For Cassandra Randall, there’s a price to pay for being a secret atheist in a family of fundamentalists—she has nothing good to write on an online personality quiz; her best friend is drifting away; and she’s failing English because she can’t express her true self in a poem.
But when she creates a controversial advice blog just to have something in her life to call her own, there’s no way she can predict the devastating consequences of her actions. As her world fractures before her very eyes, Cass must learn to listen to her own sense of right and wrong in the face of overwhelming expectations.
Even though I’ve been reading more YA books in the past few years, most of those are solidly based in the speculative fiction corner of literature. Contemporary YA doesn’t really get a look in that often, though perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising for a blogger who mostly focuses on SFF, historical fiction and crime fiction. But the contemporary YA I have read, I’ve almost universally liked and when I first saw Sometimes Never, Sometimes Always, I was immediately drawn by the blurb. I loved the premise: what is it like to grow up with fundamentally religious parents, when you’re an atheist yourself? It is a very specific question, but the atheism versus fundamentalism could be substituted with other elements that make you different to your family, whether it is sexuality, faith, or politics to name some examples, which allows people of all stripes to connect to the story. Unfortunately Sometimes Never, Sometimes Always tries to tackle some huge issues and takes a somewhat ‘everything and the kitchen sink’-approach by, in addition to the basic conflict between Cass and her parents, also trying to say something about bullying and homophobia. And while Hoole definitely created a good story, sometimes all the different conflicts got a bit muddled and the narrative lost strength due to that.
In essence, this is a story about a teen discovering her own identity and becoming a person separate from her parents. However, by placing this universal human experience in a setting of religious fundamentalism and the stifling morals associated with it, Hoole gives it an interesting twist. She ramps up the tension in Cass’ home by there not just being questions about whether to believe in God or not, but also what if you do believe in God and that belief system tells you that who you are is sinful in the eyes of that God, which is a question Cass’ closeted gay brother Eric wrestles with. Eric’s struggles and journey are a bit lost, as while they do have a place in Cass’ story, sometimes developments in his arc were a bit underwhelming, such as the way he tells Cass he’s come out to their parents. All these added issues, that aren’t directly related to Cass’ development are secondary to Cass’ story arc – and rightly so – but it also makes their presence feel disjointed and fragmentary. This is true for the bullying that Drew undergoes as well, though in this case it’s more about Cass’ reaction to people’s and her own treatment of Drew, than about Drew herself. Because Cass recognises the holds the same prejudices as the mean girls in the book and that the way she treats Drew isn’t right, but she just can’t see herself as being ‘that’ person, as being not a nice person.
I loved the way Cass discovers herself, rebelling against her parents in a rather original way and finding her own way through the maze that is high school and falling in love. I do have to say that in some ways I thought she was blamed rather harshly for the consequences of her mistake. Perhaps she could and should have thought it through more, but what happens isn’t just due to her own thoughtlessness, it’s also because there are some other very cruel people around, who victimise Drew horribly, but lash out at Cass as well. This isn’t to say Cass is blameless, because she isn’t. She treats Drew quite badly, she’s unkind and uncharitable in her thoughts and actions towards her, and she takes the easy way out several times. However, in the end she takes responsibility for her actions and learns that to be the person she wants to be, she’ll have to act like the person she wants to be.
The sibling bond between Cass and Eric stood out to me. There is such a sense of unwavering love and support between them, which I adored, though at the same time it seemed it left their younger sibling somewhat excluded. I also liked the portrayal of the parents. First of all, they are present, which sometimes seems a rarity in YA books. Secondly, there is also sympathy and understanding for Cass’ parents, even if what they do is disapproved of, not just from and by Cass and Eric, but as a reader I could empathise as well. These are not evil people, just traumatised and grieving ones, who in their desperate need for consolation have clung to a set of beliefs that sets them apart from less fervently religious people. Hoole manages to convey this expertly and also lets Cass show she understands and struggles with the idea of hurting her parents by choosing to go her own way.
Sometimes Never, Sometimes Always was a compelling story that sometimes got lost in in the points it was trying to get across to the reader, but never lost heart. It’s an honest narrative and one that I can see appealing to many readers across the board. Despite my issues with some of the elements of the novel, I really enjoyed the book and I would love to read more of Elissa Janine Hoole’s work in the future.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.