Review written by Jennifer Lewis.
Don’t Look Back begins with Samantha not knowing where she is, how she got there, or why she is in such a disheveled state. This confusion is due to a traumatic event that resulted in the loss of all of Samantha’s personal memories. To make matters worse, her best friend Cassie is missing.
Throughout the book, there’s a lot of tension that comes from Samantha not knowing what happened to her. She repeatedly grapples with how everyone remembers her from before the incident (vindictive, rude, angry, spiteful), and how she feels after (empathetic, caring). As she looks back into her pre-trauma life, she’s finding she does not like the person she sees there.
Samantha finds that she is subconsciously sending herself messages during episodes where she has visions and blanks out. During one of these episodes, she speaks to herself through a mirror; in many others she writes notes to herself in handwriting that is later revealed to be the handwriting of her much younger self. She continues to puzzle over why a music box in her room seems familiar in the midst of her confusion, and why Cassie has one that is identical to hers.
This book covers material that might be better suited for older readers, as some of the themes addressed are more adult.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The topic of sex is present throughout the book. Samantha’s boyfriend, Del, in trying to help her remember their relationship, alludes to them having sex. Later in the book, this leads to him wanting to have sex to try to help her remember. Samantha desperately wants to recover her memories, but is no longer attracted to him. There is a tense moment when it feels like she may be forced into the act against her will, but Del does back off—only to turn around and try to fondle Samantha during Cassie’s memorial.
The passage of time does not reawaken her feelings for Del. Instead, Samantha finds she is attracted to Carson, the son of the groundkeeper at her parents’ estate. As Samantha’s relationship with Carson grows, she discusses the feelings she has when she is around him. After some build up around each of their states of arousal, she and Carson do have sex. The act itself is not explicit, but there are some descriptions of the actions leading up to it.
During a discussion with Del about how they can no longer see each other, Samantha remembers an incident around some pictures that her mother had hinted at earlier. These are pictures that Del took of Cassie giving him a blow job, without her knowing he took them. Del’s friend Trey then texted these pictures to the high school baseball team (which resulted in them being seen throughout the entire high school).
Sex is not the primary focus of the book by any means, and it’s not treated overly casually, but it’s something that all of the main characters seem to be doing, and there is a hefty amount of cheating happening as well.
Potentially Triggering Content
On the very first page, readers are presented with a disturbing portrayal of Samantha—she doesn’t know where she is or who she is, her feet are bare and bloody, her nails are ragged and torn, and she has scratches, gashes, and bruises all over her body. In addition, she is blanking out during all consuming visions. These visions recur throughout the book and are anything but pleasant: memories of someone crying or whimpering, blood on the rocks, her friend Cassie with a bloody gash across her face.
At some point, the suspicion that Cassie was murdered arises, and there’s talk of “dragging the lake for corpses,” a disturbing visual to be sure. When Samantha learns that this lake area is likely where the trauma occurred, she returns and is chased by a hooded figure, escapes, thinks that he is in her car, and crashes.
The book ends with Samantha’s mom shooting Samantha’s dad when she finds out what he’s done. Although he doesn’t die, it was shocking to picture Samantha in the position of watching her mother shoot her father right in front of her.
Samantha’s mom drinks all the time throughout the book, to the point that it is an anomaly for her not to have a drink in hand. Samantha goes to a party for high school kids, and there is a lot of drinking going on as well as classmates bullying Samantha.
Many of the town families, including Samantha’s, see a definite divide between the wealthy “old blood, old money” families (Del’s, Samantha’s, Cassie’s) and the rest of the town’s families (Julie’s, Carson’s). The reason that Samantha’s parents object so strongly to her dating Carson and her brother Scott dating Julie is primarily based on the social status of their families.
Samantha’s parents behave appallingly throughout the book. Samantha’s mother is very concerned with appearances—how Samantha’s loss of memory will make her family look, what people will think of who her children date—to the extent that she seems to care more about that than her children themselves.
The biggest spoiler here is that the person who murdered Cassie was Samantha’s father, who also happens to be Cassie’s father. This was an unintentional murder—Cassie met with him by the lake to confront him about the fact that he didn’t want anyone to know he was Cassie’s father since Cassie’s conception was the result of an affair. Cassie was upset by the need to maintain this secrecy and with the fact that she was unable to grow up having a father. Samantha was at the lake because Cassie wanted her to overhear this confrontation. Samantha’s dad shoved Cassie, and she fell and cracked her skull. Panicked, he threw her over the cliff into the waterfalls where she was found later. Samantha then slipped as well, and her dad left her, thinking she was dead.
Samantha’s father’s motivation was to not lose his job, his marriage, his money. He didn’t call the police when she was missing. He actively tried to keep her memories from returning. He squashed any attempts for her to remember what had happened to her. I find this behavior to be one of the more horrifying revelations of the book.
Fortunately, Samantha has a twin brother, Scott, who was actively by her side the whole time.
While the idea of selective amnesia is somewhat overused, it does force Samantha to piece together what happened to her while relying only on what others will tell her. This leaves her in the undesirable position of having to guess who to trust and never quite being sure whether she is believing the right person or not, which often leads her to question her own sanity.
At some point, Samantha realizes that she has been writing notes to herself, presumably when she blacks out during her visions. She continues to have visions. The mirror appears to be talking to her. She spends a large portion of the book questioning her own ability to think and her sanity, and at one point she is distraught enough to dig her nails into her skin and draw blood.
The book isn’t peppered needlessly with foul language, but, as a book about high school kids, profanity is definitely present. It is used simply as part of conversation, but it is often directed at others: bitch, douche, asshat, Del-the-dick (one of the characters).
While I personally enjoyed the way that this book developed, due to the mature high school themes, this might be best for readers who are also in high school. I would definitely recommend it for older readers who enjoy a dark mystery that slowly unwinds over the course of the book and who don’t mind the presence of some familiar tropes such as selective amnesia and going to great lengths to cover up an illicit affair.
Don’t Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout
Published in 2014 by Hyperion
Read my personal copy