Published by Sourcebooks Fire on October 2, 2018
Genres: Contemporary, Family & Relationships, Friendship, Young Adult
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Three secrets. One decision. A friendship that will change everything.
Mellie has always been the reliable friend, the good student, the doting daughter. But when an unspeakable act leads her to withdraw from everyone she loves, she is faced with a life-altering choice―a choice she must face alone.
Lise stands up―and speaks out―for what she believes in. And when she notices Mellie acting strangely, she gets caught up in trying to save her...all while trying to protect her own secret. One that might be the key to helping Mellie.
Told through Mellie and Lise's journal entries, this powerful, emotional novel chronicles Mellie's struggle to decide what is right for her and the unbreakable bond formed by the two girls on their journey.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Content warnings: rape, sexual assault, rape resulting in pregnancy, pregnancy, talk of miscarrying, abortion, description of abortion, victim-blaming, unsafe home environment, misogyny (challenged), homophobic behavior (challenged), anti-abortion rhetoric (challenged), religion, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, grief, threats of violence
What They Don’t Know might appear, on the surface, to be an “issue book” focusing solely on a main character’s experience with teen pregnancy, rape, and abortion. And while these kinds of stories are undoubtedly important, What They Don’t Know feels to me, at its core, to be a friendship story above all else.
This book is told exclusively through diary entries from two different girls connected only by the fact that they were childhood friends, then grew apart. They each write these journals to their English teacher as part of a class assignment, and the journals quickly become the only place the two can confide their secrets. Mellie is the daughter of the uber-conservative mayor of their small Colorado town who’s hiding a huge secret, while Lise is an outspoken feminist with a heart of gold. One day, Lise sees Mellie crying in the school bathroom and quickly realizes she needs help, and that Lise herself is in a unique position to help Mellie.
Some might think of this as a spoiler, because the blurb is quite vague, but I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into when you go into a book, so I’ll say it anyway: Mellie is raped in her own basement by someone close to her family and her church, and this rape results in her becoming pregnant. It’s a traumatic situation for anyone, let alone someone who is constantly having to deal with anti-choice, victim-blaming rhetoric in her home and her church. Something I think What They Don’t Know conveys wonderfully is that you truly never know what decision you might make in a certain situation until you are in that situation. And, although Mellie does ultimately decide abortion is the only viable choice for her, this book emphasizes above all else a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body. It in no way glorifies abortion or presents it as the right choice for everyone. Additionally, despite the traumatic sexual assault, it’s a very sex-positive book! We see Lise and Mellie coming to vastly different conclusions about sex and working out where they stand on it without pressuring the other girl to change her own mind.
The subject matter was heartbreakingly timely, what with a woman’s right to choose constantly under siege from (cis male, ahem) lawmakers. And it’s heavy, undoubtedly. Mellie agonizes over her decision, and above all lives in constant fear of her parents finding out about her pregnancy or her plan to terminate it. What makes it all the more gut wrenching is the knowledge that, for many young women, growing up in hostile home environments like Mellie’s is reality. It so often seemed like there was no clear path, no right answer for Mellie.
This brings me to the friendship at the center of the story, which provided the hope such a bleak narrative needed. Lise is an incredibly caring, supportive friend who never gives up on Mellie. And she’s not just there to function as Mellie’s support; she is a character with hopes and dreams and opinions and thoughts of her own that I so enjoyed reading about through her journal entries. Lise’s mom, boyfriend, and friends were also all total angels and I loved how supportive they were of one another– not just of Mellie, although of course that was great and much-needed! But it’s also wonderful to see characters who support each other in small ways as well as big ways.
Overall, I think What They Don’t Know did an excellent job of approaching such sensitive subject matter carefully and thoughtfully. Plus, the epistolary format was effective and helped the reader really get inside each character’s head. The friendship is one I’ll remember for a long time, and this was an excellent example of the importance of having and finding a support system. If you can handle the subject matter, I highly recommend giving this a try!
Have you read What They Don’t Know?