(Note: This review contains major spoilers.)
Young Adult novel “The You I’ve Never Known,” by bestselling author Ellen Hopkins, deals with statutory rape, attempted rape, underage drinking and drug use, bisexuality, promiscuity, cults, physical and emotional abuse, kidnapping, deceit, and attempted murder. It is, in short, a lot to throw at a teenage reader.
The story has two alternating narrators: Ariel, who tells us about her nomadic life with her father; and Maya, who makes a drastic and ill-considered decision in order to get away from her overbearing Scientologist mother. At first, the connection between the two girls isn’t clear. But Ariel is troubled by resurfacing fragments of memories she can’t quite place, and a growing conviction that the way her father treats her isn’t right. And when a strange woman shows up at her school basketball game, the two stories collide, changing her world and her very identity.
Many readers will be able to see that Ariel’s father is abusive and dangerous, long before Ariel herself fully grasps it. She does know, however, that she’s been starved for affection ever since she can remember. It’s even hinted that this may have something to do with why she falls in love with two people at the same time, a girl and a boy: her classmate Monica, and her new friend Gabe.
But Ariel has absolutely no moral or emotional framework to help her evaluate her choices. She knows that her father uses and abuses women, so he’s no trustworthy guide in these matters. She also knows that her father hates gay people and Mexicans (Monica falls into both categories). And she knows that her mother ran off with a girlfriend, leading her to suspect she herself may have inherited a “gay gene.” Other than that, all she knows is that her feelings are strong and that she wants to explore them. And she does, having sex — which is described pretty explicitly — with Monica and then with Gabe, before she makes up her mind to whom she wants to commit.
Maya, for her part, gets pregnant at 16 by a 27-year-old soldier, trusting him to marry her and take her away from an increasingly abusive mother. He does, but her refuge turns out to be an illusion. Though she adores her baby girl, Casey, Maya finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who also turns cold and abusive. Eventually, Maya starts to wonder if her feelings for her best friend, Tatiana, might actually be deeper than friendship.
Both Ariel and Maya make major life decisions with little guidance, from a place of emotional neediness and desperation. When combined with their firm belief that all sexual decisions are equally morally valid, this hardly seems like a healthy way to handle things. Ariel, for instance, sometimes has a hard time dealing with men at all; when Gabe gets into a fight with a boy who has just tried to rape her, the violence reminds her of when her father beat a girlfriend and makes her fear Gabe for a while, even though he’s only doing what he has to do to stop the rapist.
It seemed to me, also, that Monica sometimes comes across as too pushy in her pursuit of Ariel, though Ariel herself doesn’t feel that way. At least once during sex, for instance, Monica ignores Ariel’s “No” and keeps going. While Ariel is shown being fine with this, and seeing Monica as nothing but warm and loving, it doesn’t seem like a great precedent.
But we’re led to identify so strongly with both Ariel and Maya that it’s hard for a reader, especially a young one, to remain emotionally detached and evaluate their situations and choices realistically. The morally murky handling of these themes, along with the explicit sex and violence and frequent profanity, combine to make “The You I’ve Never Known” a book that doesn’t feel very appropriate for its target audience.
Image copyright Margaret K. McElderry Books. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.