Audiobook Review: Where You Are, J H Trumble
Genre/Tags: YA. NA. Student-Teacher Relationship. Romance. Coming of Age. Note: No On-Page sex
Author: J H Trumble
Story Rating: 5 Stars
Narrator: Noah Michael Levine & Brad King
Narrator Rating: Variance of Narrators leaves this unrated.
Length: 9 Hours & 50 minutes
Audiobook Buy Links: Audible Australia
Robert Westfall’s life is falling apart–everywhere but in math class. That’s the one place where problems always have a solution. But in the world beyond high school, his father is terminally ill, his mother is squabbling with his interfering aunts, his boyfriend is unsupportive, and the career path that’s been planned for him feels less appealing by the day.
Robert’s math teacher, Andrew McNelin, watches his best student floundering, concerned but wary of crossing the line between professional and personal. Gradually, Andrew becomes Robert’s friend, then his confidante. As the year progresses, their relationship–in school and out of it–deepens and changes. And as hard as he tries to resist, Andrew knows that he and Robert are edging into territory that holds incalculable risks for both of them.
J.H. Trumble, author of the acclaimed ‘Don’t Let Me Go,’ explores a controversial subject with extraordinary sensitivity and grace, creating a deeply human and honest story of love, longing, and unexpected connection.
**CONSIDER THIS TO BE A SLIGHTLY SPOILERY REVIEW**
I first read this book as an ARC provided by Kensington Press when we had our Queer YA book review site, sadly long gone. My son read it too, reviewed it on the same site, and made it his Book of the Year. It was my runner up. I loved the book in 2013 and I enjoyed plugging into Robert and Andrew’s story all over again in 2022.
Rating the story was an easy 5 stars for me. Rating the narrators was difficult though. I already know and really, really enjoy Brad King as a narrator, I wish he had more books to his credit, and I felt he did a good job of 17 turning 18 year old Robert Westfall. Noah Michael Levine, whilst having a pleasant timbre, has too old a voice for 24 year old Andrew McNellis. I called my husband in and asked him to guess the ages of the characters based on the narrators voices. He knew absolutely nothing about the book. He guessed Robert’s voice as 20ish and Andrew’s as 40ish. Exactly how I heard them too. I found the age a problem for Andrew as this is a sensitive topic and sounding like he was 44 as opposed to 24 adds alarm that’s unfair. I understand that this would have been tough to hire for, getting narrators to sound close to the ages of the two MCs was always going to be a difficult ask. Still, relative authenticity for Andrew’s age I believe was an imperative.
The realness of the writing is something that always made this book open to a lot of strong feelings about the topic. It makes it one of those books that’s polarising. Trumble deliberately mentions the names of actual teachers who have been prosecuted for teacher/student relationships to allow the reader to think about the rules and regulations, the ramifications around this type of relationship. Other aspects of the book make you question how you can like the main characters but be against the breaking of rules, or that ‘some rules are worth breaking’ as the cover’s subtext suggests. Overall, this isn’t a standard YA/NA book. It has a biographical quality to it as opposed to purely fictional writing. It feels like these are very real people. I loved that quality to the storytelling. Usually there’s the cutesy school romance, or a jock/nerd relationship. Or the plucky teen who has cancer or the kick-arse dystopian lead, etc., etc. Even Elio and Oliver (CMBYN) have the same age gap and a similar kind of vibe to Robert and Andrew. But this is a teacher falling for and sleeping with his student.
Trumble never makes an evaluation about her characters. While there is absolutely no grooming from Andrew, questions pop up like, is it right what Andrew does with a student? Can you see how this could happen? Can you see an unfairness of the rules or do you side with them? Is there scope for flexibility? She leaves it up to you to answer them, even has questions at the back of the book for groups to discuss.
For me, it isn’t a big age gap between teacher and student. Nothing is non-consensual, although you can always argue the concept of a power differential based on profession. Andrew comes across as having the purest of motives but you can still question them. There is also a naiveté about him. However, he has a 2 year old daughter. He was married to his best friend, Mya. They co-parent well, but you know Mya wants more from Andrew, even knowing Andrew is gay. He’s had one relationship prior to Robert and there is trauma around it. That’s part of the reason he has a child and an ex wife.
Robert is a pretty mature 17 turning 18 year old. He’s smart, community minded, involved in extra curricular activities, and he has good friends… and a self-centred boyfriend, Nick. But Robert is also angry and feels unloved and disconnected from his father and aunts, which can make him seem unkind to someone who hasn’t experienced what he has. His father’s cancer has been a protracted journey and has sucked the life out of his mother, who is a good woman at the end of her rope. It made Westfall Snr even less interested in being a father than he ever was, which wasn’t much. Robert’s paternal aunt’s have a sense of proprietary ownership of their brother. They throw derision at Robert and his mother. Being a real Westfall trumps all else in their minds. I remember how much I liked that the author didn’t sugar coat that Robert’s father was self-centred. That he came from a family where his sisters babied him and helped inflate his male sense of (Westfall) entitlement. The journal where he was supposed to write things for Robert was still heart breaking this time around. So Robert has some attachment issues and that’s definitely there for the reader to ponder.
At the end of it all, Where You Are is a touching, sometimes emotional, sometimes humorous, sometimes worrying read about two young guys who find one another in a wrong time wrong place scenario. Three months shy of no legalities. However, it is still three months short. But these are two nice MCs who basically happen to fall in love when they are consenting adults but professional circumstances don’t allow that. Is it love? That’s always the tough call in YA books at the best of times, what you feel at 17 or 18, for example, is usually different to what you feel at, say, 28/29. People this age don’t often stay together long-term but Trumble wrote two incredibly well suited characters. She gave them depth and you can see why they fall. All of the reasons are nicely fleshed out. I always dared to hope that they’ve made it last. That Andrew’s penalty was absolutely worth it all. That Robert still finds Andrew the right dorky, caring, supportive, unselfish man that he fell for at 18. That Andrew has no regrets for what he decided was worth it all at 24.
My son likes to remind me of how much of a stickler I am about people taking the role where there can be any power imbalance very seriously. And I do. However, I also know the difficulties of placing a 24 year old in charge of 17/18 year olds. Robert and Andrew are technically consenting adults if not for their individual positions within a school – student and teacher.
One last thing I want to mention for anyone reading this review or is contemplating the book or who might like something else to ponder. At 24 your prefrontal cortex isn’t fully accomplished. It is well established that the brain undergoes a rewiring process that is not complete until approximately 25 years of age. Sure it’s been developing, but that maturation is in the making still until approximately 25. That part of your brain helps with the true implications of behaviour. It isn’t like you don’t know right from wrong beforehand, it also isn’t like you wake up at 25 and say, “Hey, I’m an adult,” I think some of us never get there at all. Maybe that’s me. But it’s when and where you start to settle into or realise the potential implications and realities of what you do. Of being a wise adult. The responsibilities – children, a mortgage, rent, utilities, career changes, family, cultural realities, health issues, etc, etc, etc.
Overall, I am really glad I discovered Where You Are in audiobook and that I got a chance to revisit two characters I’ve never forgotten. My son is about to listen to it as well because we had a good chat about it a couple of nights ago. It’s always really nice to share loved characters with someone. The audiobook is good but I’d personally recommend the actual book over the audiobook version.