Janet Kelley’s heartbreaking YA novel explores the power and limits of friendship and the devastating consequences of sexual assault.
Rebecca White is a smart but relatively carefree teenager, enjoying her senior year of high school with her best friend (once her boyfriend), Luke. Then one night Luke tells Rebecca a horrific secret: Weston, one of the popular boys at school who’s also the principal’s son, raped him during a drunken hang-out session. At Luke’s insistence, Rebecca promises not to tell a soul.
Watching Luke withdraw from life, Rebecca vows to make Weston pay for his actions. She is equally determined, however, not to break her promise of secrecy. As she goes through the motions of daily life – trying on prom dresses, visiting her grandmother over Christmas – these competing pressures never leave her, leading to an explosive conclusion.
Kelley does a masterly job immersing readers in Rebecca’s psyche. The two burdens she carries – the crime Weston never should have committed, and the promise Luke never should have asked her to make – are palpable as they continually joust in her mind. The novel offers rich discussion topics for older teens and the adults in their lives, particularly the peril of setting oneself on fire to keep someone else warm.
Taint isn’t for everyone. The sometimes-overwrought style (e.g., “When Luke kisses me I am alive. I am home. . . .He makes me feel. Just feel. . . .He will never kiss me that way again. I will never be kissed that way again”) may turn off some readers, but it arguably reflects a time of life when feelings tend to be grandiose. By contrast, much of the book’s power lies in its nuanced, realistic ending, rather than reaching for great uplift or melodramatic tragedy.
Taint is crisply written, skillfully building tension throughout. For the right readers, it is a rewarding and thought-provoking work.