This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Coco. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the YA Romance category.
For some people, silence is a weapon. For Mallory “Mouse” Dodge, it’s a shield. Growing up, she learned that the best way to survive was to say nothing. And even though it’s been four years since her nightmare ended, she’s beginning to worry that the fear that holds her back will last a lifetime.
Now, after years of homeschooling with loving adoptive parents, Mallory must face a new milestone—spending her senior year at public high school. But of all the terrifying and exhilarating scenarios she’s imagined, there’s one she never dreamed of—that she’d run into Rider Stark, the friend and protector she hasn’t seen since childhood, on her very first day.
It doesn’t take long for Mallory to realize that the connection she shared with Rider never really faded. Yet the deeper their bond grows, the more it becomes apparent that she’s not the only one grappling with the lingering scars from the past. And as she watches Rider’s life spiral out of control, Mallory faces a choice between staying silent and speaking out—for the people she loves, the life she wants, and the truths that need to be heard.
Here is Coco's review:
I picked up this last-minute review of Jennifer L. Armentrout’s The Problem with Forever last week because I felt like doing one more of these RITA reviews when the opportunity came, but, well, it was a push to get it done and written before the deadline! I hadn’t read the book—as YA isn’t normally my happy place within the romance genre, despite the odd fact that I reviewed another YA RITA earlier this year—but I thought it’d be fun, and then life happened, and it didn’t go quite according to plan. Instead of a leisurely full seven days to read and write a simple review, I, of course, didn’t get the time to do it until two days ago. Luckily, reading it quickly wasn’t a problem as I was drawn into the story by the midpoint and raced to finish it.
At the beginning, however, I was dubious. I thought it was going to be another melodramatic YA story chock-full of painful childhood experiences, which were then overcome quickly at the end by the power of young L-O-V-E. You know. And, I think it’s far to say, there is an element of that in this story that might turn off some readers. (When I was adding the TWs, I was like, damn, this story sounds majorly dramatic!) But—BUT—it’s not that simplistic. I was ultimately submerged in the story and impressed by the author’s commitment to talking about the long-term effects of childhood neglect and abuse. I’d say it’s a pretty even mix of a coming-of-age story with a YA romance. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but she appears pretty prolific, and has done a mix of independent press, self-publishing, and major pub houses (like this one from Harlequin Teen); she writes predominantly YA, YA fantasy, and New Adult. I like to find out a little bit about authors, and while I didn’t have the time to do that here, I liked the impression I got of her simply from her Acknowledgements section, especially when she refers to the way in which someone else “adeptly dubbed this book one of my horcruxes even though the last time I checked I didn’t commit a great evil. I think.” It makes me think that this story was important to her, and I like the idea of authors putting little pieces of their souls into their books—but, you know, without the evil part.
In The Problem with Forever, Mallory (“Mouse”) and Rider (…of course his name is Rider) spent several years together (maybe, like, from ages 4-13?) in the same unsafe foster home. The foster sibling thing wasn’t emphasized that much—helped in part because the house was so dysfunctional that they were nothing like a family—and instead their relationship was framed in terms of friendship.
Perhaps most importantly, Mallory’s survival mechanism was to be as silent as possible and to hide alone to avoid the wrath of the foster “parents”, whereas Rider sought to attract (negative) attention in hopes of protecting Mallory.
They are eventually separated as tweens and lose track of each other. Mallory ends up adopted by two doctors (in a rather miraculous turn of events) and begins the hard work of dealing with her trauma, seeing a psychiatrist and a speech therapist, and working through (but, thankfully and more realistically, not simply overcoming everything) her issues, the most tangible of which is her difficulties around people and with speech. This was fairly well fleshed out, considering it’s a romance and can’t focus entirely on her recovery. After homeschooling for a few years, she wants to try high school for her senior year in order to see if she would be able to eventually handle college. On her first day at school, she sees Rider again for the first time in three (or four?) years. Despite the fact that he tried to find her, and she asked her foster parents about him, they never reconnected or even knew if the other one was still alive. But, luckily, they’re in the same speech class!!! Bam! Insta-romance-plot-development!
I appreciated how Armentrout eventually complicated the early depiction that Mallory (and the reader) had of Rider. At first, Mallory views him merely as a White Knight figure but she ultimately realizes he has self-destructive tendencies and doesn’t see his own self worth, which led to behaviors that one might mistake for heroic but, with maturity, she could recognize as potentially problematic. This is an example of the tightrope that Armentrout walks when playing with both traumatic storylines and classic bad-boy-saves-shy-girl tropes.
There are a few other instances of life-and-death drama (including a fatal shooting and a potentially life-altering disease) that serve as turning points in our protagonists’ lives, and I feel somewhat conflicted about their treatment. I think one is handled with more care than the other, but they still felt at times like literary devices to spur changes in the characters. But, then again, things that happen to other people obviously can have a big impact on us, especially at that age, when it’s easy to turn everything into something about yourself.
There are some moments of awareness that touch on class and race and the incredible role luck (good and bad) can play in determining young people’s lives and their prospects. I wish she would have gotten more into those issues and be more explicit with regard to the drugs and gun violence present in many young people’s lives, but I didn’t have a huge problem with Armentrout’s depictions and at times oblique explanations.
Armentrout uses is Margery Williams’ 1922 classic, The Velveteen Rabbit—which is available to read online here, in case you’ve forgotten this harrowing children’s story—to nice effect (or it might seem overly saccharine and unrealistic, depending on your point of view and if you’ve been sucked into her world). The story is a common refrain throughout the book and is used when developing Mallory’s and Rider’s backstories, their relationship, and each one’s personal growth.
The other theme that occurs throughout the book, and the titular inspiration, is the concept of forever and its connotations. Again, the story begins somewhat simply as Mallory remembers how Rider said he’d always protect her—forever—which doesn’t happen. Again, by the end of the story, I was somewhat impressed with Armentrout’s ability to deepen Mallory’s understanding of what all “forever” implies, both good and bad.
Forever was something we all took for granted, but the problem with forever was that it really didn’t exist… Then there was me. I’d thought I’d be stuck the way I was for forever, always scared, always needing someone to speak up for me. I’d learned to cope with my fears, found my voice, and realized that Carl and Rosa would love me even if I wasn’t perfect. Forever wasn’t real. And I guessed, for me, that I was lucky it wasn’t. But for others, I wished it was real, that they had forever.
As soon as I returned to find a few quotes pertaining to Mallory’s self-realizations in the latter half of the book, I felt a little dubious about their effect as, once again, I wondered it was too over-the-top. But, to Armentrout’s credit, when I was reading, I didn’t have those doubts; I was fairly engrossed and simply present in the world she’d created. It’s only looking back that I question myself and the somewhat dramatic prose, like “Forever wasn’t a problem. Forever was my heartbeat and it was the hope tomorrow held.” Dramatic, yes. But, shit, I mean, she’s not wrong?! And only teens can get away with the kind of bold and sweeping statements.
Even though now I tend to look back at that time of life, and teen characters in fiction, with a somewhat more jaded and indulgent half-smile, I still kind of love teens and young adults for this very reason.
And Armentrout does lighten the tone at times. For instance, she has Mallory observe that “our story was something straight out of an Oprah special or an ABC Family movie” and later Mallory quips that Rider looked “good in the way I didn’t know a teenage boy could look. Like they did on TV, when played by twenty-five-year-olds.” And Ainsley, Mallory’s one real friend before starting at the public high school, rants about another boy, “Do you know, one of his friends last week actually argued with me about that? He was all like, let me wannabe mansplain this to you while incorrectly explaining the First Amendment.” I’m not sure this is how teens talk, but I liked it and it was nice break from the intensity.
And though I don’t tend to want to read YA romance too often, a good author can pull me back into that mindset.
And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I mean, it doesn’t last forever.*
*C’mon, you knew I had to do it!!!