I am shocked that people are shelving this as a romance novel, because it's a romance novel in the way that ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS and LOLITA are romance novels, which is to say that it isn't (and yet people shelve those two latter books as romance novels, as well, which leads me to think that there is an assumption that anything involving kissing and sex is a "romance" novel in and of itself, which is not true - ugh).
INDECENT was an incredibly difficult read for me because the content was so disturbing. Imogene is twenty-two years old and working as a teacher's assistant at a prestigious boarding school. As we read more about her, we find out that she has a history of anxiety and depression and self-harm. She hasn't really progressed emotionally from how she was in high school. Wrongs that happened to her in high school are still very important to her now, and she has an unhealthy relationship with her parents and younger sister that makes her seem more like sixteen.
It's clear from the beginning how Imogene is supposed to conduct herself with the boys that she's teaching, but immediately she starts interacting with them as a peer instead of as an adult. She's intimidated by them sexually and desperately wants to be accepted by them, whereas she views the adults - her coworkers and mentors - as authority figures who stand in the way of what she wants to do. This attitude kind of mirrors that of her relationship with her family, and sets the stage for the sexual relationship that Imogene ultimately ends up having with one of her boys, Adam Kipling.
The only way this story works is if you view Imogene as an unreliable narrator, because Adam is portrayed as being the one who "wronged" her towards the end - which isn't true. Because she is an adult and he was not, and she should fucking know better. She treated him as if he were a consenting adult (which he wasn't), as if she weren't an authority figure in his life (which she was) with access to all kinds of information about him which she could use and abuse to set up meetings and pursue him when he tried to back away (which she did, and which he did).
Imogene's constant "woe is me" attitude sucks the reader in, as it sucks in her peers, who feel sorry for her (way more than I would have). She is incredibly emotionally manipulative, and if you read between the lines, you can see the toll that their relationship is taking on Adam, and how it's slowly causing him to fall apart. If you read this book at face value, I think you would be very angry, because it would seem like a child was being castigated in the narrative for treating this fragile but horny adult poorly instead of catering to her desires and being her boyfriend. But I don't think that's how the author intended, because there are so many well-placed clues in the text that say otherwise.
Sullivan's style kind of reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld's, particularly PREP. The writing is edgy and the narrator is neurotic and unlikable, but this makes her seem more realistic. The end result is that you're reading a novel that feels more like a true account of something horrible. I really appreciated that, because there are so many articles coming out these days about authority figures' abuse of power, and Sullivan touches upon several different kinds in here, of various types and severity.
This is a great book to read for the #MeToo movement.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
4 out of 5 stars