They Never Learn by Layne Fargo is the Book I Wish I'd Never Read (book review)
GENRE: Adult Thriller
LENGTH: 340 pages
Dr. Scarlett Clark kills a man who sexually assaults/abuses women on her college campus every year. Student Carly becomes obsessed with revenge after her roommate is sexually assaulted at a party.
There are 'two' protagonists here: college student Carly and college professor Scarlett. They are, indeed, the same person (more on that in the next section). Carly comes across as an anxious loner while as Scarlett she has grown into an intelligent, confident murderess. She reminded me significantly of Teddy from Samantha Downing's For Your Own Good. Both are teachers who are morally grey. Carly's relationship with her roommate, with Allison being cooler and more popular in comparison to Carly and Carly being attracted to her, reminded me of the characters from another book (The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue).
Scarlett is bisexual which in itself is more than fine. Representation is great. I don't necessarily love the idea of said representation being a murderer, though. She has a romantic relationship with another professor, Mina. There didn't really seem to be any romantic development between them outside of a mutual physical attraction. Mina does eventually learn of Scarlett's...shall we say, extracurricular activities and her reaction is very unrealistic.
There are no redeemable male characters in this novel. My dad accuses me of writing poor male characters and I will not deny that I struggle to write the opposite sex. I can only hope that my male characters aren't quite as bad as Fargo's. It's almost like Fargo wanted to give the idea that all men are monsters who will sexually assault you. Literally EVERY SINGLE male character sexually assaults women and is generally disgusting in their behavior towards women. Fargo even takes a seemingly nice guy (Wes) and turns him bad at the last second as a shocking plot twist. It wasn't a well written one because there was no indication that Wes was anything other than kind and respectful and it came across as a complete 180. The only male character who was nice throughout was one of Scarlett's coworkers and he's not very present in the story. Yes, there are terrible men out there who do terrible things, but having all the male characters be evil just came across as a far too exaggerated attempt to get her point across.
The narrative style and pacing of this novel was peculiar. The novel is told in dual timelines through the first person perspective of Scarlett/Carly. It is revealed at the 150ish page mark that they are the same person in different times and going by different names (with Scarlett having changed her last name and no longer going by her nickname). Fargo tries to misdirect the audience by having both timelines take place on the same college campus and not giving any technological indications that would be a dead giveaway to the Carly plot happening in the past. The only real indications we get (that I noticed at least) that they are the same person is Carly's burgeoning anger issues and both Carly and Scarlett showing an attraction towards women. The entire time before the reveal I was curious as to the connection between Scarlett and Carly.
The decision to write Scarlett's present and her murderous origins was one I had complicated feelings about. On the one hand, I found it to be a unique and almost clever storytelling mechanism and tool for character development. It reminded me a lot of the finale of the Good Girl's Guide to Murder book series by Holly Jackson in that we get to know a character as a young, innocent girl who later becomes a methodical killer. I now reflect back on the Good Girl's trilogy has a sort of villain origin story and that's what this book reads like as well. I like morally grey characters because being inside their warped minds and analyzing their twisted logic fascinates me. Here, though, as much as I can respect the craft, I happen to find it off putting and even disturbing to watch the descent of a sweet girl into a killer (I had the same issues with Good Girl's conclusion).
I had two specific issues with Scarlett and how she was written. The first is that she is portrayed as being an awkward outsider who suffered from social anxiety. I hate how often thrillers further the stigma/idea that people like this who may be shy or suffer from mental illness (no, Scarlett isn't diagnosed with anxiety within the story but the effect is the same) can easily become unhinged and snap. It's so incredibly harmful and ideas like these prevent people from coming forward and getting help. I also didn't like how Fargo seemed to be angling for a feminist/believe victims message wrapped up in a story like this. YES feminism is an important movement and I consider myself a feminist. YES we should listen to and believe victims of sexual assault and this is also important. HOWEVER, having this serve as Scarlett's justification for her killings weaponizes both feminism and movements like #MeToo. It lends to the idea that feminists and sexual assault victims become murderesses which is not exactly a positive message one should want conveyed about these movements.
There are a number of scenes of women being sexually assaulted (which include a character being drugged and another being groomed) within this novel. There is also a scene of the gaslighting of a sexual assault victim. Obviously this is a novel about a woman who kills men who abuse women. Yet I saw no need for scenes that were so explicit because they can be soooo triggering for victims. I am sure Fargo is a competent enough writer that she could have excluded those scenes or toned them down at least and still had the same impact.
The real shame of it all with this novel is that it had potential. The narrative style/storytelling was unique and that can't be undervalued. I would never recommend this book, though, because it's simply too problematic.
FINAL RATING: 2⭐️