Review: Me and Mr. J
Fifteen-year-old Lara finds her soulmate. There’s just one problem – he’s her teacher.
Lara's life has changed radically since her father lost his job. As the eldest, Lara tries to keep upbeat, and the one outlet for all her problems is her diary where she can be open about how dire everything is at home, and worse, the fact that she’s being horrifically bullied at school.
And then a shining light comes out of the darkness – the new young and MALE teacher, Mr Jagger. The one person who takes Lara seriously and notices her potential. The one person who is kind to her. The one person who she falls madly and hopelessly in love with. The one person who cannot reciprocate her feelings … can he?
When I was about 17 (so long ago I’m so old oh God) I read a book called Love Lessons by David Belbin about a 17 year old girl who had a thing with her teacher. I read it, mostly, because David wrote my favourites in the Point Crime series (I loved Point Crime books so hard) and I was at that stage of author love where I wanted to read every word he’d ever written and it did sound kind of good. There weren’t really any crush-worthy teachers when I was at school (le sigh) but still, somehow, the idea of Love Lessons appealed to me.
Make of that what you will.
Perhaps it’s because it was a forbidden love; the illicitness of it all appealed to my (practically invisible) sense of danger and let’s be real, I was never one for living dangerously myself; the very idea of rule breaking brought me out in hives. All the exciting things in my life happened within the pages of books. Besides, you’re allowed to root for the people doing the things they’re not supposed to do, when it’s only happening in a book, right? It’s fine to see something appealing in the pages of this book about a teacher – a figure of authority, the one holding all the cards – engaging in an illicit and exciting affair with his student. It was ok to read this book, to root for these characters, to think the very idea of it was hot, because it was never ever ever going to be anything more than a story that didn’t even come close to being within the realms of possibility.
[Also, I have a thing for older men. If you look at the celebrities I have crushed on throughout my whole entire life, you’ll struggle to find more than a couple I actually share a decade with. I was in love with Jon Bon Jovi from the moment I was aware of his existence - I was about 12 - and my first serious boyfriend was considerably (and I mean considerably) older than me. We were together for 4 years, I am who I am now because of him and I will be forever grateful for every moment I got to spend with him, but I won’t lie: the whole ‘sexy older man’ thing was definitely a part of what made me notice him in the first place. I think it’s hot. The older man thing, not the student/teacher thing. The student/teacher thing outside the pages of a book, is a thing that is very much not fine because holy abuse of power batman.]
Anyway, back to the point. I read Love Lessons when I was 17. About 5 times. I loved it. I liked it because it didn’t feel clichéd. I mean, maybe it is, we’re talking 15 years ago (in fact ,maybe I’ll read it again to see how I feel about it now) but then, I thought it was great. It didn’t feel clichéd and it felt raw and honest and real and the fact that you got both sides of the story – teacher and student – made for an emotional and realistic read. Also, the teacher in the story was young, this was his first teaching job which was interesting. The age gap between the two characters was nothing at all, really, less probably than the age gap between me and my boyfriend now (9 years if you wondered. Sexy older man!) but still, the fact remains he was her teacher and she his student and the 5 years or whatever might as well have been 50, BUT, I was 17 and I wanted them together anyway. I read it, and I rooted for the two of them, because even though I knew it was wrong, my 17 year old romantic heart really wanted it to work.
I read it, I liked it, the trope was obviously one that appealed to me but I’d all but forgotten about it til I was browsing NetGalley recently and came across Me and Mr. J. I read the blurb, was transported right back to being 17 again and loving David Belbin a whole lot and had clicked the link without thinking twice. I read it on Sunday.
So, what did I think?
(Well, I want to read Love Lessons again for starters, so there’s that, but that’s not saying much about this book is it, which is kind of the point of the review after all.)
I think…I think that it’s been a while since I read a book that made it so readily apparent to me that I am now what my four year old niece classes as an old lady. I read a lot of YA fiction, a lot of books written for and about teenagers and not for a long time has one of them made me feel as grown up as Me and Mr J did. & you know that student/teacher thing that I found so hot when I was seventeen?
In this book I found it less so. I was much less caught up in the romance of it all, and instead found myself questioning Mr. Jagger’s choices.
Perhaps it’s the style of writing – the novel is written as entries in Lara’s diary. She’s 15/16 depending on where you are in the book and she just seems young. There’s such a difference I think between 16 and 18 and Lara really did come across sometimes like a very young 16 year old. I liked her though – she had guts, and some of the things she wrote about the more minor niggles with her parents or her brother reminded me a lot of how it felt to be that age and kind of like the whole world doesn’t understand you. She made me grin. Mostly though, I just wanted to give her a hug, a hug and an ‘it gets better’ speech.
Anyway, because you only see Lara’s point of view, you have no idea at all who Mr Jagger is or what he’s about or what he’s thinking at all so when they finally get together, it all feels so sudden – as in the second he gets Lara out of a school environment he’s not thinking twice about confessing his feelings and kissing her and texting ‘I love you’s’ a few days later. It sort of came from nowhere, the crush only having ever really been portrayed from Lara’s point of view, and even though I knew that this was where the story was going I still felt sort of blindsided. Lara’s a teenage girl; you expect that depth of feeling from her, that intensity of emotion, that sudden ‘omg I love you so much IDST.’ From Mr. Jagger though, it just didn’t feel right – I would have enjoyed the book more I think if I’d been able to get inside his head just a little bit. I want to know what made him tick. I want to know how he felt about her, really. I wanted more Mr Jagger. (As did Lara, for entirely different reasons. Wink.)
Because I knew none of this, I spent the second half of the book just being mad at him, being mad at him and incredibly worried about her. That was my issue really, not that Mr J was older than Lara (although 16 is young in anybodies book) but that she was 16 and messed up and her entire life was falling apart around her and she needed real honest-to-God help and suppprt, not some hottie McHotterson teacher coming along and being super good at kissing but super shit at actually being a teacher and I didn’t know where his head was at.
I liked Lara, I really really liked her, and I wanted more for her than what she got. I wanted Mr. J to care enough about her to make sure she was actually really genuinely alright and I wanted her parents to take their heads out of their backsides and I wanted somebody to lock away the evil horrible kids who were making her life hell and throw away the key. I wasn’t rooting for Lara and Mr. J at all. In fact, I was really wishing he’d just stop dicking around and be the person she needed him to be, which was not some hot teacher who regardless of his position of authority, and the fact that that position instantly handed him all of the power, or the fact that above all else he had a duty of care, decided to act on the fact that he was attracted to her. Even if he really did love her, and maybe he did – I didn’t get his point of view so I don’t know – but even if he did, it doesn’t matter, Lara was a messed up kid from a broken home being bullied to the point of sexual harassment. Kissing her in a pub is not what her teacher should have been doing. Although it can’t be denied I guess that the fact that the teacher Lara’s bullies were crushing on ‘chose’ her must’ve been something of a confidence boost….
The question is though, is that what I think because of where I am now, of who I am? Has the fact that I am on the same side of the fence as Mr J influenced my take on the book? If Me and Mr J had been written 15 years ago, would I have loved it like I loved Love Lessons?
Let that not be counted as a mark against it, then. After all, it’s not Rachel McIntyre’s fault that this 31 year old reader of a book aimed at people half her age wants to know more about the thought processes of the teacher than the student. That’s not the story being told here and that’s fine. I get that. What I would have liked though, is something with a little bit more to it than the instalove story I got – I wanted some character development on the part of Mr. J, and for some real relationship development between the two of them – I wanted the love story dammit. I always want the love story; I wanted more of Lara’s relationship with her parents, both of whom pretty much hovered on the periphery of the story and let her down massively; I wanted things with Lara’s bullies to have developed further too, towards a more satisfying resolution because that was a story I could get behind, a story I could relate to and a story that matters and oh God, I sound like I didn’t enjoy it don’t I?
That’s not true.
I did read it thinking all of ^^^ that stuff, but it all kind of came together for me at the end. I gave it three whole stars on Goodreads which is a long way from being terrible and I read it in an afternoon - that should tell you something! I just, I wish certain things had been different, namely that Mr J was a little bit more fleshed out, and Lara a little bit older. That said, it was a quick easy read, and I liked it. I liked Lara and I loved that she wasn’t some perfect teenager from a perfect home and with a perfect life because teenagers do come from broken homes and bullying is a thing that happens and you know, kudos to Rachel McIntyre for writing a story with a main character that her readers are going to be able to relate to, for taking those real life problems and running with them. Lara was pretty excellent actually, all things considered and the way she dealt with the shitty hand life dealt her is what I hope people – young people – take away from reading this book. She had an incredible strength of character, despite everything that was thrown at her, and as young female protagonists go, she held her own.
So. The end. I liked that things got better for Lara and that she figured a lot of things out and that she came out of her GCSE year wiser, despite the asshat kids who tried to break her. She seemed to have her head screwed on by the time the book finished and I’m glad she ended up in a better place than she’d started. McIntyre did a great job of tying up the loose ends and making her (valid and important) point.
I actually really liked how that all came about, because Lara is pretty much as unreliable a narrator as there has ever been, and I wonder if that was kind of the point? I think, that even though (as a grown up) I wanted a more rounded look at the whole affair (pun intended) the point might just have been to tell this story from the point of view of a 16 year old girl with an almighty crush: Mr J could do no wrong, his girlfriend (later ex) was painted as a psycho bitch from hell, the people who cared about Lara the most, notably her cousin, were painted in a bad light the second they disagreed with any of her choices and you get to see the whole way through how despite how she perceives herself, deep down she really is just a kid. As the reader you’re kind of looking at this relationship with her teacher and sort of thinking ‘errrr, hang on a second’ but you don’t get much time to dwell on it properly because Lara is all ‘MR J IS SO FIT AND HE LOVES ME SO MUCH ZOMGZ SOULMATES.’
But then, you get this epilogue where she’s kind of come full circle and she’s looking back on her own life and her own choices from a whole new vantage point and it’s kind of great, really. If that was the point, to take this contender for the World’s Most Unreliable Narrator Award, and have her figure things out for herself in the end, well, mission accomplished I think because that sends a valuable message too, doesn’t it?
TL;DR: This is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s also a long long way from being the worst and I think that teenage girls (who are the target market for this novel after all) are going to eat it up.
Me and Mr J will be Published by Egmont UK on February 5th 2015.