Friday, May 4, 2012

You Against Me by Jenny Downham

Title: You Against Me
Author: Jenny Downham
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Release Date: September 13, 2011
Pages: 413 pages (hardcover)
How I Got the Book: From the school library.
Purchase/Pre-order: Amazon; Barnes & Noble; Book Depository

If someone hurts your sister and you're any kind of man, you seek revenge.

If your brother's accused of a terrible crime but says he didn't do it, you defend him.

When Mikey's sister claims a boy assaulted her, his world begins to fall apart. When Ellie's brother is charged with the offense, her world begins to unravel. When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide.

This is a brave and unflinching novel from the bestselling author of Before I Die. It's a book about loyalty and the choices that come with it. But above all, it's a book about love.


Because of its premise, You Against Me had an abnormally high level of disaster potential. It can take a few small steps to turn a good book into a bad one, but books with higher disaster potential require even fewer steps to go beyond bad and become vile. I didn't have anything to lose (really, I've killed most of my brain cells by this point with other books and it looked so shiny on the bookshelf), so I went for it. I've got to say, I'm impressed. There is a lot it could have done better, but I felt it was a solid novel. I'm glad I took a chance!

Downham's near-flawless characterization of Mikey, Ellie, and their families was what made the book. If it hadn't been as well done as it was, You Against Me would have been a clear disaster of a novel. Victim, alleged criminal, family member--the sexual assault is hard on all these characters no matter what their role, nearly tearing two families apart. Some of them are deserving of sympathy--Karyn, for example--and others are not--Tom, who I knew was guilty the minute I read that Karyn was drunk. Someone can't consent to sex if they're as drunk as she was. Mikey and Ellie shine as the main characters trying to do what is best for their families, even if it means doing something wrong.

You Against Me is often uncomfortable to read. Is it honest? Yes. Brutal? Very much so. The effect the assault had on Karyn, how it affected Mikey's and Ellie's lives and actions, how people treat all the characters involved, and the loyalties tugging at everyone made it hard to keep reading even when I wanted to. Yet somehow, it also manages to be a little bit warm in the first half as Mikey and Ellie start their small romance. Why only the first half? It got cheesy in the second half and I wasn't quite as into it. Downham's careful handling of a touchy subject kept the novel from being a disaster.

Toward the middle of the novel, the character-driven pacing slowed, taking a little longer than it should have to pick back up and bring the reader to the story's natural end. Was it cheesier than felt befitting of the novel? Yeah, it kind of was. The second half was more romance-focused and that weakened it. And whether or not the cop was testing her (I found that a little vague), I found his behavior while questioning Ellie disgusting.

On the rampant slut shaming and victim blaming in this book: all of you know how much I hate that stuff. How did I tolerate it when the novel was chock-full of it? It was addressed and it wasn't justified in the end. It should have been more strongly objected to, but it was never made out to be right and that is what really mattered this time. I knew there would be some going on because of the novel's subject; however much I hate it, the treatment of Karyn and Ellie by multiple characters in You Against Me accurately represents what society would do at its current point. If it hadn't happened, I would have cited the novel for being unrealistic.

Though its ending was weaker than its beginning, You Against Me was powerful and I will be buying a copy of my own shortly. This is one of those times where I don't feel confident recommending a novel because it's going to come down to whether or not the person feels they can handle it.

4 stars!

What am I reading next?: Social Suicide by Gemma Halliday