Innocent is a mature contemporary YA, bordering on New Adult in content and tone. The story is told entirely from the first-person past-tense point of view of seventeen-year-old Missy (who turns 18 partway through the book.)
Missy was at one time a strongly academic “rich girl”, but her grades have recently dropped and she’s taken to hanging out with the partying crowd. In part because that’s where her best friend Will can be found… and in part because she has a home-life that’s threatening to crush her. Her mother (a malignant narcissist) is controlling, obsessed with status, and demeaning at every turn. Missy’s older sister is more of a trapped fixture in the household than a sibling, and her lack of assertion or ambition leaves Missy feeling responsible for looking after her 3-year-old niece. To top it all off, the abuse Missy suffered throughout much of her childhood has left her mentally scarred and emotionally crippled. What she wants (and needs) is escape and a fresh start—but that would mean leaving the helpless niece she loves and the best friend she’s become so dependent on.
"My whole life felt like one giant in-between. In between the brainiacs and druggies. In between Missy-the-Sissy and smokin' hot. In between dangerously innocent and traumatically experienced. And worst of all, in between being Will's friend and girlfriend."
What I Liked:
James’ literary voice is well above par. The pacing is rapid and the prose is grippingly connective—on both an emotional and psychological level. The characterization is solid even in secondary characters, with a concerted effort toward flipping some of the more prevalent stereotypes. And while there are certainly elements of a best-friends-turned-lovers theme, the romance isn’t quite as central as the character growth depicted in Missy.
I loved that one of the most healthy of Missy’s relationships, arguably, was the one she shared with her therapist. Though the premise of them initially interacting was actually a case of her taking the blame for her sister, it was inspiring that she took the opportunity to open up on things that actually were inhibiting her functionality. And she is most definitely better off for the self-awareness and positive coping mechanisms her therapist offered.
For the most part, I also appreciated the overall respectful regard for sex.
"For people who really love each other, it has to be more than just sex."
"Get real," he said. "It's two people getting their freak on. That's it."
"Ew." I dropped back onto my pillow. "If that's really what you think, maybe you should consider you're doing it wrong."
This telling grasps the damaging reality of misuse so well, while subtly standing up to the cultural “norm” that habitually downplays its significance.
"Watching her roll her eyes a second time, I realized there was no way I'd ever turn out like her. Because despite what she or anyone else said, I knew sex had to be important. It had changed my life irrevocably by age three. For me, it was the most important thing in the world."
Abuse and its mental health repercussions are handled with the kind of raw honesty and constructive depth this reader WANTED to see but didn't in books like The Perks of Being A Wallflower or All The Bright Places. For that, I have to applaud the author. She didn’t take the easy way around trauma or throw around the heavy stuff as mere plot devices. There was clear intent to acknowledge realistic repercussions, as well as affirm and supply hope for further help and options in readers who may be struck very personally by this type of story.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
I regret to admit that this reader was never really sold on Will.
In retrospect, I was somewhat disappointed when he seemed more genuinely angry over Missy’s mother striking her for the first time ever than he is over the fact that the woman essentially spent YEARS facilitating Missy’s sexual abuse at the hands of one of her stepfathers. Surprisingly (at least to this reader) there was no sense of righteous indignation, desire to seek justice, or even a well-meaning half-formed suggestion of vengeance against the perpetrator.
After Missy finally confides in him about her brokenness and intimacy fears, Will simply conveys the fact that the abuse doesn’t change the way he feels about her. Though he seems happy to sleep with her regardless of her past, he doesn’t seem interested in taking steps to research what he could do to help her through her trust issues and sexual healing process. While his initial sexual restraint (toward Missy) is admirable, his constipation toward commitment and verbal affirmation of love wasn’t especially endearing. Granted, he clearly had his own emotional baggage (which Missy isn’t yet in any condition to help him work through). But while Missy grows significantly throughout the story, we don’t really get the sense that Will does likewise.
Also, for a great deal of the book, I actually forgot that Will was artistically gifted. That aspect of him came up at the very beginning and then reasserted itself toward the end, but didn’t feel quite threaded in with his talk/mindset for the majority of the story.
Content Note: This book does contain some strong triggers in regard to childhood sexual abuse, although the descriptions are more peripheral and non-graphic (and thankfully, the author is careful to include a wide array of support resources for readers to reference at the end of the book.) The use of coarse language is somewhat heavy, however realistic to the particular high school social “crowd” at the focus. There is a fairly graphic consensual sex scene, which seems almost presented as a form of sex-therapy—and in which multiple forms of contraception are discussed and blatantly utilized.
While this type of “issues” book may not be up everyone’s alley, it may prove cathartic to some. This author is a genuine talent and definitely one to watch.