A complex, nuanced, and heart-rending coming-of-age story.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, rape, and racist/sexist/homophobic language.)
one silent. A single syllable
pregnant with meaning.
I’m getting married. That should have an exclamation mark, shouldn’t it? I guess a small part of me is excited to leave my current existence behind in favor of something brand-new. But the closer I get to the appointed time, the more I think I might’ve made an awful mistake.
My childhood is a jigsaw puzzle,
with chewed and misplaced
pieces. I’ve always known that.
What I didn’t realize
is that even if every correct piece
was fitted perfectly into place,
the resulting picture would’ve been
When she was just a toddler, Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her. Of course, she doesn’t know this – yet. Raised on a steady diet of her father’s lies, Ariel thinks her mother Jenny ran off and abandoned the family to be with another woman. The duo has spent the last decade and half moving from town to town, state to state, mooching off her father’s latest conquests when possible, shoplifting and sleeping in the car when not.
After years of bouncing around, Ariel and Mark have finally settled in Sonora, California – which is to say, they’ve managed to stay in one place for a whopping fifteen months. Ariel was able to attend a whole year of high school uninterrupted, joined the basketball team, and even made two friends: teammates and fellow “freaks” Monica and Syrah. Mark’s in a somewhat stable relationship with a woman named Zelda, and things are looking … good. That is, if you don’t look too hard.
Mark is … a piece of work. Actually, that’s an understatement: the man’s a full-on sociopath. Kidnapping isn’t the worst of his offenses. He’s emotionally and physically abusive, treats his daughter like a possession, and demands total obedience at all costs. He has a laundry list of rules that Ariel must follow; some, like leaving her shoes at the front door and not bringing any stray animals home, go to his rigid nature, while others only make sense when Ariel discovers the truth about herself. Unlike other parents, Mark isn’t keen on the idea of letting his seventeen-year-old daughter get a driver’s license (never mind a car!) or a part-time job, even though both would make his life infinitely easier. Nor is he thrilled when she saves the life of local VIP girl Hillary Grantham, thus attracting the attention of the media.
All of this is sure to mess with any kid’s head, and Ariel’s all caught up in those precarious teenage years, when kids naturally push boundaries and challenge authority, trying to suss out their place in the world. Mark’s authoritarianism leaves zero room for self-expression or identity. More alarmingly, the man is virulently racist, sexist, and homophobic – and Ariel is in love with her queer Mexican American BFF, Monica. Neither girl is out to her family (though Monica’s is, on the whole, much more loving and supportive than Ariel’s party of two). Ariel’s already complicated and confusing feelings are further colored by the fact that her mom abandoned her for another woman. As if this isn’t enough to deal with, enter Gabe, Zelda’s hot nineteen-year-old nephew to whom Ariel immediately takes a shine.
Ariel’s story is bound up with that of Maya, a seventeen-year-old girl who orchestrates a pregnancy and marriage to a soldier ten years her senior. This seems a better choice than the alternative: moving to Sea Org in Los Angeles with her abusive Scientologist mother.
To be honest, there’s an awful lot going on in this book; with Ariel alone, you have the kidnapping (and inevitable discovery/questioning of identity/reunion), physical and emotional abuse, and exploration of sexual identity. The Scientology stuff seems a little over the top. That is, until the two women’s stories finally intersect: then it all gels together and makes a ton of sense.
Like many (all?) of Ellen Hopkins’s books, this one is written in verse (mostly), and thus feels much shorter than its 608 pages. I’m not sure whether the convention adds anything to the story, but it definitely doesn’t detract from it, either.
Hopkins does an excellent job dissecting a dysfunctional relationship – several of them, actually – and identifying the many techniques abusers employ to harm, belittle, isolate, and humiliate their victims. In particularly, I was pleasantly surprised to see her call out gaslighting by name, providing a clear definition and multiple examples of gaslighting in action. It’s clear from the get-go that Ariel finds her father’s behavior disquieting; but, lacking any models of healthy relationships, outside observers/allies, or even the proper vocabulary to voice her thoughts, she thinks the malfunction is hers. If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you even begin to fix it?
I also love that Hopkins centers a story around a bi MC. Navigating a burgeoning sexual identity can be hard for teens, but infinitely so when your dad’s burdened you with a ton of baggage. At first it seems that Ariel thinks she’s gay – Monica is the only person she’s formed a real connection with, after all – which disturbs her on some level, since she doesn’t want to be anything like her no-good mom. But when Gabe enters the mix, she’s forced to reevaluate. Ariel struggles with a plethora of stereotypes about bisexuals – they’re promiscuous, greedy, mentally ill, can’t make up their minds – which are ultimately challenged, though perhaps not as strongly as I’d like. I’m curious to read other people’s thoughts on this.
Overall, The You I’ve Never Known is a nuanced, complex, and timely coming-of-age story with a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, that tackles a range of social issues: sexual identity, child abuse, domestic violence (especially as it relates to the military), PTSD, racism, homophobia, and rape, to name a few.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! Maya McCabe’s mother turned to Scientology to “fix her ‘ruin,’ which at the time was marriage to an uncommunicative husband.” Her total immersion in the cult led him to drink; eventually, the couple divorced, and dad drank himself to death. Maya’s mother was abusive, and when she threatened to move them to Sea Org in Los Angeles, seventeen-year-old Maya orchestrated a pregnancy and marriage to a soldier ten years her senior named Jason Ritter. After Casey was born, Jason became increasingly abusive and manipulative. When he realized that Maya was planning to take Casey and leave him, he kidnapped Casey instead, going AWOL from the Army. This was just a few months after 9/11, and he was about to be deployed to Afghanistan. Jason had done several previous tours in the Middle East and suffered from PTSD. Maya eventually married her best friend, Tatiana Holdridge, but never stopped looking for Casey.
Ariel’s father Mark kidnapped her; as far as she knows, though, her mother Jenny abandoned them to be with another woman. Mark is physically and emotionally abusive, to both Ariel and his roster of girlfriends, whom he mooches off of and steals from. While Mark and Ariel sometimes crash at his current girlfriend’s house, they’re also frequently homeless and resort to shoplifting and sleeping in the car. Mark is an alcoholic and frequently drives drunk.
Now seventeen, Ariel is in love with her BFF Monica Torres, a queer Mexican American. Most likely Ariel is bisexual, since she’s also attracted to guys, including Gabe, her father’s girlfriend’s nephew. Neither girl is out to her family.
Gabe’s father died in a freak construction accident; he was sent to live with aunt Zelda when his mom suffered a mental breakdown.
Leona, one of Mark’s girlfriends, lost her husband and child in a train derailment. She later died of an overdose, under suspicious circumstances.
Hillary Grantham’s mother and brother died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
Animal-friendly elements: Nope. Hillary Grantham’s family owns a ranch where they raise cows and horses. Some of the horses are for show (dressage), while “most of the colts are racetrack-bound.” Nope nope nope no want.