Review: You Against Me by Jenny Downham

You Against Me book coverI like Downham but was a little hesitant about this one because I thought the premise sounded stressful. But I’d put it on my reading list for this MFA semester, so I cracked it open last week.

Mikey’s 15-year-old sister Karyn has been raped just before the book opening and he’s upset but not sure what to do about it. Ellie’s brother Tom is the accused rapist and she’s defended him with her statement to the police, because she was the only other one home the night it happened. It’s clear from the back cover copy that Mikey and Ellie are going to meet and the implication is there of a relationship.

They come from different worlds. Mikey’s mom’s life is largely ruled by alcohol and the family is on benefits while Ellie’s family is wealthy. Mikey left school after not doing well and 16-year-old Ellie is dutifully studying for her exams. Tom is a typical entitled rich white guy, used to getting what he wants. Ellie is very timid, though, with an overbearing father who favors Tom heavily and a mother who does, as well.

The book opens with Mikey going to Tom’s house to beat him up, but he’s not home. However, the family is throwing a huge party to celebrate him getting out on bail. When Mikey knocks on the door, it’s Ellie who answers and he convinces her he’s one of Tom’s friends so he gets invited to the party. Mikey and his friend go with the intent of beating Tom up, but instead Mikey accidentally befriends Ellie and decides to run with it—he can mine her for info about Tom. The problem with that is that he actually likes her, and she likes him. Things progress sort of like you’d expect, but not exactly, which makes it work.

The subject matter is handled with care and we don’t know what really happened until quite a ways into the story. There are hints but Ellie, Tom, and Karyn are all sticking to their stories. Still, the book is very well-plotted with reveals coming right as they’re needed and not before. The characters are great. Ellie is sort of spineless in the beginning but grows one, Mikey’s not the greatest guy (kind of a player) but he gets believably nicer, and Karyn also seems to finally be recovering from the assault by the end. I should mention that it’s a quiet story that makes you think throughout and might seem a little slow to some, but it didn’t bother me. As I mentioned above, I thought pacing was good.

There are lots of YA books about rape out there, but this one is different because we never get the victim’s perspective. I enjoyed it more than I thought I might, so I’d recommend it even if you’re not a fan of issue books (it doesn’t feel like one to me). And the seaside English town setting will provide a certain exoticism for American readers.