Sweetest Taboo by Eva Marquez
YA contemporary*Paperback, 295 pages*Published October 1st 2012 by Terra-Mía Press
Isabel Cruz was fifteen years old when she met Tom Stevens. She was 15 when they started dating, and 16 when she lost her virginity to him. By the time she turned 18 and went to college, everything had fallen apart. This hadn’t been an ordinary love, though. Not a love between two dear friends, or even high school sweethearts. This had been the most taboo sort of love there was: a relationship between a student and her teacher. Isabel started her high school career as a normal student, but set her sights on Tom Stevens as soon as she met him, and pursued him with an intense – and sometimes reckless – fascination. When he finally approached her after swim practice and told her that he shared her feelings, it was the start of a forbidden and dangerous relationship.
From Chapter One
“Tom?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, my stomach full of butterflies. It was still a little strange to call him by first name, even after all these years. Especially when everyone else at Royal Oaks High called him “Mr. Stevens.”
“Isabel,” came the familiar voice. “How are you?” His voice was gentle and deep. It soothed me instantly, the same way it had when I was fifteen. There was an edge to his voice tonight, though, and I sensed that there was something bothering him.
"Is something wrong?" I asked. I didn’t want to admit that I already knew exactly what it was; my high school graduation was coming up. It would bring an end to our current arrangement. We hadn’t talked about our future yet, but I had known that it was coming.
After a few pensive moments, Tom spoke.
“You’re my sweetheart," he told me, his voice sad. "I can’t imagine life without you. I don’t want to have to imagine life without you.”
Tom rarely used terms of endearment with me, these days. When he did – in these rare moments when he called me his sweetheart – my heart melted. All of the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the protracted nature of our relationship, became nothing more than a passing inconvenience and very worthwhile. Tonight, though, I knew that the word came with drawbacks. They gave me the courage I needed to say the words I’d been dreading.
“My graduation won’t affect our relationship, you know that," I told him. "Look at how much we’ve been through together. If we made it through all of that, we can make it through anything. Tom, I want to be with you always, no matter where life takes me after graduation.”
I spoke passionately, fully believing in what I said. I was absolutely devoted to this man. But somewhere deep inside, I knew I was being dishonest. Neither of us wanted our relationship to change, but it was clear that things were going to change, and soon. I had just been offered a place at a small, private liberal arts college on the East Coast. The choice had been difficult because although I wanted to stay close to Tom, I also wanted to move forward with my life. In the end, I accepted the offer. Tom hadn’t really reacted when I told him. It hadn’t affected our relationship. Now, though, the cracks were starting to show.
“I want to believe that,” Tom answered quietly. “I loved the last letter you wrote me. Every time I read your letters, I feel like I’m sixteen again. I feel like I’ve come out of a deep sleep." A pause, and then, "I can’t lose you, Isabel. You’re the reason I wake up in the morning; I can’t love anyone more than I love–”
Suddenly I heard a distinct click on the line. My heart plummeted.
“Did you hear that?" Tom snapped, his tone suddenly terse. "Did someone pick up the phone at your house?”
“Hold on a minute, let me check inside.” I slipped back inside and listened, but the house was completely quiet. The kitchen phone was on the counter, my mom’s office was dark, and I was holding the only other phone in the house.
"Who picked up the phone?” Tom repeated, worry coloring his voice.
The click had not originated on my end of the line. I should've been relieved, but my panic rose even more.
“Tom," I whispered into the receiver. "It wasn’t here, everyone’s asleep..."
“I have to go," Tom interrupted abruptly. "Danielle's coming.”
There was another click, and the line went dead.
Why did you decide to write Sweetest Taboo?
EVA: I grew up as an immigrant in a lower-to-middle class Southern California suburb. So I tapped into that experience in ‘Sweetest Taboo’, which chronicles the love affair between a young Hispanic schoolgirl and her much older, married teacher. I drew from my experiences growing up to develop several plot ideas. Romantic experiences are universal. Provocative, illicit and risqué contexts do not take away from the experience of love, and that’s what this debut book sets out to communicate.
I was also intrigued by the news of one of my former teachers being convicted of [sexual] misconduct with a minor. Since I can remember, I have always been fascinated by similar stories making the news, but like many people, wondered about how these relationships originate and how they flourish under the radar. In Sweetest Taboo, I got to unravel one of these clandestine relationships, one exciting page at a time.
What would you like readers to walk away from your story with?
EVA: Because my books deal with controversial topics, cross and intersect genres and do not fit into neat little boxes, I ask my readers to be prepared for the journey. My novels are not for everyone and those who are disturbed and bothered by stories that push the envelope or challenge societal norms would likely not find my literary work appealing. So in essence, this is a bit of a warning to potential readers and/or followers. I do not intend on writing for all audiences, as that is almost impossible to do. What I can and have committed myself to doing is writing about what I know, writing about my own contexts, environments and experiences and pushing those to the limits to create controversial stories that inspire people to perhaps think out of the box, which is very much what Ms. Adichie and Ms. Alvarez have done with their literary work. To my future readers and followers I also say, thank you! For every reader and follower I have, I am that much more enthused to write and develop characters that challenge our existing comfort levels and perceptions. I would also ask any future readers or followers to contact me if they have any questions about anything I have written, or about my future work. Many of my ideas for character development and plots come from discussions I have with friends, colleagues or people I’ve met casually at a lounge, bar or book store!
Can you share your path to publication?
EVA: At this point, Sweetest Taboo is a self-published title and I do not have any plans to sell the rights of the book/story to a publisher. It was not an easy decision to make, but after a whole lot of research, I found that self-publishing suited my ‘go getter’ and ‘controlling’ personality much better! The first thing I did to promote my book once a release date was set out in the future was to hire a good web designing team to put a top-notch and graphically appealing website together for the book, which included key content such as: 1) book trailer, 2) free content (first two chapters of the book), 3) reviews, and 4) a blog. As a relatively new author in the fiction genre (in my professional work I write publications on scientific elements of HIV prevention and HIV risk behaviors), I knew that a catchy and fully loaded website was absolutely necessary to show off what I believe to be a very high quality product…Sweetest Taboo!
Were there any difficult parts to write?
EVA: Oh yes! Probably the toughest sections to write were the very beginning and the very end. The substantive drama in between those sections completely flowed with help from the outline I had plotted. However, the beginning was a bit difficult because I knew I wanted to include a sort of 'time warp' element between the first and second chapters. I felt that it was key to include an element of intrigue at the very beginning of the book, which is why Chapter 1 consists of an important event in the trajectory of Isabel and Tom's relationship, but it's presented at the very beginning. In essence, it was difficult for me to get that element just right, without the first chapter seeming disjointed from the rest of the story. The most difficult part, though, was the ending. Believe it or not, Sweetest Taboo was completely finalized years ago, but because I was not satisfied with the ending, the manuscript just lingered in my laptop files. I finally was inspired to pull out the manuscript, share it with a few key friends and discuss some options for a great ending that would satisfy readers and keep them coming for more (i.e. ensure that readers would want to pick up Book 2 of the Sweetest Taboo Saga). There were some opposing views and although I agreed with one ending and finalized the manuscript. However, as a result of a few reviewers comments, I decided to slightly alter the ending right before the manuscript went to print!
Are you concerned some may find the subject matter controversial?
EVA: Some of the best books I have read, and those I have enjoyed the most, are fiction BUT they delve into controversial topics (i.e. arranged marriages, under-age ‘selling’ of girls, sex work, homosexuality, child abuse, etc.). Perhaps I am most intrigued by controversial topics because of the controversy around them and the strong opinions that we see in the news, on television and on social media outlets. For instance, this whole ‘Chick Fil-A’ issue and homosexuality is very intriguing because people have strong opinions about it. What I enjoy the most, is understanding more about the social act that is considered ‘controversial’ and understanding it as a cultural or human condition or learning why that ‘act’ exists in our society, or how it unfolds. That is exactly what I tried to do with ‘Sweetest Taboo’. I wanted to delve deeply into a controversial topic we have seen on the news quite a bit and that hit close to home in my high school (years after I graduated) and unearth just how these relationships can develop, how they can blossom into something beautiful in the face of such opposition and scrutiny. In ‘Sweetest Taboo’, I made every attempt to present the perspective of a young teen completely ‘in crush’ with her coach and develop that relationship as I sincerely believed it had the potential to unfold.
Do you think the reactions of Americans to your book would differ from reactions from other countries?
EVA: I wish I could say no, but the reality is that the average American is more conservative than their international counterparts. Because I have lived in six of this world's seven continents (not sure I'd want to live in Antarctica!), I have been exposed to a multitude of cultures, religions, and perspectives. My sense is that the outrage and controversy around student/teacher romances in the U.S. is not very common in other parts of the world. For instance, Europeans find it rather amusing that Americans believe such relationships are so controversial and cause an uproar. In fact, I remember living in Spain during the Clinton-Lewinski scandal and Europeans couldn't really understand what the bid deal was (think France's Sarkozy and Italy's Berlusconi). Sexuality and sexual relations are more blasé in Europe. I can say the same about Latin America, especially since the Catholic Church's stronghold over culture and religion there is slowly diminishing. In Latin America it is very common to see older men and younger women (15 - 20 year age gaps) in successful marriages. Sure, the ideal is not for a high school student to be dating her teacher, but if it should happen, it would not command the media attention it does in the United States. As far as Africa is concerned, inter-generational relationships are VERY common. High school and college aged girls often engage in relationships with older men for transactional purposes (i.e. for improved material wealth or financial support) and some of these are indeed their high school teachers or college professors. Do I condone this? Absolutely not. I pass no judgment and simply share what I have witnessed during my years living around the world.
What are you working on now?
EVA: Although Sweetest Taboo was intended to be a stand-alone novel, I realized that there was so much more to tell. Tainted Love is the sequel to Sweetest Taboo, which will be released on March 5, 2013. I’m busy finalizing Tainted Love, which is Book 2 of the Sweetest Taboo Saga. In a few weeks I will seek input from readers by way of polls/contests that will inform the final cover art for Tainted Love and a lucky winner will also have the privilege of naming one of the main characters in Book 2. Readers can expect to pick up where they left off and find out what happened to Isabel and Tom’s relationship. Complex and somewhat disturbing revelations, controversy, and definitely some tears are in store for readers!
About the author:
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, daughter of European immigrants, Eva Márquez has spent most of her life outside of her home country. At the age of five, Eva accompanied her parents to the United States, where the family settled permanently. After graduating from university, she went on to complete graduate studies in International Relations in Spain. Eva received her Master of International Studies degree from the University of Sydney and went on to work in the global health field in Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Eva currently resides in Southern Africa.
I began reading Sweetest Taboo with a mix of emotions: weariness, concern, discomfort, curiosity. With two teen daughters of my own, I would not want them to be caught in or have to face the situations the main character, Isabel, has to endure. At the start she is fifteen and insecure and her teacher, Mr. Tom Stevens, turns into one of the worst predators around--the nice guy with the flattering words. He gives her the attention she craves at her young age, and with each meeting he grows increasingly smoother and comforting. The phone calls, the trysts, every thing is done is secret. We see how this affects Isabel from her emotional state, reactions, thoughts and dialogue.
She looked upon their taboo affair as 'sweet' when she was a victim. Each chapter is a song title and ties into Isabel's outlook as what she supposedly has with Tom as being true, rooted, and the real thing. She leads two lives: one as a teen with a home life, classes and activities, and then in the other, she is a conniver, meeting with Tom and lying to cover up their meetings. When the lying and scheming become too much over time, I found it harder to sympathize with Isabel's plight: how much can one take before saying 'enough'? Wouldn't you feel uncomfortable sleeping in his bed where he lays with his wife? And I could not forget that it Isabel who pursued her swim teacher when her crush morphed into something dark and dangerous. Both were incredibly selfish but he was the worst being the adult and married with two daughters. In her immature mind she loved this man but by the story's close, she had matured enough to realize she had to live her life.
What the author did with her story was present a highly controversial subject matter with respect and portrayed Isabel as a young innocent. With a consistent, steady pace, realistic dialogue, Eva Márquez has penned a 'what-if this is a love story' scenario in her contemporary New Adult novel. There were times when sections seemed repetitive and I had questions about some of the actions which were not resolved.
Sweetest Taboo is not for every reader but this reader found it to be a carefully crafted, honest fictional representation of an illicit love affair between a student/minor and teacher. We may hope that these types of relationships do not occur in the real world, but as headlines and news reports show, they do. Please note: This is not intended for younger readers with the sex scenes.
Cover comment: Despite a heavy topic, the cover art is lightweight but that finger to her mouth, though symbolic, is misleading. One could interpret this as being a romance when it isn't.
Book source: I received a promotional eARC from the author in return for my honest review during a book tour.
Next stops on the tour:
October 8: One World Singles Magazine Blog
October 9: Long and Short Reviews: YA Guests
October 10: Momof2BookReviews
October 11: For the Love Of Film And Novels
October 12: YA Book Addict
Eva will award a Kindle touch to one randomly drawn commenter during the tour, and a swag pack of goodies to one commenter at each stop. She'll award a $25 Amazon GC to one randomly drawn host. Make sure to follow the tour and comment to increase your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here.