It is a curse of memory and recollection that human beings are able to ask themselves, “What If?” For some, this question can be a harmless gateway to nostalgia, while for others, this perfectly natural musing is paralyzing, haunting and life-changing. In To Never Know, author Thomas Duffy initially presents the bleak portrait of a life never fully lived, due to the perennial longing of the main character, Steven. This isn’t a story about the “one who got away,” but rather the “one who he never even took a shot with,” which overwhelms him with uncertainty and the fear that he missed out on the great love of his life.
Most readers will be able to immediately relate to certain elements of the story, although his obsession with Kelly, the girl he never asked out in high school, does seem more extreme than in many other cases of unrequited love. Steven’s behavior and seemingly passionless life can be numbing to read, and there is an inherent level of pity for the main character that creeps in slowly. Despite the fact that his case of the “What ifs?” is more severe than most, some level of this unreturned love is common for most people. As the twists in the plot begin to mount, it becomes clear that Steven represents a modern adage – “If I can’t be a good example, let me be a terrible warning.”
When Steven eventually meets Kelly’s mother, about 1/3 of the way through the book, it seems as though some form of closure is about to be achieved, but the author cuts the legs out from the reader, and the heartbreaking revelation about his long-lost love comes to light. The novel then takes an unexpected turn, and Steven is suddenly presented with a new avenue for love – one that brings him closer to Kelly, but in a very different way.
The writing here, and for the rest of the book, is self-reflective and hopeful, rather than purely painful, and Duffy embodies that transition in incredible detail. Forming a bizarre new relationship, becoming a source of support for a stranger, finding his own will to improve and thinking about a happier future all seemed impossible for the Steven that readers meet on Page 1, but that isn’t the case for long. This novel of self-discovery is believable and heartfelt, and while certain plot details may make some readers uncomfortable, the underlying message is universal – move on, move forward.
The writing itself is terse at the beginning, but that serves a distinct purpose in the first half of the book; as new life flows through various characters, the writing also brightens and sharpens. The dialogue improves and becomes more believable, and the emotional responses seem more appropriate and scaled to the causative events. This change in tone may be a part of the author’s gradual comfort with his characters, or a subtle and intentional vibe shift in the theme; if it’s the latter, then it marks a decidedly talented author. Either way, To Never Know is an unpredictable gem that will make you cry, cringe and reflect on the ideas you have, the people you’ve lost, and the things worth living for.