Alex is a senior in high school when she falls for the new boy at school named Cole. He’s funny, cute, and a rising sports star who seems to adore her as much as she adores him. Alex has always felt like something was missing from her life, and it seems as though Cole is that missing piece. The only problem is that he seems a little jealous of her friendship with her two best friends, Zack and Bethany, but Alex can understand why he doesn’t want her spending all her time with them. But as the two get deeper into their relationship, she starts to realize that Cole’s subtle put-downs are increasing in frequency and are being accompanied by violent behaviors. As she struggles to reconcile the fact that this boy whom she loves is also a boy who can hurt her, Alex faces some of the toughest decisions of her life.
This is the third book I’ve read this year about teens in abusive relationships, and it is by far the best of the three. While I really liked Deb Caletti’s Stay and really hated Amanda Grace’s But I Love Him (this is actually a case where the more I think about the book, the angrier I get), Jennifer Brown’s sophomore effort surpasses these other books because she manages to create the most authentic tale of abuse that I’ve ever read.
The book’s power comes from Brown’s honest portrayal of Cole and Alex’s relationship. The pacing is slow at the beginning, but it feels deliberate as Brown sets up the relationships and the unavoidable outcomes. Brown has an expert ability to handle difficult subject matter (she did it in her debut novel Hate List as well): everything from Cole’s abuse and emotional manipulation to Alex’s inability to speak about the abuse to Bethany and Zack’s frustration and fear about the situation all feels so real that it hurts–it really hurts–to read it. This is a raw read, Gentle Readers.
What was hard to accept in other books about abuse is made much more clear in this one. As hard as it is to watch Alex remain in a relationship with Cole, who grows increasingly more violent as time passes, the reader understands what is happening. Alex lives in a post-after-school-special world, one in which kids are taught about how to spot the signs of abuse. It is actually this that makes it harder for Alex to accept the fact that she’s in one because she’s supposed to be a strong, enlightened girl who would never succumb to such a situation. And yet, she does, and it is easy to see why.
Never didactic and highly visceral, this is an important book. Highly recommended.
Bitter End by Jennifer Brown. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: 2011. Library copy.