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Never Have I Ever


Never Have I Ever

Joshilyn Jackson and her novels are known for their compelling characters, laugh-out-loud humor and surprisingly dark undercurrents. But in NEVER HAVE I EVER, she tries her hand at something new: suspense. Through the eyes of Amy Whey, a contented housewife with a secret past, Jackson asks readers to remember the worst thing they have ever done, and then consider what they would do to keep that information out of their enemy’s hands.

Amy is many things: a happy wife, a stepmother to a teenage daughter, a new mother to an infant and a scuba enthusiast. Having been teased and ridiculed by her peers and disappointed parents as a teen for her weight, Amy finally feels like she has it all, including her best friend, Charlotte, who hosts their cul-de-sac’s book club. Charlotte, who is heavily pregnant, is welcoming guests one night when a new member shows up: the sultry, sexy Angelica Roux, who is renting a house down the street. The women are all immediately unsettled by Roux --- half of them want to despise her, while the other half wants to be her.

"This is one of those rare books that gets better and better with each twist, and Jackson strikes the perfect balance between shock and humor while drawing upon heavy, poignant themes that will make for stellar book club conversations."

With a deft, manipulative hand, Roux quickly takes charge of the evening, getting the women drunker and sloppier as she asks them to share first the worst thing they did that day, then the worst thing they did last week, and so on. Her grown-up version of the popular slumber party game “Never Have I Ever” seems playful at first, but it quickly turns catastrophic. As the women start to reveal dark secrets that could affect their friendships, Amy rushes to put a stop to things, but Roux is not done playing her game --- because Amy has a bigger secret than all of them, and Roux knows it.

Through careful manipulations and a keen sense of the neighborhood balance, Roux begins to blackmail Amy, threatening to reveal her secret and upend her entire life. But Amy is not only a loving wife and devoted mother, she, too, is fierce and cunning, and will not let this woman destroy her life. Roux, who reveals herself to be a career blackmailer, is equal parts shocked and delighted to find a worthy opponent in Amy, and the two begin a sort of duel of minds. Their back and forth, their banter and their quiet admiration for one another is the meat of the book, and one of the best relationships I have ever read in any thriller or work of women’s fiction. With the two of them angling to stay one step ahead of one another while trying to turn away the attentions of their neighbors, the novel takes on a dramatic, page-turning pace that will have readers thinking, Just one more chapter...

NEVER HAVE I EVER is told in alternating chapters that slowly reveal Amy’s secret past to the reader --- with plenty of red herrings, of course. Even though she is no longer the reckless teen she once was, Amy has made conscious decisions to keep aspects of her history separate from her loved ones, including her husband and Charlotte, so she is not a totally innocent victim in Roux’s twisted games. But Roux, too, is hiding darker secrets beyond her unusual career path. Both women are obsessed with redemption: Roux believes she is granting it to her victims by allowing them to “pay” (literally) for their mistakes, and Amy is desperate to forgive herself and do right by her new life.

Redemption is a common theme in Jackson’s novels, but here she amplifies it tenfold and adds some serious edge-of-your-seat twists that will keep readers completely mesmerized by the direction the story takes. This is one of those rare books that gets better and better with each twist, and Jackson strikes the perfect balance between shock and humor while drawing upon heavy, poignant themes that will make for stellar book club conversations.

In addition to questioning what her main character will do to protect her secrets, Jackson explores unconventional family structures, female friendships and, surprisingly, the beauty of the deep sea. Amy’s love of scuba diving is a necessary and gorgeous foil to the darkness of Roux’s game, and it truly highlights Jackson’s ability to craft a believable, relatable character, complete with flaws and quirky hobbies. As much as I loved the thrill of the chase, I found Amy’s escapes into the sea to be some of the strongest and most enjoyable portions of the book.

All of Jackson’s trademark elements are present here: the structure of a family, the desperate need for redemption and, of course, her signature sense of humor. But this is still not your ordinary Joshilyn Jackson novel; this is Jackson on steroids. She is at the absolute top of her game, and NEVER HAVE I EVER is a thrilling new direction for this fan favorite and critically admired writer. If you have never had the pleasure of reading one of Jackson's books before now, you have discovered her at the perfect time.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 2, 2019

Never Have I Ever
by Joshilyn Jackson