‘If I’d been twenty and you’d been thirty, would anyone have even cared? It seems cruel that four little years were so important, so life-changing. It was only two that mattered, really. The difference between sixteen and eighteen. The difference between love that can span a lifetime, and love that can never happen at all.’
Madelyn Hawkins is an overachiever. Her mother’s an established engineer, her father’s the gym teacher at the local high school and her brother’s an Ivy League Student, so it’s no surprise that she works harder than most other sixteen-year-olds. This is how she gets accepted on to Running Start – a course allowing high school students to attend college, taking college level classes for high school credit.
It’s in one of these classes that Madelyn meets Bennett Cartwright. With his crooked smile, tousled hair and snugly fitting jumper, Madelyn can’t help but feel herself falling for him as soon as their eyes meet.
The problem? He’s her biology professor. Oh, and he’s 26.
Of course, Bennett doesn’t know that Madelyn is sixteen. The only obstacle that he sees is the fact that she’s one of his students, so he tells her that on December 13th – the day that she officially finishes his class – he will kiss her. This gives Madelyn three months to own up to the truth about her age, even if it means losing Bennett forever.
‘The Truth About You and Me’ is an epistolary novel, told through letters that Madelyn is writing to Bennett. The letters are retrospective, so I’m sure you can guess that this novel does not have a happily ever after – or at least not the conventional one.
I absolutely adored this novel through nearly the entirety of the first letter. Madelyn’s excuses and reasoning for lying to Bennett were both feasible and understandable: she’s been struggling her entire life to live up to her parent’s expectations, so being able to be someone else for just a little while – someone who was respected, admired and adored for reasons other than educational achievements – was something she’d never experienced before. It made me feel very sad for her, because I can’t imagine having parents who are constantly pushing-pushing-pushing, not letting you just relax and live your life.
“Don’t you ever just get tired of having everything mapped out, predestined, planned? I just want to live. Decide which way to turn once I’m sitting at the intersection, you know? Screw the road maps and flip a coin.”
However, I could still see how manipulative she was being towards Bennett, and I thought placing his career at risk, when she knew that it could potentially get him in trouble with the law, was extremely selfish.
I did feel sorry for Bennett, but after he altered the results on Madelyn’s biology test (she was certain she failed, but got an A-) my feelings towards him definitely shifted. He wouldn’t start a relationship with her due to his professional ethics, but he didn’t think that cheating was wrong… It showed what a very conflicted and confused character he was.
I adore student-teacher relationship stories (I have no idea why, it’s just a thing: probably the fault of Aria and Ezra in ‘Pretty Little Liars’) and I genuinely believed this was going to be a favourite of mine. It was emotionally authentic, natural and easy to relate to, with scenes of mundanely domestic cooking ranging through to breathtaking imagery of the view of Seattle from the Mt Rainier peak – it was impossible not to feel connected to the characters, their story and their lives, because Amanda Grace’s descriptions really invoked all of the senses. This, combined with the genuine characters, were the makings of a very magical contemporary.
However, the spell didn’t last. From the end of Madelyn’s first letter the story really went downhill for me. Madelyn’s well-written and sensible letter to Bennett, confessing her wrongs, accepting blame and explaining her reasons, was all faked: Madelyn wrote it in the hope that the police would read it — thinking Bennett was locked up in jail – and realise that he hadn’t been at fault. Signing the letter off “Love you forever” showed her immaturity, and it wasn’t long before the strong-minded and mature character fell away.
Throughout the second letter, Madelyn explores what happens the day after her and Bennett have sex (surprisingly he wasn’t just intending on just kissing her…) culminating in his arrest when he returns her home. When Bennett discovers her age – finding a letter from her high school in her backpack, because she still refuses to be honest with him – he’s understandably freaked, but Madelyn can’t understand it. She cries, then goes to the bathroom because she doesn’t want him seeing her looking disgusting. She can’t understand the severity of the situation for him: the fact that he’s slept with a girl ten years his junior, when he believed she was nineteen or twenty.
I wasn’t impressed by Madelyn’s reaction, I thought Bennett’s was completely out of character. Through the first half he was a calm, collected gentleman, but as soon as he discovers her age he swears at her, getting angry and into her personal space. If he’d genuinely cared about her he might have allowed her to explain, instead of immediately becoming vicious and uncaring towards her. It took the emotion out of their relationship, and made me wonder if he’d been using her all along.
The third and final letter is set two years after the events take place, when Madelyn coincidentally bumps into Bennett on a hiking trail. It’s too convenient, giving her the chance to get closure and wrap up the story: as well as discovering Bennett is engaged, we find out Madelyn is studying cookery. It’s not your typical happily ever after because they don’t end up together, but it takes on a fairy tale quality, detracting from the realism that had been dealt out in the previous pages.
If you’re looking for a quick read, I’d recommend this one: at just over two hundred pages, Madelyn’s letters are very easy to read, and I flew through this book. If you’re looking for a contemporary with a deeper meaning, I’d also suggest this: the warnings against deception are strong but not preachy, which means it’s an effective moral, and it’s the starting point for a good discussion on age gaps in relationships.
While the ending of this book wasn’t exactly to my taste, I really did enjoy the first half, and I’m definitely going to try to get hold of more of Amanda Grace’s novels in the future.