On Sunday, I whipped through the entirety of rachelmwilson's new YA novel, Don’t Touch, published by HarperTeen. And since this is such a substantial and meaty young adult novel (clocking in at 432 pages), that is definitely saying something.
Full disclosure: I know Rachel in real life, and I admire her a lot.
Don’t Touch follows anxious high school student Caddie Finn as she navigates two major life changes: attending a new school (an arts academy, where she’ll be pursuing acting), and dealing with the emotional fallout of her parents’ recent separation. Caddie has a history of panic attacks, ritualized coping behaviors, and magical thinking — all OCD symptoms — and when her father moves out, they come back with a vengeance. This time, Caddie becomes convinced that if she touches another person’s skin — anyone at all, for any amount of time — her father will be gone for good.
Caddie copes with her new compulsion by wearing long sleeves and jeans, even in the stifling Alabama summer, jumping away in fear the moment a person approaches her body, and oh yeah…wearing elbow-length lavender gloves. Every day. For months.
The book dives into Caddie’s high school transition and her coping with mental illness pretty quickly; the entire plot of the book moves at a nice, steady clip without ever feeling rushed or belabored, which I really appreciated.
The reader is quickly introduced to Caddie’s new classmates, all of whom are actors in her program: there’s Mandy, her long-lost childhood friend; Drew, Mandy’s meat-headed boyfriend; Peter, the astoundingly patient and understanding love interest who can also act the hell out of Hamlet; Livia & Hank, the quirky, platonic couple consisting of a gay boy and a straight (?) girl; and Oscar, the sexually harassing, loud mouthed former child actor.
Caddie’s new school is putting on a production of Hamlet, and Caddie desperately wants to play the role of Ophelia. But when she gets the role and her crush Peter gets Hamlet (don’t worry, this happens fairly early in the book), her “don’t touch" rule becomes a lot more difficult to maintain. And to hide from others.
I won’t go any further into the plot, but let’s just say this book explores numerous interesting conflicts. First there’s Caddie’s attempts to overcome her own mental illness. Then there’s her fraught relationship with her absent father, and her parents’ crumbling marriage. There’s Caddie (and all the other students’) stress over putting on the best possible play. There’s Caddie’s frantic, deeply misguided attempts to conceal her OCD from everyone in her life, which constantly places her acting career and her friendships at risk. And finally, there’s Caddie’s internal struggle over her deep attraction to Peter, and her conflicted desire to break the don’t touch rule.
This book has a lot of ideas to juggle, and it does so expertly. Did I mention that it also gets really in depth about what attending an acting high school is like, and seriously grapples with Shakespeare? Yeah. This is not a fluffy YA read. It’s got a lot for the reader to chew on, even if they’re not the typical romance/YA reader.
Don’t Touch isn’t, after all, a romance. It’s an informative, literary tale about overcoming OCD and learning to accept help from friends (and yes, from mental health professionals). That the book also paints such reasonable, accurate portraits of adolescent relationships is just a fantastic bonus. Nothing is fantastical or problematic here — we witness fights and break ups and frustrations and effective communication — exactly what an adolescent reader needs to see.
Finally, Don’t Touch ends with an amazing (and thoroughly researched) author’s note that I am certain will really help a bundle of young adults and adolescents with OCD, and tons of adults and teens with other mental illnesses, too. Rachel has mentioned in multiple interviews that she had her own experiences that were comparable (if not identical) to Caddie’s, and her firsthand experience with anxiety and panic attacks is a huge part of what makes this novel so important as a piece of fiction, and as disability and mental illness representation.
If you like YA, novels about mental illness or invisible disabilities, books about acting, Shakespeare references, or responsible, accurate romance, Don’t Touch is 100% for you. Pick it up wherever you buy your books — Amazon, B&N, Kobo, local book stores, etc etc etc.
I’m honored by this review from the whipsmart Erika Price, whom I know for reals.