“Never Have I Ever,” by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

With her debut novel some fourteen years ago, Joshilyn Jackson established herself as a phenomenal author. In that debut, gods in Alabama (Warner Books, 2005), pathos, suspense, and humor were well balanced in a story about a young woman gone north, only to return home to Alabama to confront the demons she left behind—and to introduce her black boyfriend to her maybe not quite so progressive family. The book was a delight.

Jackson returns now with her ninth novel, the much anticipated Never Have I Ever (William Morrow, 2019) in yet another showcase for her talents as a storyteller. This one is a bit of a change of pace and style for Jackson. The humor and charm that graced gods in Alabama and most of Jackson’s other prior novels is less apparent. Nonetheless, Never Have I Ever is a taut, compelling, compulsively readable book. A psychological thriller, the novel pits a seductive, elegant woman who happens to be a professional blackmailer against her “client” in a cat-and-mouse game of rapidly escalating tensions.

The building suspense is palpable and executed with the skills of an expert author. Each character in the story has much at risk. But the final twist at the end has a cringe factor that many of Jackson’s fans might not expect or appreciate. It’s definitely a surprise, but it reads almost as if shock value was the goal.

In contrast to the unreliable narrator trend in thrillers these days, Jackson presents her readers with a starkly honest and cleared-eyed protagonist. Amy Whey—outwardly a decent, happy woman—has a baby, a husband, and a teenage step-daughter, all of whom she loves devotedly, and a career as a deep-sea diver. Amy’s unabashed delight in her suburban lifestyle is both plot and character. But Amy guards a devastating secret from her unhappy adolescence as an unloved, overweight substance abuser. Enter the professional blackmailer who demands Amy’s net worth (a trust fund left her by her grandmother) in exchange for keeping that secret.

Amy is determined to keep the targeted fund—not for selfish reasons, but to be a safety net for her best friend and neighbor, Charlotte, who’s pregnant and whose husband might not be the best bet for the long haul. Amy is determined to protect her funds in the event Charlotte needs them. Driven by this altruism, yet equally motivated to protect her secret, Amy decides to “play the game,” and to blackmail the blackmailer right back. This means Amy must be her own detective and become as devious at rooting out the blackmailer’s dark secrets as the blackmailer herself.

Neither Amy nor the blackmailer—an elegant woman known as Roux—are predictable, which makes them equally fascinating. Amy’s desire to do the right thing constantly clashes with her desperate desire to protect her secret. This conflict makes for some interesting inner dialogues. Roux remains elusive, and her backstory is never fully revealed though tantalizing hints are given.

In keeping with Amy’s acute self-awareness, the dark secret of her teenage years is revealed early in the novel, but there is still plenty of suspense amid the layers of other deceits, betrayals and secrets. Amy’s conundrum forces her to weigh significant risks against other significant risks. The dragon or the whirlpool. Or, as she herself states in the novel, “I might wring out a way to save my family from Roux only to find I’d wrecked it thoroughly myself in the process.”

The sweet, warm-hearted center of the novel is Amy’s step-daughter Maddie and the teenage boy Roux introduces as her son. At fifteen, spunky, straight girl Maddie has an innocence about her that is at risk when the stunningly beautiful and sexy teen boy Luca appears and drives Maddie to school—against the household rules. Amy knows Luca is a cause of concern the moment she lays eyes on the mysterious young man, but how much of a problem she doesn’t fully appreciate initially. Still, Amy quips at the get-go: “He looked like central casting had sent over Boy Trouble.”

One of Jackson’s unique talents is writing about teenagers. She does it so well it’s somehow as if she lives inside her young characters. Maddie is no exception and is a scene-stealer throughout the book. Luca is less developed, but that’s part of the plot too. Like Roux, Luca remains elusive. Still, as Amy observes, “All teenagers were a whole and secret world unto themselves, and they revolved around each other.”

There’s a gut-wrenching deep-sea diving rescue scene that brings Amy’s choices into stark contrast. Yet for all the dramatic tension in the diving scenes, the more gut-wrenching decision for Amy is to save herself at the risk of injuring her relationship with Maddie. She is fiercely protective of Maddie, who in turn adores her, but Maddie knows something that might help Amy win in the game against Roux. But what price might Amy pay if she presses Maddie into talking?

For all the intrigue and mounting suspense, there’s a blatant contrivance planted in the plot that is hard to accept. Jackson must know this because she goes to extraordinary lengths to justify just how this situation developed. Yet, as important to the plot and character motivation as the contrivance is—it remains (at least to this reviewer) just outside the limits of a willing suspension of belief. Like the cringe-worthy twist at the end, it seems just a little unworthy for an author of such talent.

Yet despite the flaws, Never Have I Ever is a gripping, gritty book. It might suffer in terms of charm in comparisons to gods in Alabama, but it is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, with a bucket load of twists and turns, rich with Jackson’s own crisp writing, and well worth the reading.

Never Have I Ever is the ALA Library Reads Pick, SIBA Okra Pick, one of CrimeReads’ “Most Anticipated Crime Books of Summer” and is a recommended summer read by Wall Street Journal, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Pop Sugar, Deep South Magazine, Book Bub, Atlanta Magazine, Atlanta Intown, The Augusta Chronicle, and She Reads.

A New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist, Jackson is the author of nine books, including gods in AlabamaThe Almost Sisters, and Between, Georgia.  Her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is also an award-winning audiobook narrator.

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