Hooray! This review is NOT particularly spoilery!
One-sentence summary: A serviceable novel, written by someone experienced in the subject matter, covering an important topic from an interesting perspective, but ultimately not plotted complexly enough or written beautifully enough to be an enduring literary contribution.
The plot. Ani is the new girl in town--a free spirit with a sharp tongue, a strong personality, and an artistic mother. Ben, the protagonist, is a good and decent kid, a half-Haitian swimmer, hoping to get a swim scholarship to a university in Iowa. Ben's and Ani's attachment grows in a believable way, and they embark fairly thoughtfully and deliberately on a sexual relationship. Ani and her mother are so close and comfortable with each other, they also discuss this step together. When Ani is raped at a party that Ben chose not to go to, Ani is devastated and Ben is thrown into a situation he's unprepared for. Ben feels guilt at not being there to protect her, rage at the boys who did it, and confusion about the conflicting "fog of war" reports by other people at the party. Ani suffers pain, humiliation, and the abusive comments of her classmates, who think she was a willing participant. Her response is first to pull inward, and then to become what everyone thinks she is--a promiscuous girl who "asked for it." Ben wants to help her, and he's genuinely supportive, but her spiral down into self-hatred is out of his control. How do you help someone who pushes you away? They are alone dealing with this, as Ben goes along with Ani's desire not to tell her mother. The end does not wrap up neatly, perhaps in keeping with how open-ended healing can be after such a horrific experience.
The topic. Fault Line explores the aftermath of sexual assault from the perspective of the boyfriend of the victim. As such it's a valuable contribution to the discussion, because it's not the voice of a perpetrator, but a boy who is loving and caring and wants to help, but doesn't have the tools. There are plenty of young men who are or will be a family member, or friend, or lover to someone who experiences rape, and bringing them into the conversation is important. Ben initially has nothing at his disposal but rage and a desire to protect. He learns quickly not to judge, to hold his questions at bay, to be supportive, to say (some of) the right things. But he's a beginner; he's in over his head and not used to reaching out for help himself. To top it off, the help he does get is of mixed value. The rape counselor is a very young, unseasoned part-time volunteer; the web forums have anonymous (and therefore questionably real) participants; the advice he gets online is conflicting and sometimes wrong. Ben begins to lose himself--lose swimming, lose his scholarship, lose the closeness he had with his family--because of the secret he holds for Ani, and because of the energy he pours into trying to "fix" her.
The writing. Unfortunately, while the writing is pleasingly plain and grammatically fluent, it's not nuanced. There is almost nothing between the lines, and some sections are downright didactic. The author points this out in almost a meta-way through Ben, who says the rape-counselor-volunteer is speaking some sort of trained psycho-babble. "What does that even mean?" he challenges more than once. But we readers suspect that we're supposed to absorb what she's saying, because the author is teaching us through her.
Ani. One of the only problems with having the narrative from the boyfriend's perspective in first-person is the risk that other characters will become flat. While some of Ani's opaqueness is appropriate--Ben can't understand the changes in her, after all, and we're hearing his voice--I hadn't gotten close enough to her before the rape to know her well. It meant that I was watching something horrible happen to her, without caring deeply for her. Yes, I was outraged as a woman and as a person at the attack, but I didn't connect with her beforehand, which is a shame. It doesn't help that at a key moment she speaks not like a person, but like a case study: "Don't you see? If I don't hate myself, I don't feel anything at all. At least disgust feels better than nothing."
Flash Forward. Chapter One starts with a flash forward, which I think was a mistake. It tells us where Ani ends up, later in the novel, and makes the build to that moment inevitable and expected. It doesn't give us the chance to long for Ani to find peace and help along the way. It would have been better for us to get there in real time. In general, flashbacks and flashforwards disrupt our feeling that we're a fly on the wall, watching the action unfold. They jolt us out of the story--they always risk showing us the structure, or scaffolding of a story, when we prefer to feel transported.
In sum. Like Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory (review here), this book tackles an important issue that needs to be addressed in literature, but does it in a way that's ordinary enough (artistically) that the book itself is not as memorable as it should be. To be fiction that lasts, the story has to have layers, and themes, and a complexity that makes reading and re-reading a process of continual discovery and effort on the part of the audience.