“Never Have I Ever”
Author: Joshilyn Jackson
Publisher: William Morrow
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
Once in a while a book reviewer gets a chance to make everybody happy—the reviewer himself, the author, agent, bookseller, publisher, everybody. “Never Have I Ever” provides just this opportunity.
This is Jackson’s best, strongest work. It is a terrific novel, truly a page-turner, and although Jackson has not shied away from dark subjects in the past, this novel shows her exploring the power of darkness in better, deeper ways than ever before. When about half of all novels purport to be thrillers, this one really is, with plot twists that are sudden, unexpected, and jarring.
The novel opens in comfortable, domestic banality.
A group of women in an upscale suburban neighborhood in Pensacola are enjoying their book group when a new neighbor, Angelica Roux, enters to join the discussion.
A novelist can be rated by whether she has contributed a memorable character—a Shylock or a Mr. Darcy—to the canon. Readers will not soon forget Angelica Roux.
The name itself is loaded. Roux, spelled like the Cajun flour and butter combination, sounds like rue—and the women in this neighborhood will rue the day they ever met her. As in the Housman poem, some hearts will with rue be laden, as they recollect their pasts.
As for “Angelica,” that becomes an irony almost too heavy to bear, as Roux is a devil, a clever, scheming imp.
Our narrator, Amy Whey, describes her: not just pretty, but “the pretty that’s on television: symmetrical features, matte skin” and “long, slim yoga body,” “hair… dead straight and dead black,” deep-blue sundress. She even has “a tattooed flock of tiny birds … across her collarbone.”
Amy tells us, “ Roux looked so interesting, like a woman with a passport full of stamps, who would know how to make pate from scratch, who’s probably had sex in a moving vehicle. Maybe on the way here.”
Roux has power, magnetism. Amy tells us her friends were all domesticated creatures, but Roux was wild, feral. She entrances the group of housewives, hijacks the discussion, then the evening, and soon has the ladies in a drinking game. Each will say the worst things she did today, then last week, last month, ever.
Tipsy, some ladies reveal peccadilloes they ought not. Amy can tell Roux is gathering the gossip in for future use.
What Amy doesn’t know is that Roux already has Amy in her sights. She already knows the worst thing Amy has ever done, about 12 years earlier, in another town, under another name. Roux has come to Pensacola especially to blackmail Amy. She must pay, or Roux will blow up Amy’s happy marriage, her friendships, the life she has created with her gentle professor husband, teenage stepdaughter, Madison, and baby boy.
This is not an idle threat. The dark secret of Amy’s past is real and terrible. Amy knows: “If she owned my past, then she owned me with it.”
But Amy has spunk. She means to fight for her life, against this stranger, who has come to town with a teen-age boy named Luca but no husband, who owns a Picasso print and an expensive sports car but has no furniture and no ready cash.
Luca has “cheekbones for days and that sulky James Dean mouth set in skin so flawless, that he looked like he’d been carved.”
Amy muses, “He looked as if central casting had sent over Boy Trouble.” He’s way out of Maddy’s league yet seems interested in her. Is he a weaponized teen, part of his mother’s scheme?
Stalling for time, Amy becomes the detective, learning that she is not Roux’s first blackmail victim. She learns that Roux, utterly amoral, seduces lawyers to get into their laptops.
Gathering information on Roux’s sordid past, she discovers horror there, true, but just as Shakespeare’s Iago is not really driven by jealousy of Cassio, so Roux is not shaped by those experiences, nor is she the self-proclaimed avenging high priestess of karma, abroad in the world delivering justice. These are self-delusions, rationalizations. She’s just pure evil.
It will be a desperate fight, perhaps to the death.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.