Author: Tabitha Suzuma
Length: 454 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
Struggling to raise their three younger siblings with minimal financial or emotional support from their absent, alcoholic mother even as they deal with the ups and downs of high school, Lochan and Maya Whitely suddenly find themselves drawn to each other as never before. They both realize, to their mutual shock and dismay, they have feelings for one another that transcend ordinary familial love. Lochan and Maya battle hormones, stress, and the knowledge that their secret romance could lead to severe consequences for their family if it is ever discovered. All the while, their illicit affection consumes them more every day until it escalates at last to a dangerous flash point.
No, dear reader, your eyes do not deceive you: this is a YA book about a brother and sister in love. It is, at times, even explicit. (Sometimes I was squirming, and not in a good way.)
While I think incest in real life is pretty inexcusable, I’m willing to play along when it’s fiction, if only to see where the author takes it. More importantly in this case, I wanted to see the ways Ms. Suzuma explored and dealt with the consequences of an alcoholic mother, a subject I have far too much personal experience with.
Forbidden requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. Broken families, victims of abuse and neglect, are unfortunately a dime a dozen–I don’t doubt that at all. However, I felt like the setup here was a bit of a stretch: a father with five young children grows tired of his wife’s irresponsible lifestyle and leaves her, opting remarry and have more children by another wife…but somehow he thinks nothing of leaving all five of his existing children (including a newborn!) with the aforementioned irresponsible, self-centered ex. In fact, he eventually forgets (or worse, chooses to forget) not only to send child support but even to acknowledge his children’s existence! And even if you accept that, you also have to believe that the children’s drunk of a mother essentially moves out of the house and barely provides enough money for their survival, and that no other adult ever breathes a word to social services–not even when the eldest, Lochan, has repeated panic attacks in class; not even when the tween middle child, Kit, gets suspended for smoking pot; not even when the baby, Willa, goes to school in ripped, stained clothes or when no one can get hold of her mother after she’s sent to the nurse.
In short, the way Ms. Suzuma handles the children’s mother really disappointed me. As the MCs discuss later in the book, neglect is a form of abuse, especially when it’s as severe as it is here; and while the children do deal with the consequences of that neglect, their mother is sort of…a non-entity. When she is around, she resents Lochan, but even that isn’t shown as much as it’s told.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. There are good things about this book. The writing is lush and lovely, and it was well-paced enough that it kept me flipping pages throughout, though sometimes things did feel a bit rushed. Suzuma does a good job portraying the agony endured by Lochan, the results of both his crippling social anxiety and his insecure family situation as well as the mindsets of two horny teenagers swept up in their own overwhelming hormones. That same insecurity does mar his supposed Great Love, though; he often comes across as clingy, even possessive, of Maya and so needy that sometimes it feels as though she just feels obliged to return his affection out of concern for his mental health. But I also thought that, the incest aside, Suzuma establishes the Whitelys’ family dynamics quite nicely. (Side-note: the siblings’ names are beyond ridiculous. I was constantly distracted trying to figure out how to pronounce Lochan, and as for the rest…Tiffin? Willa? Okay.)
I liked Maya a lot, though Maya the Big Sister and Maya the Best Friend are a lot better than the baby-talking, quivering girl Maya becomes as Lochan’s lover/girlfriend. I also found little Willa very endearing. The rest of the characters, including all three Whitely boys, I could take or leave. While I felt for Lochan and desperately wanted him to get the kind of psychological help obviously he needed, I didn’t particularly like him as a character. I very much preferred Maya’s POV chapters to Lochan’s.
The love story between the two of them is overwrought from the beginning and, terrible as it might sound, I was never convinced that their relationship is as much “twoo wub” as it is a result of raging hormones and ongoing psychological trauma. They go on and on about how deeply and desperately they love each other, and eventually I realized that that’s it. That’s the plot. That’s the most disappointing thing about this book: other than Maya and Lochan’s love story, there is no real plot, just some subplots involving the other children and the ongoing struggle to keep the family afloat. Perhaps I should’ve gleaned this from the title, but it’s frustrating and gets tiresome after a point.
And while the writing is wonderful, after a while it also becomes cloying rather than pleasant, an unfortunate result of the melodrama and teenage angst that make up most of the book. This isn’t helped by abrupt passages of large amounts of time, in which the reader is told, rather than shown, the events that occurred over a two- or three-week period, only to read long variations of the same tormented conversation between Maya and Lochlan every thirty pages or so.
What is shown, far more often than I liked, is large amounts of skin. Though Suzuma has a way with words, her intimate scenes struck me as awkward, and I don’t think it’s because she’s writing about teenagers (or even about siblings). None of those scenes come across as abusive or coerced, but they are flat-out uncomfortable to read, and I think it’s because of the stilted–and often far too detailed–writing. Sometimes, less is more.
I might still have given this book three and a half or even four stars, though, if not for the abrupt ending. After the climax, in which–surprise!–Maya and Lochan’s secret is discovered, everything goes to hell in a handbasket. This sequence of events requires readers to suspend their disbelief even further. For instance…
- How does the character that discovers them even get into the locked Whitely house (and, given the precedents set in the first three-fourths of the book, why is that character there at all)?
- Why isn’t Lochan appointed legal counsel immediately or at least told that he has the right to one? This book is set in the UK, not the US, but I doubt the justice systems differ that dramatically in that regard.
- Why does social services still fail to become involved in the lives of these poor, poor children after the truth is revealed?!
I’m going to be honest: I just skimmed the last fifty pages. Between the awkwardness of the prose and the sheer unpleasantness of the plot and of being stuck in Lohcan’s–understandaly depressed–head, I didn’t have the heart to read the book that closely anymore. I was even more discouraged once it became clear to me that Suzuma chose to rely on the Tragic Love Story angle (a la Romeo and Juliet). And since Lochan and Maya also wasted almost three hundred pages whining about how they could never really “be together”/”go all the way” for the sake of keeping their family together, their stupid, heat-of-the-moment choice to do so anyway kind of pissed me off. They may be, as I said before, horny teenagers, but until that moment they made decently responsible and adult decisions and at least gave lip service to putting their siblings first. Gah!
I feel like Suzuma could have done so much with this story. She could have examined so many things–for instance, the need for better mental healthcare and better childcare (sorry to be such a broken record but seriously, fiction or not, why did no one ever help these damn kids?!) She could have at least entertained questions like how healthy Maya and Lochan’s romance was, consensual or not, and how much it had to do with their mother’s neglect (and their own hormones). But instead, she chose to bring up all these questions, only to eschew most of them in favor of a melodramatic, tear-jerker love story.
Again, I don’t know how much of that has to do with editing and how much is just poor storytelling, but I do know that a story that should have moved me–and was well on its way to doing so–ended up leaving me cold and disappointed.