Having heard Rachel McIntyre speak at YA Shot in October last year, I was really interested by her inspiration for writing Me and Mr J (2015). As a teacher, she explained that she’d felt very uncomfortable and shocked when her sixth form students expressed interest in, and even jealousy over, a student-teacher affair.
Lara is introduced in a down-trodden manner: the victim of school bullies, and the daughter of two stressed and anxious parents, her life is far from perfect. But when a new teacher, one with the wit and kindness to match his exterior heights, arrives at school and shows an interest in her, she falls hard.
The first thing to note, after being the first thing to realise, about this book is that the writing is…not great. The diary format introduces a certain informality, but McIntyre doesn’t quite get the teen voice right, with lots of old-fashioned language and slang being used that I scrunched my nose up at due to cringe. ‘Blimey’, ‘bollocks’ and ‘that cow’ are just a few examples of phrases used way too often, and also completely out of character. I therefore think Lara fails to find a truly authentic voice. I also think, that in relation to this, events that should have been really important and consequential for Lara – such as the sexual assault Sam Short carries out on her – were not given the amount of time they should have been. If this is a story meant to be about a teenage girl finding out who she is, an attack like this would not have been so easily moved past. And yet, small occurrences, such as her dad taking her to McDonalds twice in a row, got a lot of page time. Therefore, the only voice I found her to have was a whiny one: sure, she’s having a pretty tough time, but her lack of understanding for her parents, and her complete outrage that anyone might think her relationship with Mr J was wrong, were kind of astounding. It made it hard to see Mr J as honest – how are we to believe he sees anything to truly love in Lara, when the reader is struggling to see anything to like?
As a Cambridge student I was also excited to see what McIntyre would do with the trip to Cambridge and how she would atmospherically involve the city, but was a bit let down on this front. I really felt like a lot could have been done with the setting, but it was never realised. I could also complain how much Lara’s academics took a back seat, but understand that this was crucially part of her development: her obsession, in that heated teenage need to be loved and cherished, meant that she sacrificed other aspects of her life, extending even to her family. McIntyre definitely captured this infatuation well, and yet, the ending, with its complete reversal of Lara’s thoughts (which only served to undermine the assurance that it had been TRUE LOVE all along) and the brisk summary of her mental health issues following the events, ruined this. In further association with this element of the ‘brisk’, I can’t fail to mention the sex scene, which again should have been one of those crucial moments to the book’s plot and character development, but yet again was given a two sentence summary, and McIntyre, like many other YA writers, shies away from the important. It’s all well and good to give a catchy, dangerous blurb and plot-tease, but to turn your back on the gritty, real-life elements is disappointing.
I think the concept is great – it tries to confront the idea that lots of girls at that age think they want to be in that position, with the lust, the excitement, the clandestine nature of the forbidden as alluring and attractive – but the practice failed to live up to the theory on this occasion, and Lara and Mr J did not strike me as a modern day Romeo and Juliet, no matter how often that hint was forced on the reader.