant to be sexy or romantic were often disrupted by awkward dialogues between the characters, and the frequent use of first names in dialogues broke their flow even further. On top of that, every time he sat her on his lap a little part of me shrivelled away and died. Every time he called her “adorable” or “pretty little thing”, I wanted to punch him. Every time God was brought into the equation, and then Cadence’s religious upbringing used when it suited the storyline but ignored when it didn’t, made me confused. Every time her friends, young or old, shared their endless ‘wisdom’ with her and gave her the worse advice known to human kind, I felt like screaming.
“He’s doing you in the closet and he loves you” Well, Cadence. It’s obvious this guy’s a keeper.”
This book clearly made me feel a whole lot of emotions but I doubt any of them were intended by the author and none of them were at all positive. This was not the story for me, I did not connect with it and I feel so very angry at it, even days after I finished reading it. I felt it failed me as a reader because while focusing on pursuing a taboo storyline and pushing the boundaries of comfort, it missed on creating a believable and relatable story by ultimately crossing the very fine line between deliciously forbidden and deliberately disturbing. I, however, applaud the author for the courage it took to write such a story and for her unquestionable writing skills.
This is the first in a two-part series and in the sequel, Better, we hear Mark’s voice…
“Nice job, Marcus,” the bouncer said as he looked me over, checked my ID, and looked me over again. “Not even legal.” He held up his fist, and Mark bumped it. “Score.”