R. A. Nelson's debut novel has certainly caused quite a stir since its publication in September. With its salaciously taboo subject matter (a doomed love affair between teacher and student) and an unrelenting pace that keeps readers gripped until the very last word, TEACH ME approaches the line of what defines groundbreaking, controversial YA fiction --- and barrels right through it. With plenty of passion, intensity and reckless behavior throughout, this tornado of a book illuminates a number of haunting life questions and shocking answers that will gnaw away at readers' consciences long after the final page has been turned.
Seventeen-year-old Carolina "Nine" Livingston is what most adults would call "a good kid." She excels in school, doesn't drink or do drugs, and gets along with her parents. She has one friend (Schuyler Green, a boy) whom she's known since grade school, and spends much of her time thinking about the universe and reading poetry. For most of her life, she has lived a fairly normal existence until the day she locks eyes with Mr. Mann, her English teacher --- the split second when everything changes forever.
From that moment on, Nine and Mr. Mann are inseparable. From the classroom to the bedroom, the two exchange more than their fair share of witty banter and clandestine touches (including Nine's virginity, when she is safely eighteen), until Mr. Mann's decision to end the affair with an abrupt "Everything has to stop." Naturally, Nine is heartbroken --- especially when she finds out that he is getting married to a girl she's never heard of before.
It is at this point that the novel gets interesting, albeit twisted. Aside from the shocking ending that verges on the unbelievable, TEACH ME's premise is not that far-fetched and poses a number of questions that are relevant to teens today. It presents an honest and somewhat grotesque picture of what is possible between a grown man and a young girl (however implausible to some more conservative readers), and illuminates what could happen when that connection gets out of hand.
Nelson's first novel is a mouthful to digest, and one that certainly should be taken seriously both as a crossover work of fiction and as a commentary on what's possible in the world today.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling