REVIEW: Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O’Keefe
Dear Ms. O’Keefe,
Everything I Left Unsaid is being marketed as New Adult, but reads more like contemporary romance with elements of NA, erotic romance, and suspense. I loved this novel’s freshness, as well as its intelligence.
The novel begins shortly after Annie McKay’s arrival at the Flowered Manor Trailer Park and Camp Ground in North Carolina. Annie, a survivor of domestic abuse who escaped her brutal husband, Hoyt, by taking three thousand dollars, disappearing in the middle of the night and crisscrossing the country, purchased an abandoned trailer with the cash.
While she cleans the trailer, Annie is startled by a ringing phone left behind by the trailer’s previous resident. On impulse, Annie answers the phone. On the other line is a stranger named Dylan, looking for Megan who used to live there. Annie’s self-protective instincts kick in and she tells Dylan she’s only cleaning the trailer but doesn’t live in it. She also gives him her cousin’s Layla’s name instead of her own.
Dylan explains that Megan worked for him, keeping an eye on an old man in a nearby RV, and that he’d be willing to pay Annie to do the same, but wants her to steer clear of the old man. Annie offers to do it for free, and then the conversation takes a different turn. Startled by her own attraction and Dylan’s reciprocation of her feelings, Annie changes her mind. She tells him not to call her again and hangs up.
Annie takes a job at the trailer park, cleaning up a pile of trash left by a watering hole. The work is awful but she needs the money and doesn’t want to go into town. On the first day at her job, Annie is approached by Ben, the old man Dylan wanted her to spy on. Ben grows an amazing garden in front of his trailer, and he offers Annie bread slices spread with mayonnaise and beautiful tomato slices. A hungry Annie gratefully accepts.
In interspersed chapters in Dylan’s third person POV we learn that Dylan lives and works on a mountain, and that he thinks of himself as the beast. Dylan hasn’t been able to stop thinking about “Layla,” as well as worrying about her safety, and he sends her a phone charger in the hope that she’ll call him.
Annie meets other residents of the trailer park, including Tiffany, a mother of three married to an abusive man, and the unfriendly Joan, who may or may not be a prostitute. In the quiet of her trailer, at the library, and in the grocery store, Annie also begins to know herself. She notices she has put all of Hoyt’s favorite foods in the cart, and puts them back. She dares herself to buy used library books, sexy ones she knows Hoyt would beat her for owning. She dares herself to call Dylan.
On the phone with Dylan, Annie feels like a different person. She tells herself that the flirtation that gradually turns into phone sex is okay because it’s not Annie on the phone with Dylan, but Layla. Annie is safe because Layla is the one taking these risks.
But is Annie safe? Or is Dylan dangerous? What about Ben, the old man Dylan warned her against, whom she views as perfectly harmless? Or Hoyt, whose abuse haunts Annie, and who she fears will come after her? And Annie herself, is she stronger, braver, and more willing to take a risk than she herself knows? What will happen when knowing Dylan on the phone alone is no longer enough?
Everything I Left Unsaid is a powerful, compelling novel. As the details of Annie’s life before her marriage to Hoyt emerge, we learn that Annie’s mother was paranoid and her father entirely absent. Annie’s mother kept her on a tight leash at their Oklahoma farm before her death, and afterward, Annie quickly married Hoyt, one of the farm workers, when she was only eighteen.
When Hoyt began to isolate Annie from all her acquaintances, Annie lost touch with another farm worker, Smith, a man who was almost like a father to her. Annie is therefore sheltered and inexperienced in some ways, yet older than her years in others. The novel is about her awakening, not just sexually, but also to life. To connections with other people, and to simple freedoms like being able to purchase oranges at the grocery store or eat cake for breakfast.
The novel works so beautifully because in some ways Dylan is the catalyst for the change in Annie, but it is always clear that Annie makes her own choices. Dylan may take a bossy role in their erotic encounters but Annie pushes back against that whenever it chafes her, and Dylan respects and likes that.
Every choice that might otherwise seem puzzling is well supported in this text. Annie’s choice to engage with Dylan makes sense despite her background, because of her need to defy Hoyt and her mother’s ghost, the need to be someone brave like Layla for a little while. Annie’s choice to befriend Ben despite Dylan’s warnings also makes sense because she feels she wronged Smith, and Ben reminds her of him.
I don’t want to say too much about Dylan, because his character remains mysterious until quite late in the book. We know that he is cynical and thinks of himself as the beast, that he owns a business, that he was involved in an accident, and that he needs the calls with Annie at least as much as she. We know that he encourages Annie to take small risks, to try new things, but we don’t know if he’s safe for her, or for that matter, if she’s safe for him.
That is one of the things I loved most about this book, the palpable sense of danger that permeates it. We don’t know if Dylan is right about Ben, or if Annie is. We don’t know who can be trusted, or what will happen if Ben learns Annie is spying on him.
The Flower Manor Trailer Park and Camp Ground is both a safe haven to Annie, and a place that makes Dylan worry for Annie’s safety. And almost every encounter Annie has, whether with Ben and the trailer park’s other residents, or whether with an innocuous librarian or policeman in the nearby town, is fraught with the potential for danger. Even the phone sex, hot, enticing, and unstoppable, is a sword that cuts both ways, because what will happen if Dylan ever learns that Annie is married?
The novel is masterfully constructed because while we fear for Annie, we also want her to trust, to take chances, and to regain the self she pressed down to hide from Hoyt’s oppressive violence.
In fact, that is a big part of what makes the book so powerful — the emergence of Annie’s freedom and sense of self, juxtaposed with the danger every little interaction poses to her, should her husband come after her.
The trailer park setting adds a great deal of freshness – it’s not common to come across a book set primarily in one of those. Most of the trailer park’s inhabitants are interesting people with their own stories, and I wanted to know more about each of them, though Tiffany’s abusive husband was one exception.
Of course, Dylan is the biggest mystery of all, and while we learn more about him later on in the book, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some questions are left unanswered in this installment and the book ends on a “To be continued” note. There will be a sequel out next month, The Truth About Him, in which Annie and Dylan’s journey continues.
Everything I Left Unsaid is also about things that go unspoken, by Annie, by Dylan, and by everyone else. In that sense, it is not just powerful but also thought-provoking. It made me ponder the power of words and the power of withholding them.
The language is spare but not without beauty, and can on occasion feel sharp enough to cut. For example, when Annie relates the story of how her dying mother dealt with casseroles brought over to church by well-meaning friends who promised to look after Annie when her mother was gone.
Mom smiled at those friends, my potential new families, nodded, made two trips to the car to get it all home, but once we were home and safe and alone – she went apeshit. Dumping all that free, delicious homemade food in the garbage.
We don’t need their pity, she’d said.
I do, I’d wanted to cry. I need their pity. And their god-damn chili!
After eating Ben’s tomato and mayo sandwiches, Annie recalls this incident once again.
Suddenly, I wished I could tell my mom that sympathy, pity or concern—whatever it was—that came with those tomatoes—much like the tater tot casseroles – weren’t anything to be afraid of. Or angry over. They were no slight to pride or self-sufficiency.
All they were, really, was delicious.
And when you were hungry, they filled you up.
It is always satisfying to find a novel that is thoughtful and thought-provoking yet also has emotional resonance. Everything I Left Unsaid is such a book, and I recommend it highly. A-.
PS to readers: The author is best known for her romances published under the name Molly O’Keefe.