I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.What We Knew by Barbara Stewart
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on July 14 2015
Genres: Young adult, Suspense
Format: Finished hardcover
The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric tale that has so much potential, but with too many confusing story elements, it just didn’t work for me.
Rarely do I write scathing book reviews, it’s just not in my nature to completely tear down someone’s work. But in this case, I can’t help but rant about What We Knew. What’s even worse is that the book is published by a respected publisher, whose books I’ve read and enjoyed in the past. It does have potential, but unfortunately, Stewart introduces too many themes, and the story just doesn’t have a clear focus.
I was expecting a I Know What You Did Last Summer type storyline, but what I got was much different. Right out the gate, What We Knew gets off to a rocky start with the book blurb, which has little to do with what’s between the pages. (I’m not going to recap the story, but if you’re interested, you can read the Goodreads blurb here.) And that was one of my big issues with this book, because I was expecting a thriller/mystery-type story—even the cover art suggests it with the menacing tree branches—but instead, the suspense at the beginning soon fizzled out and left me wondering just what this story was supposed to be about.
The stalker/pedophile story-line never really gets going either. Tracy and her friends talk about “Banana Man,” an urban legend about a man who lives in the woods and exposes himself to young children, hence the name “Banana” (get it? Ugh). When Tracy and her best friend Lisa find strange glass eyes in their bedrooms, they imagine that Banana Man has broken into their houses and left them weird, stalkery calling cards. They even find the home of the elusive Banana Man in the woods, an abandoned shack in which someone is clearly living. But we never actually see him, until much later in the story during a surprisingly violent scene.
The author sets up several mysteries and draws out the suspense throughout most of the story—is Banana Man real? What happened to Tracy in Troy? Why is Lisa’s little sister Katie having nightmares?—but most savvy readers will figure out the answers way before the end of the book. In between all these mysteries is a fairly ordinary story about small town life, family drama and a coming-of-age tale, all of which have elements that I liked, but they didn’t necessarily all work together. Stewart uses lots of clichéd story elements to show how damaged her characters are—sexual abuse, divorce, teen pregnancy, teens gone bad (drinking and smoking up a storm), vandalism, and even rape. It’s almost as if she couldn’t decide what to focus on, and so she just threw everything into the pot, hoping it would all blend together in the end.
I didn’t really like any of the characters. Tracy can’t decide whether she is in love with her boyfriend Adam, since she’s also pining for another boy. She and her best friend Lisa seem to be always running hot and cold—fighting one minute and telling each other their deepest, darkest secrets the next. All of the kids are lying to their parents about what they’re up to, and getting away with it. Which makes the parents unlikable because they seem to have better things to do than monitor what their teens are doing. The only bright spot for me was Lisa’s twelve-year-old sister Katie, who doesn’t like to be alone. I liked Katie because she was genuinely vulnerable, and of all the characters, she didn’t deserve to be in the middle of this horrid group of kids.
I didn’t care much for Stewart’s writing either. Her sentences are short and choppy, but worse than that, the book is filled with weird, out-of-place moments that don’t have much to do with the rest of the story. In one such scene, Tracy’s mom takes her to the pediatrician for a check-up (and yes, there is a lot of eye-rolling about how she’s too old to still be seeing a pediatrician), and the reader is subjected to a very uncomfortable scene with an overly cheery doctor who treats Tracy like an eight-year-old, offers her a lollypop, then kicks her mom out the exam room so he can have a private conversation with Tracy about whether or not she’s sexually active. SERIOUSLY. I needed a shower after I read that.
The author also includes random musings like this, which come completely out of nowhere:
Our garden was brown and weedy. Everything was dying. I wanted a tomato for my sandwich but the bottoms were black with rot. I’m not into growing stuff—that’s my mother’s thing—but I squeezed between the rows, searching for a pulse.
What? Or this one:
While they were kissing, I sniffed the plastic flowers and then examined myself in the gold-spattered mirror above the table. My shoulders glowed. My nose look cauterized.
WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN??
I have to mention just one more thing about the writing that bugged me, although this could just be a copyright issue, but in all honesty, I didn’t like it. Stewart goes out of her way to NOT use brand names, and while many readers would probably appreciate that, I got tired of such descriptions as “we headed toward the golden arches in the sky” (McDonald’s) or “Remember when we all watched that scary movie that pretended to be a documentary, and then we all woke up the next morning with piles of rocks on our lawns?” I mean, why can’t you just say The Blair Witch Project??
The one thing I do have to give the author credit for is being able to create an uneasy atmosphere, which she does very well. It’s often the things that aren’t said that have the most impact on a story, and being able to let the reader fill in the gaps is something that not all authors do well. Stewart definitely has a gift for tension and suspense. Now if only she could reign in the other, out-of-control parts of her story, she could have had a much tighter and focused book.
And as for the title? I still don’t know what it means.
Thank you to the publisher for supplying a review copy.