Things I Can't Forget (Hundred Oaks) by Miranda Kenneally
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: March 1, 2013
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 320 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
This is Book 3 in the Hundred Oaks series. Book 1 is Catching Jordan, and Book 2 is Stealing Parker. These three books are linked by recurring characters who are the same age and have attended the same high school (Hundred Oaks High) and the same church (Forrest Sanctuary) in Franklin, Tennessee, a small, rural community in the middle of the state.
Eighteen-year-old, recent high-school graduate, Kate, is in intense psychological turmoil. She and Emily, her best friend for the past 15 years, have bitterly quarreled. Kate--and Emily until a few months ago--has attended a very conservative, Christian church since infancy. She is soul-crushingly guilty that she chose her best friend over her theology when she recently accompanied Emily as a supportive companion when Emily terminated an unplanned pregnancy. At the time, there seemed to be no other option for Kate as a loyal friend, because Emily refused to tell her long-time boyfriend, Jacob, who is the son of the minister of their church, about either her pregnancy or her decision to have an abortion. Emily also did not discuss her family-planning choice with her parents until after the fact, and in a fit of rage, they threw her out. Emily was devastated by their betrayal and overwhelmed with the need to establish herself in a dingy apartment in a nearby city, subsisting on poverty wages, and she angrily refused to cooperate with Kate's tearful pleading that she and Emily pray together for God's forgiveness for the abortion. She said she no longer believed in the teachings of their church, and she accused Kate of being cruelly judgmental toward her. Kate has ignored Emily's calls ever since.
Kate and Emily had planned to be counselors together at Cumberland Creek Camp, located 45 minutes from their home town, for seven weeks the summer after high school graduation, but Emily has canceled and now only Kate has shown up to keep their mutual commitment. The camp is sponsored by the "Tennessee regional conference," a sect of Christianity consisting of six churches, of which their own church is a member. Every year, each of these churches sends three or four young members who are high school graduates or in college to act as camp counselors.
This is Kate's first job--her father is a prosperous attorney and her mother an interior decorator, so she has not previously felt compelled to work. She hasn't been at the camp since she stayed there as a participant when she and Emily were 11 years old. A talented artist, Kate has been hired to teach arts and crafts.
On her first day at camp, one of the male camp counselors looks extremely familiar to Kate, and she is amazed to discover that the tall, muscular, handsome, and extremely self-confident 20-year-old named Matt is the same Matt whom she met at the camp when he was a 13-year-old, skinny, introverted, musically gifted boy. She experienced her first--and only--kiss with Matt, because Kate has never dated. Matt has just finished his sophomore year at Middle Tennessee State University, majoring in literature and minoring in classical guitar, and he still has a very sweet, friendly disposition, but with the addition of an unexpectedly vibrant wittiness that makes Kate laugh more than she ever has before. There is only one issue that keeps Matt from being perfect boyfriend material, but it is, unfortunately, a rather large problem for Kate. He belongs to a fraternity, and from everything Kate has heard, fraternity members engage in a great deal of "sin," including excessive drinking, recreational drugs, and casual promiscuity.
Parker, the heroine from Book 2 of this series, and her boyfriend Will, are also at the camp as counselors, and Kate's connection to Parker forms an important subplot. Initially Parker is angry at Kate because when Parker's mother fell in love with the school secretary and the two women eloped together the spring of Parker and Kate's sophomore year, in Parker's perception Kate judged and rejected her as harshly as the rest of the members of their mutual church as the tainted offspring of a sinful woman.
There is also a cameo appearance toward the end of the book of Jordan, the heroine of Book 1 of this series, and her boyfriend Sam.
This book is a fascinating combination of three popular genres in both young-adult, new-adult and adult fiction: romance, social drama, and coming of age. The romance and social-drama plots contribute masterfully to Kate's coming-of-age journey as she struggles to establish her own unique personality, ethics and personal goals beyond those dictated to her during her childhood.
The author has attempted something quite daring in this book by covering the subject of conservative beliefs about abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. In my perception, the vast majority of YA popular fiction, which is not produced by an overtly Christian publishing house, presumes a politically liberal view in the audience toward these issues. For that reason, presenting Kate at the beginning of the book with a socially conservative perspective almost guarantees that a great many people in the target audience, both teens and adults alike, will view Kate as unsympathetic and agree with the characters Emily and Parker that she is "judgmental." In addition, readers who are themselves socially conservative are unlikely to appreciate the fact that Kate's "coming of age" growth arc in this book involves her developing a tolerance for the civil liberties of gays and women that is not sanctioned by their theology.
In short, it takes real genius to accomplish what this author has--successfully traversing the thin line of simultaneously being true to the conservative values Kate initially strongly holds while satisfying the world view of the liberal-leaning audience of this series. One of the literary "tricks" the author brilliantly employs to further this difficult goal is "dramatic irony." Kate's burning desire to be a "good girl" is the opposite side of the same coin as Parker's acting out as a "bad girl" in the previous book of this series. Both of them are lonely, social outcasts with extremely low self-esteem because they are rejected by their peers. But each exists at the opposite end of the stereotypical "Madonna/Whore," "lose/lose" continuum that socially conservative cultures all too frequently force on women.
For readers who love a good contemporary romance--and I am definitely one--Kate's romance with Matt is tremendously satisfying. He is an amazing romantic hero, very complex and multilayered, and a wonderful example of an ideal, "liberated" male who respects women, without being so perfect that he's boring. The author's presentation of his tender, nurturing relationship with his six-year-old sister juxtaposed to his sensitivity and compassion toward Kate--and hers toward him--blends in beautifully with the overall theme of this book. Outsiders are rejected by a bullying external society which props up its group ego by viciously rejecting people who are labeled "inferior" or "sinful." In response, rather than seeking revenge, the outsiders construct a family of affiliation based on love and acceptance, and they increase their self-esteem by building others up rather than tearing them down.
Kate has three main antagonists, her best friend, the young woman who is Kate's boss, and a beautiful, sophisticated, 21-year-old named Andrea who is determined to seduce Matt. None of them is a one-dimensional villain. Each is well motivated and comes alive on the page as an adversary who isn't in the story merely to give Kate someone to battle. Instead, their opposition acts as a grinding stone that pares away the rough edges of Kate's harsh, socially-created, false self and helps her discover an authentic, "kinder, gentler" self.
Having gone into so much detail about all the wonderful things this author has done to make this book such a great read, I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that this is a ponderous, intellectually challenging, literary read. On the contrary, though it has enormous depth, this book is a fast-paced, intense, highly entertaining read.
As the saying goes, "I laughed; I cried; I couldn't put it down."
I read this book in a Kindle edition, and it is very well laid out and edited, making it easy to read.
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 5
Social Drama Plot: 5
Coming-of-Age Plot: 5