Never Contented Things by Sarah Porter
★★★★★ | 2019 release
This is a book about the attempt to find relationships and connections when in circumstances where it is hard to develop either, and how that can lead both to unhealthy behavior and to real love — it simply depends how it is expressed.
Don’t look at the average rating yet. We’ll talk about it.
Never Contented Things follows two foster siblings who are in love, or so they think – no, this is not romanticized – and their journey after one makes a deal with faerie. So, yes, the first half of this book is deeply fucked up, but that’s the point: we see these characters hit their lows and we are forced to empathize deeply with the situation they’ve been put in. Josh and Ksenia’s relationship is based on intense codependency, one where they have been forced into a mutual relationship based on necessity; the narrative does a frankly impressive job of showing this while still sticking in what the characters actually feel about each other. By 50% through, you’re rooting for both of their characters (in very different ways) but actively rooting against their relationship. Also, you are very fucking terrified of the faeries.
The reason this probably shouldn’t be a five is that I actively did not enjoy reading the first 20%, and indeed struggled with a lot of this book – you read because you’re almost too horrified and scared for these characters to look away. I do get why the average rating is somewhere around a 3. It’s not a fun novel.
This novel was also marketed, as I believe my reviewer friend Acqua pointed out, somewhat poorly — Never Contented Things is asking for a very certain type of reader, I think leaning older teen and new adult demographic, and is certainly not a book that should be placed on read now on Netgalley. I also have noticed that a great percentage of the bad ratings are readers who DNFed this and rated it one star, which is perfectly fine — it’s just that this has dropped the rating pretty damn far.
The reason this is, for me at least, a five, is that it is frankly one of the most emotionally cathartic novels I’ve ever read. Here are just a few things we should talk about in regards to this book:
➽gender as it plays into self-image
➽the idea of only loving what you want to see in someone
➽the fact that one of the plot points is essentially about the mortifying ordeal of being known and it made me cry
➽rape culture and the way in which Ksenia’s character has closed herself off due to being an unspoken victim
➽the degree to which the narrative works against romanticization of self-harm
➽the narrative’s focus on healthy love as not something revolving around ownership
➽the sheer tenderness of loving someone as your best friend before your crush and being willing to sacrifice a lot for them simply because you love them without it mattering how or whether they love you back
➽the idea that no matter what your past is you can always find your way out.
I’m going to really unpack all of these in further depth because I honestly just… have so many feelings about this. But if you’re already intrigued and want to avoid any possible spoilers, please do just go read it yourself!Seriously. It’s one of the most wonderfully well-written narratives I’ve had the pleasure of reading, go buy a copy, etc.
Ksenia is a character who projects, to the outside world, being very comfortable in her identity. Actually, she dresses androgynously to the point where characters mistake her for a boy (also, every description of her outfits within this book made me cry she’s such a legend). But inwardly, she’s not there for herself at all, not yet.
There’s a plot point in this book involving Ksenia’s inner selves being captured into tiny bodies and being used to create the upstairs of her and Josh’s house (it’s terrifying and I’m such a fan of it). And neither she nor Josh can get more than two steps on the stairs to the upper floor. This makes sense, given that Josh doesn’t want to see who she really is; it’s just that she doesn’t want to see who she really is either. The truth is that Ksenia is dealing with a lot of trauma from being sexually assaulted, something she has refused to allow herself to truly process because no one has given her the space to process what happened to her.
You’re still real enough that I love you.
We need to talk about the sheer fucking power of the other main relationship in the book, between Ksenia and Lexi. Lexi is Ksenia and Josh’s friend; she’s black, has had a steady boyfriend, and has grown up in a fairly stable environment. To some degree, she has historically been Josh’s best friend. But she also loves, and has always loved Ksenia.
There is something very wonderful to me about the way in which this relationship is conveyed. The reason Ksenia is willing to trust Lexi is because Lexi respects her boundaries and does not see her as a sexual object; that’s not anything Ksenia is willing or even able to give at this point. The two of them love each other as friends do and also as lovers do, but they’re willing to fight for each other whether the other loves them back or not. And though they eventually self-actualize and define how they love each other, they put each other’s boundaries first.
Okay, bear with me. When Josh attempts to seduce Lexi into the faerie world, there’s a moment where she walks up Ksenia’s stairs and tells her she’s not afraid of what’s inside and Ksenia subconsciously lets her, because Ksenia wants to let her in. There’s this one line Lexi says to Ksenia during this scene that is just… the most tender thing I’ve read in my entire life, and you don’t even think they’re going to be a thing at this point, but I fully teared up. It’s a scene 50% of the way through and I am in love with it. So there’s that.
I think I tend to be really sensitive to the idea of saving yourself for another person, or love solving personal problems. Which is why I so deeply appreciate the degree to which the narrative works against romanticizing Ksenia’s self sacrificing nature, even when it is technically what saves the day. Ksenia is someone who cares deeply about other people partially because she struggles to value herself on a deep level and considers herself on a lower level than other people, but this is written as a clear part of her characterization, not as a factor of just how in love she is with Josh or with Lexi. Like… chef’s kiss.
I also think using sapphic love as a force for good in anyliterature is, on some level, a revolutionary decision. Even in literature of today, queerness is so often framed as baggage, something that makes it harder to live a full and fulfilling life. In this book, queerness is a pathway to (subtextually) identity and (textually) to healthy love. That is such a major shift.
But what’s perhaps even more meaningful about this book is that it ultimately decentralizes romance as a path to recovery, while still emphasizing that anyone can come out alive from a traumatic past. Ksenia and Josh spend much of this book in a toxic relationship that each believes will on some level saveKsenia, or fix her. Josh’s approach to love is one tied in with ownership of identity, with owning who Ksenia is as a person. And without hitting you over the head, while still allowing the audience to connect their own dots, Never Contented Things subverts that narrative time and time again, allowing its characters to grow without romantic love as a savior.
Look. I know I’ve gone on about this book for a very long time at this point, but the main point is: I don’t think I’m going to be able to get these characters or these ideas out of my head for a very, very long time. This was so scary and so wonderfully cathartic and I know I’ll be reading Sarah Porter’s next book.
TW: discussion of rape and sexual assault, incest between foster siblings (criticized), codependency (criticized), parental neglect, some really terrifying body horror, death on page.