Usually I get a really good idea of a book by goodreads’ rating system. Usually a book rated in the lower half of three-point-whatever is a book I’m not going to like. Usually I’m the reviewer warning readers away from a much-loved book, not the other way around.
Teach Me is one exception to that rule. With a current goodreads rating of 3.41 and many of the top reviews one or two stars, I feel like this book is extremely underappreciated. Now I know that not all books are for everyone, and in no way am I trying to say that my bookish opinions are more valid than anyone else’s. But if you know what the book is about and are okay with its subject matter, I honestly feel like Teach Me delivers what it promises, and does so in an intense, believable, entertaining way.
Carolina - or “Nine”, as she calls herself - is a seventeen year old high school senior. She’s incredibly intelligent – think John Green’s nerd characters. When she first meets her English teacher Mr. Mann, she’s struck by the force of his personality, and the rest of the book takes us into her unhealthy obsession with the older man. Because no one who has read this book can deny that that’s what it is; obsession. Before The Thing…and most definitely after.
The thing about this book is that it does take us into the taboo, forbidden world of teacher-student relationships. It explores it physically, emotionally, and ambiguously. There is no Big Bad Teacher taking advantage of his poor student, fully aware of the moral repulsiveness of the act. There is no blatant seduction, no pressuring, no manipulation of authority. Yet there is heartbreak, there is a teenager left wondering why, with no one to talk to and no way to get back what she gave away. Left with nothing but her burning need to know and get revenge, Nine’s obsession with Mr. Mann gets very dangerous and very dark toward the middle of this book, changing the tone drastically and thrusting us into the mind of a scorned Carolina before she has the wisdom to call herself a woman. If you don’t think you’d like reading about that, you won’t like Teach Me, which I think is where a lot of the one-star ratings comes from. But as long as you know what you’re going into before you start, you’ll quickly be drawn into the story and its characters, and taken into the volatile mind of Nine.
I found myself thinking about this book as what would happen if Laurie Halse Anderson’s books and John Green’s books had a love child. Nine and her best friend, Schuyler, are nerds epitomized. Their dialogue could match any of John Green’s trademark characters’. The dark, spiraling subject matter is very reminiscent of something Anderson, queen of teen angst, would write about. Any fans of quite possibly the two most influential YA contemporary authors will most likely find themselves loving R. A. Nelson’s writing.
Another very strong theme to and aspect of this book is its inclusion of poetry, almost exclusively Emily Dickenson. I’m not a big poetry fan, but I found myself enthralled right along with Nine when Mr. Mann talks about Dickenson with such obvious enthusiasm and zeal. When his response to a student complaining about poetry being boring is to kill poems one by one, I arched an eyebrow in skepticism until I realized Mann’s angle. “‘But how do you kill a poem? … The bad ones are easy. You just leave ‘em alone; they eventually just fall over and die. The good ones are tough. The harder you try, the stronger they get.’” Ahhh, I see what you did there, Mr. Mann. It’s no wonder Nine fell so hard for him; I would have, too.
Emily Dickenson’s poems and personal life have recurring mentions and meanings throughout. Nine turns to her in both love and betrayal; she sees hidden meanings in Mr. Mann’s favorite of her poems. Her personal unhealthy love life and questionable sanity pair wonderfully with Nine’s growing obsession with her teacher, and the whole thing tied in so well. It didn’t feel forced or like a hook; it just worked.
I will admit, though, that the strongest part of Teach Me is its first half. Nine and Mr. Mann, despite the wrongness of their relationship, are actually…cute together. The build-up feels natural as seen through the eyes of a seventeen year old girl, and the moments of hesitation and doubt Mr. Mann shows when it comes to their relationship steadily moving forward work wonders to make it impossible to completely vilify him later on. When their relationship abruptly ends, that undeniable chemistry, the fun dialogue and clever repartee, they end with it. Though Nine’s plunge into darkness and misery is believable, though her friendship with Schuyler and vengeful plans keep those pages turning, the novel undeniably loses something wonderful that it had in the first half. And the end, it could have been better. I’ll admit it. The explanation Mr. Mann finally gives Nine for ending things with her with absolutely no warning or closure seems weak, and is the only thing in the entire novel that felt more like a plot-device than an effortless addition to the story.
But if you came to me and said, “Kelly, there’s this book I’m kind of interested in reading, Teach Me by R. A. Nelson. Would you recommend it?” I’d not only say yes, but thrust the book into your hands and warn you against starting it on a night you’ll have to put it down before you finish.
Trust me on this one. If you can handle dark, taboo tales of romance-gone-wrong, you won’t want to miss Teach Me.
Teach Me - 4 out of 5 stars