I’ve mentioned Susan Lewis before on this blog, generally with approval. So when the publisher invited me to access a NetGalley copy of her newest book, My Lies, Your Lies, which publishes next April, I was unhesitating in clicking yes. But this book was something I absolutely cannot stand by or recommend, and I was hugely disappointed in it.
For readers of Lisa Jewell, Diane Chamberlain, and Jodi Picoult comes another gripping novel from internationally bestselling author Susan Lewis, about an eccentric old woman, the ghost-writer helping write her memoirs, and the destructive secrets binding them together.
Ghost-writer Joely Foster has been asked to write the memoir of an eccentric old lady with a troubling past. Relieved to have a break from her own marital difficulties, Joely escapes to the woman’s isolated house, where she gets to work writing about a pivotal event in Freda Donahoe’s life. On its surface, the story is of a fifteen-year-old girl being groomed at school by her teacher. But Freda is determined to set the record straight by showing that the girl was complicit in the seduction, and had only called the police when she was spurned. But that’s just half the story…
Joely delves into her work, learning more about the events that happened all those years ago. She is soon surprised to discover that the truth lies much closer to home and is bizarrely connected to her. How can Freda’s past be linked to Joely? Could the teacher be someone near to her?
As the story of Freda’s past unravels, it spins Joely into a dangerous world of secrets and lies she could never have imagined, causing her to question everything she thought she knew about her family.
Breathlessly intriguing from the first page to the last, My Lies, Your Lies is an unforgettable novel that intertwines the fascinating past of one mysterious woman to the present of another woman with a harrowing, unexpected twist.
I disagree with the basic premise of this book so hard that when I finished it, I felt almost physically repulsed. My Lies Your Lies tells two stories concurrently – in the past, 1968, a fifteen year old student and her 25 year old piano teacher embark on a relationship, and in the present, ghost-writer Joely and reclusive author Freda Donahue work together to write what appears to be Freda’s memoirs. But as the story unfolds, things are not what they appear, and Freda and Joely are more linked together than they seem.
I had two major issues with this book. The first was that the ending was entirely unrealistic – in the sense of how the characters reacted and related going forward, after the tense events of the middle third of the book. Honestly, the reaction of Joely in particular was so entirely out of left-field that it left me utterly reeling. There might be some lessons in there about forgiveness and seeing beyond people’s actions, so if it stood alone, I wouldn’t have too big an issue with that, but when combined with my second major issue (which is overwhelmingly large), I couldn’t get past it.
The central relationship in the book, between fifteen-year-old Freda and her 25-year-old teacher David is presented at first as a grooming situation, but then as a consensual relationship. As the story progresses, everyone gets on board with this relationship being A Good and Pure Thing, and the consequences of the statutory rape and sexual assault peppered throughout the book are swept away as tragic consequences of a love that was doomed, but not wrong.
I can’t get behind that. A 15 year old and a 25 year old is not a relationship that anyone support. Much less a relationship between a 15 year old and her 25 year old teacher. Freda is under the age of consent for the entirety of the relationship. Not only that, but Freda is in a position of vulnerability, with a huge power imbalance between her and her teacher. Furthermore, it doesn’t MATTER if Freda felt like she was seducing her teacher because, at TEN YEARS older than her, he should know better. Allusions within the book to Nabokov and Lolita’s seductress techniques are less than convincing, and Freda is painted as an equal player in the relationship. But she’s not. She can’t be. Not only is she too young to engage in a consensual sexual relationship, the power imbalance between her and her teacher is such that we should be *more* protective of young people in situations like hers.
And actually, we are. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 raises the age of consent for people in a ‘position of trust’ (like, say, a teacher). Admittedly, the teacher/student relationship in this book predates that legislation (as it’s set in 1968) but the lack of critical awareness on the part of the author, the characters, the publisher… I can’t get behind this at all.
Teachers should *never* engage in a sexual relationship with their students. Not ever. And if there is such sexual chemistry between a fully grown man and a barely pubescent teenager that it cannot be denied (which, ew, but, going with it), there’s certainly no excuse for a) continuing the teacher/student relationship, b) hiding it from her parents, c) not using protection, d) travelling around the country with someone you barely know? Even if, in 1968, this was somehow okay because it was ‘of the time’, why was there not some critical thinking applied by the characters in 2019? Why did they not consider the fact that there’s actually a huge power imbalance here, and a serious amount of danger, and the secrecy of the relationship is probably an indicator that it wasn’t healthy? Even besides the terrible justification of Freda as the seductress, did nobody stop to wonder for a minute why David is open to a sexual relationship with a teenager? Besides that, the last encounter between the two is a perfect example of the power imbalance and the abusive nature of relationships like this. Combined with how David uses abusive tactics to get back into Freda’s good books after that, so that she actually feels guilty for reporting the statutory rape and sexual assault that she suffered? There is a REASON why ages of consent exist, and it’s not just because we want to kill the possibility of teenagers discovering their sexuality.
I normally love Lewis’s books, as she presents a nuanced and probing look at issues which are thorny and polarising. But this isn’t polarising. This is just wrong, in all senses, and I can’t support it in any way.
One star only because GoodReads won’t let you give less than that.