Publication date: 1st October 2012
Published by: Tera Mía Press
Sweetest Taboo is told from the POV of Isabel Cruz, the female protagonist who, at 15, meets and falls in love with one of her high school teachers, Mr Stevens - a married man with 2 daughters in his late 30s. Isabel soon discovers that the feelings are mutual, as Mr Stevens makes moves, which become bolder and more frequent, in her direction, sending out signals that this is the case. They start to communicate when he suggests to her that she should write him a letter telling him how she feels. Isabel writes the letter, holding nothing back, after which they begin their illicit affair.
I discovered this novel via an R2R (read to review) in a group on Goodreads. I chose to take part because I was intrigued by the controversial subject. I could see one of two possible approaches to the topic. (1) Make it a controversial love story or (2) Make it a cautionary tale. I have no problem with either and I went in with an open mind, not wanting to make moral judgements. The book starts with a prologue (which, by the way, reads more like a preface) explaining that the novel is a work of fiction based on a true story, and implies that the approach taken is option (1) a controversial love story.
Although I have little doubt that Isabel was in love with Mr Stevens, I was not convinced that Mr Stevens was in love with Isabel. Surely, love isn’t just about ‘chemistry’, physical attraction, hearts skipping-a-beat and all that stuff. Surely, love is also about simply wishing that person well, caring about that person’s well-being, putting their needs before your own. Isabel was a young and naïve teenage girl. Mr Stevens was a mature experienced man in a responsible position. I get that sometimes people fall in love under difficult circumstances and they have no control over their feelings. I get that they find themselves torn and tempted and this can be frustrating beyond belief. However, we all have free will and we can CONTROL our behaviour. It’s not easy, it takes restraint and strength, but it can be done. And yet consideration of the consequences barely came up for either of these two (although I consider Isabel to be blameless). Not once did I get the impression that Mr Stevens was conflicted, that he was concerned about the consequences of the affair for Isabel, for his wife or for his children. He did constantly tell Isabel about the consequences for HIM (the risk of HIM losing his job, HIM losing his family, HIM going to prison) and the implication was that she should be grateful that he was willing to take the risk for her – which of course she was.
As you can probably tell I had a problem with this one and here it is: In my opinion, for this to be a convincing love story, it needed both characters to be sympathetic and Mr Stevens was not. Instead, quite frankly, he came across as a creepy, predatory, inconsiderate and above all SELFISH scumbag from start to end. A prime example is when Isabel gets a ticket for illegally parking outside of Mr Stevens' house (see below) and Mr Stevens insists he'll take care of it but doesn't, which lands her in trouble. Also, since this is a love story, is some romance too much to ask for? There were plenty of meetings in classrooms and dark rooms and in trucks where these two lovers could kiss and fondle each other. Did they ever take the time to get to know each other? To just talk? There is no evidence of this in the novel - okay, Mr Stevens allowed some conversation on the sofa the first time Isabel came to the house when his wife and kids were away before they got down to business. The next visit she barely gets past the threshold before he says “Are you ready for bed?” My point being: for a romantic novel this book seriously lacked romance.
If this had been a cautionary tale that ended as such situations usually do, it would have worked. As a controversial love story however, for me, it is fundamentally flawed because there is a lack of EVIDENCE to show that the male protagonist, Mr Stevens, was truly ‘in love’ with Isabel. Instead his behaviour suggested that he was a man approaching a certain age who was bored and not happy with his lot. He wanted (maybe even needed) a distraction from his miserable life and Isabel just happened to be there.
On a positive note: Full marks for originality: the subject was a good one and well worth tackling. Both the male and female protagonists as characters are realistically portrayed and therefore believable – very well done indeed! I liked Isabel. She was strong and smart – a true heroine. I liked the stuff about her family and would have liked to have had more about them in the book. I liked the title of the book and the chapter titles. It was clever to use love song titles in that way (it would have been even better if it was meant to be ironic - but apparently not). I liked the book cover, very apt and very pretty.
In fairness to the author, this novel has done very well. It has had mixed reviews on Goodreads but a lot of readers loved it and it was runner up for a few prizes, including quarter finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough 2012 award, so well done to her for that. I would be interested to read more from Eva Márquez in future - She definitely has potential... and I might even like the next one.
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Since writing this review I have learned that there is a sequel. It's called "Tainted Love" and, from what I gather, this time it is from Mr Stevens' POV. Like the song says, ...I feel I've got to .. run away, I've got to .. get away ..