Book review: "Unteachable" by Leah Raeder

"The night I met you was like someone handed me a winning lottery ticket and said, 'You can only have it if you don't tell anyone.' "

“...The thought of how much happiness lay scattered across the universe, unrealized, in fragments, waiting for the right twist of fate to bring it together.”

Whoa, baby. Let's see if I can wrestle this beast down.

Leah Raeder's Unteachable is one doozy of a book. It's 320 pages of overwhelming emotions. The premise alone is enough to cause serious lip-chewing and hand-wringing. Barely legal high school senior Maise wraps up her summer with a steamy car hookup at a carnival, convinced she'll never see the hot guy she rode the roller coaster with again. Except he turns out to be her film teacher. And now they sorta kinda can't live without each other and INSANITY ENSUES. Basically, Raeder laughs at your "forbidden love" stories and says, "take that, wimps." 

This is a slim volume densely packed with well-developed characters, shocking plot twists, location changes and a TON of drama. Daddy issues. Good mothers and baaaaad mothers. Fraught friendships and coke fiends. Secrets. Lots and lots and lots of graphic sex. That's a big draw. This book is hot. But it's also deep, beautiful and challenging.

Every writer has something that they excel at, whether it's worldbuilding or humor or sociological insight, and for Raeder, her greatest strength is her lyrical, evocative, hallucinogenic prose. She's poetic in a way that made me wear out the highlighting feature on my Kindle. Her prose and plotting elevate the tangible and relatable to mystical, mythical, sacred. But with lots of f-bombs to keep everything from sounding too precious. She did in 300-odd pages way more than some authors do in 3,000-page series. Seriously, so much happens in this book, it's kind of crazy.

This is a book that throws taboos in your face. It makes you question what you believe about love, in the same way that Maise, throughout her growing, illicit relationship with Evan, questions what keeps them together. They're obsessed with each other, consumed with this wild, insatiable need for each other — a hunger that keeps growing the more you feed it, Maise says — but if they no longer had to sneak around, if their love was no longer forbidden, would they still have that? What draws us to people, and what if it's kind of fucked up, the thing that makes us want them? And if love turns you into a feral creature, if it hollows you out to make more room, is that the kind of love you can survive?

“What happened felt more like chemistry than a kiss. Pure liquid heat on my lips, dissolving into me, trailing a hot line down my chest and pooling in my stomach. My heels rose off the floor. All of me rose, unanchored, held down only by his weight pressing me to the chilly slab of the door. We kissed as we could not have done until now—like lovers.”

Throughout the book, my serious misgivings became less and less about the age gap and the abuse of authority, and more about whether Evan was worthy of Maise. Most reviewers loved Evan, but I thought he was way too immature for a 30-something grown ass man, and Maise was definitely the adult in the relationship, the one willing to put in the work. I wasn't sure whether I was rooting for this couple. By the time I knew more about Evan's past and their relationship had been tested, I saw the mitigating factors of their relationship — the fact Maise was 18, that they were in love, that they'd slept together before knowing they'd be teacher and student, that Maise was accustomed to screwing much older men — as pretty irrelevant. I just felt like, if ya'll insist on doing this, I'ma need you to get some counseling, immediately.

"Mark me, I thought. Give me something to take away with me. Something I can touch when I’m alone, remembering this."
The erotic elements are very fap fap fap, but I was surprised that there wasn't a lot of variety in the acts described considering just how much boning was happening. I mean, Maise and Evan just aren't into foreplay, I guess? Still. Hot.

Even though I am not sure how I feel about a lot of what happens in this book, I am sure that I'd read 50 more books about Maise, a compelling, complicated, badass character who is wise and driven beyond her years despite growing up in an incredibly messed up household. You just know she's damaged, and a lot of her behavior is questionable, but she has one major thing going for her. Maise is seriously #feelingherself. When we meet her at the carnival, she's enjoying putting on a show for desperate daddies way more than she's digging any of the rides. She comments about how she looks better than the prissy girls at school even in her hick clothes and zero makeup. She even talks about hearing her own voice during sex and how into it she was, how she was getting off on herself.

There's clearly a lot of pain and vulnerability and Maise is deeper than just knowing what a babe she is. So her over the top confidence, while admirable and atypical, kind of read like that was the only source of stability she felt, her knowledge that she was beautiful and alluring. There's a lot of discussion fuel in Maise.

If you've ever been in an obsessive relationship or fancied someone deeply inappropriate for you, this book will leave grill marks on your skin. There were points during which I had read just a handful of pages and had to stop and just pace. Which seems to be a thing I do when a book is too intense and familiar. This book was just too much at times. I really, truly felt for Maise. I wanted to be her friend and help her, comfort her, sob with her.

“There's something so terrible about wanting something you've already had. You know exactly what you're missing. Your body knows precisely how to shape itself around the ache, the hollowness that wants to be filled.”

So yeah. Go read Unteachable. Get angry and squicked out on one page and turned on the next. Swoon at the dreamy words and muse about love while wiping away tears. It'll gut you in a good way.

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