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Literature / Don't Look Back

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Don't Look Back is a 2014 Mystery Fiction Young Adult novel by Jennifer L. Armentrout.

Samantha Jo Franco is found four days after going missing with her best friend, Cassie Winchester. Left with no memory of what happened to her or who she is, she only has the word of her family and friends to go off of to know that she used to be a cruel and vicious Alpha Bitch, and her friendship with Cassie was a toxic rivalry in which Cassie influenced her for the worse and was obsessed with copying what she had. She initially finds her amnesia a blessing, being able to use it to become a better person than she used to be and to bond with her estranged Childhood Friend, Carson Ortiz, who always looked out for her despite her behavior to him in the past.

But Cassie has been found dead, and whoever is responsible for her death and Sam's memory loss is still on the loose. Between her hallucinations of Cassie and strange notes warning her that pop up wherever she goes, Sam must put together the truth or else possibly meet Cassie's fate.

Not to be confused with the 1967 rock documentary or video game.

Don't Look Back provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: What Steven claims happened when he confesses. He pushed Cassie when they were arguing over his refusal to treat her as his daughter, causing her to fall and hit her head on rocks, which killed her. Sam, who had been watching them, slipped on the blood and fell from the cliff; thinking they were both dead, he threw Cassie's body into the lake.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Sam's mother, Joanna, is almost constantly drinking wine in her every appearance, implicitly because of the stresses of her unhappy marriage and her current circumstances with her daughter. She drops this entirely at the end when she plays the part of the Big Damn Heroes.
  • Almost Kiss: Sam and Carson nearly kiss in the backyard treehouse after he reminisces to her about their childhoods and the time that they shared a first kiss when they were ten. He stops it from actually happening when he reminds her that she isn't his to kiss, as she's still technically a couple with Del.
  • Alpha Bitch: Sam turned into this after Cassie first moved to her town, and their friendship influenced her into becoming the quintessential mean, bullying popular girl. She's embarrassed and ashamed when she finds this out, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends for it.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: What Sam experiences when she discovers from other people what she used to be like before Cassie's death. Because she doesn't remember how cruel she could be, she tries to use her current amnesia to her advantage by becoming a nicer person again.
  • Amnesiac Hero: The plot begins with the protagonist, Sam, wandering alone and bloodied on a road with no memory of who she is or what happened to her and being taken to a hospital to be treated. She spends the rest of the story trying to figure out who she is so that she can find out what happened the night that she and Cassie went missing.
  • Amnesiac Lover: Sam and Del were dating and were apparently "perfect" together before her disappearance and memory loss. She finds out later that this couldn't be further from the truth: they had vicious arguments, especially over an explicit photo he took of her without her knowledge and circulated among his friends, and on the night she disappeared, she dumped him and took off the necklace he gave her because of his cheating with Cassie. He lied to her early on and told her she had only taken off the necklace to shower; discovering he'd been lying about their relationship all along is what gives Sam the final incentive to dump him for good.
  • Asshole Victim: Scott bluntly tells Sam, much to her discomfort, that Cassie is essentially this; due to having been such an Alpha Bitch bully in life, not many people miss her―not even her own ex-boyfriend, Trey, who immediately hooks up with her friend Candy after her death.
  • Bastard Bastard: It turns out that the reason Cassie acted as cruel as she did, and turned Sam into an Alpha Bitch like her, was out of her insecurity and desperation to be acknowledged by her and Sam's father, Steven, who fathered her out of wedlock with a mistress.
  • Beta Bitch: Sam and Cassie seemed to have taken turns playing this to each other: initially Cassie was the dominant personality whose toxicity influenced Sam into acting like her, but Sam eventually overtook her in popularity to the point of being elected homecoming queen and Cassie constantly tried to emulate her.
  • Betty and Veronica: Kind Childhood Friend Carson and wealthy, arrogant Jerk Jock Del are Sam's main suitors for her affections. Though she was dating Del before she went missing and initially tries to make their relationship work, her increasing alienation with his behavior and her growing bond with Carson means that she ultimately chooses the latter.
  • Big Damn Heroes: In the end, it's not Carson who comes to Sam's rescue, as he does try but only ends up getting injured by Steven. It's Joanna, Sam's alcoholic mother, who saves the day by shooting her own husband in the back.
  • Bitch Slap: Cassie's mother slaps Sam while she's at the dress store with Julie, and tearfully asks her how she can even be having fun dress shopping while Cassie is dead. Sam's mother Joanna is utterly furious when she finds out and wants to take legal action against her for attacking her daughter, but Sam feels guilty and thinks she had a point.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sam reconciles and ends up with Carson, recovers most of her memories, and uncovers Cassie's killer, and her mother, who saved her and Carson from him, is no longer an alcoholic. But the killer was her and Cassie's father; her relationship with him has been destroyed after she found out he was willing to leave his daughters for dead to save his own skin, and her family will never be the same again.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Sam's music box with the ballerina on top. Cassie owned an identical one, in which she kept the birth certificate that proved she was the illegitimate daughter of Steven Franco, Sam's father.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Del off-handedly mentions to Sam that her father, Steven, used to be a low-class Yale scholarship student before he met her mother Joanna, who was from an old money family of railroad tycoons, and married into wealth. This proves vital to the revelation of the story that Steven was Cassie's murderer: she confronted him to beg for public acknowledgement as his daughter, which he refused to do because his wife would then divorce him for his infidelity and he would literally lose everything.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Sam and Carson were once best friends and played together as kids. Though they were driven apart when Cassie came into the picture and influenced Sam to become a bully like her, Sam becomes close to Carson again and falls in love with him.
  • Death by Falling Over: How Cassie died. Specifically, Steven pushed her while they were arguing and she hit her head on the rocks of the cliff they were on, which killed her. The blood on the rocks caused Sam to slip and fall, leading to her amnesia.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: Every character is a possible culprit in Cassie's death and Sam's amnesia, in no small part due to both of them having been infamous bullies. The actual culprit is one Sam never once thought of: her own father.
  • Former Friend of Alpha Bitch: Scott's girlfriend, Julie, used to be childhood friends with Sam until Sam befriended Cassie and consequently ditched the former to be an Alpha Bitch with the latter. After Sam's memory loss, she goes out of her way to be nice to Julie and rekindles their friendship by going prom dress shopping with her.
  • Freudian Excuse: Cassie acted the way she did―a self-absorbed, hateful bully whose toxic friendship with Sam influenced her into emulating her―because she just wanted to be acknowledged by a father who never wanted her, and was jealous of Sam for having the life that she didn't.
  • Girl Posse: Sam and Cassie had this in the form of Veronica, Candy, and Lauren. Their personalities are slightly more varied than the usual example: Veronica is a Jerkass and Candy is a Brainless Beauty, but Lauren is a kind Shrinking Violet type and the only one to continue being friends with Sam, even after she disavows the other two.
  • Gold Digger: Sam's father Steven is implied to be a male version. He was a poor scholarship student prior to marrying Sam's mother Joanna, who came from a wealthy Old Money family, and their relationship is shown to be strained and generally unhappy. The revelation that he had an affair with another woman that resulted in Cassie's birth only magnifies the implication; Steven refused to publicly acknowledge Cassie as his child because he was more concerned with maintaining everything he gained from his marriage than telling his wife the truth or being a good father to his other daughter.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Cassie is described by other characters to have been so envious of Sam that she copied everything she did and wanted what she had, down to attempting to steal her boyfriend Del. And for good reason, as she did want Sam's life: she had the same father, and wanted to be acknowledged as his daughter too.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Downplayed with Sam and Scott, who are fraternal twins, but Sam notes they have several of the same facial features.
  • High-School Dance: The prom is featured near the end, which Sam attends with Carson and Julie with Scott. It leads to Sam's first time sleeping with Carson that night, but then immediately gets ruined by Sam's recalled memory of taunting Carson about her intention of getting him suspended from his Penn State scholarship, which makes her jump to the false conclusion that Carson tried to kill her and caused Cassie's death.
  • Identical Stranger: Much is made throughout of how similar Sam and Cassie look, down to similar hair and eye colors. Sam theorizes this was why she was first drawn to Cassie and immediately befriended her. Subverted: it's because they're related, and are half-sisters through a shared father.
  • I Hate Past Me: Sam utterly hates what she finds out about her past self's personality prior to losing her memories and is nothing but ashamed of it. Considering that she used to be a total Alpha Bitch, it's completely justified.
  • Jerk Jock: Del is a stereotypical rich, preppy asshole and star player of the high school's baseball team.
  • Mama Bear: Joanna is infuriated when she finds out that Cassie's mother slapped Sam and wants to sue her for assault. She takes this up to the hilt in the end when she shoots Steven to protect Sam and Carson from him after his true colors are revealed.
  • Missing Child: A twofer, in both Sam's and Cassie's cases.
    • For Sam's: your daughter goes missing for days and turns up alive but amnesiac, with no memory of what happened or even her own identity, and she's under police investigation for her own friend's death.
    • For Cassie's: your daughter disappears with her friend and is eventually found dead in a lake, with no hints as to what happened or who killed her. It's no wonder her mother is so withdrawn and miserable, and takes it out on Sam when they run into each other.
  • Missing Mom: Carson's mother is mentioned to have died of cancer.
  • Mr. Fanservice: A fair bit of narration is devoted to how handsome Carson is, especially his muscles and build:
    Dark brown hair fell over his forehead and curled around his ears...his cheekbones were broad, giving him an exotic look, and his jaw was strong, clenched tight. The long-sleeved shirt he wore stretched over his shoulders and biceps. His body was purely athletic, slender yet muscular.
  • Nice Guy: Carson seems aloof at first, but he proves to be a gentle and compassionate guy who's always cared for Sam, even when she was cruel to him, and goes out of his way to be protective of her.
  • Nice Mean And In Between: Applied to Sam's former Girl Posse. Lauren is nice (a shy Shrinking Violet who shows kindness to Sam and reaffirms their friendship at the prom), Candy is mean (a spiteful Brainless Beauty who mocks Sam publicly and harasses her at the prom with insults), and Veronica is in-between (starts off as rude and bullying as Candy, but is shown crying in the girls' bathroom at the prom over being dumped by Trey and is treated somewhat sympathetically for it).
  • Noodle Implements: It's never specified just what is in the explicit photos of Sam that Del took without her knowledge or consent and circulated among his friends, causing her and her family humiliation. The most Del says about it is that all his friends are jealous of him, implying she's performing some sexual act on him, but that's all.
  • Offing the Offspring: Of the accidental kind. Steven pushed his illegitimate daughter Cassie away while they were arguing, causing her to slip on the rocks nearby and fatally hit her head.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Cassie's death leaves behind her mother and grandfather, who are both devastated by her demise. Cassie's mother takes it particularly hard to the point of attacking Sam over it.
  • Papa Wolf: Steven stops Detective Ramirez from questioning Sam off the record at her home, pointing out he can't interrogate Sam without one of her parents or a lawyer present, and sharply orders him out for treating his daughter as a suspect in Cassie's death. Subverted when it turns out that Steven is Cassie's killer: he not only tried to dispose of her body, he assumed Sam was dead when she fell and left her there.
  • Posthumous Character: Cassie is dead days before the story begins, and the entire plot is about Sam's efforts to piece together her memories to find out what happened the night that she died.
  • Red Herring: Trey initially seems to be set up to be important, as he was Cassie's on-and-off boyfriend who constantly fought with her and, after her death, is so uncaring that he starts hooking up with first Candy and then Veronica—all of which seems to point to him being involved in her death somehow. But he almost completely vanishes from the narrative after her funeral and the most mentioned of him afterwards is Veronica crying after he broke up with her, indicating he's just a garden variety Jerkass. It turns out he wasn't even present on the night Cassie died, as they had broken up before then.
  • Rewatch Bonus: In the flashback Sam has at Cassie's funeral to a conversation with her in her room, where Cassie first expressed her envy of Sam and desire to have her things, the first thing Cassie mentions that Sam is lucky to have is "a dad who wants to be in [her] life". The line makes much more sense after The Reveal that Cassie was Sam's half-sister who sought acknowledgment from their father.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Del is from a rich family that's close with Sam's, while Carson is the blue-collar son of the groundskeeper who works for Sam's parents. Sam's mother disapproves of her growing relationship with Carson because of this.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Just how did Cassie obtain the birth certificate that proved Steven was her father, and what prompted her to search for it to begin with? She never told anyone, not even her own mother, and thus took it to her grave.
  • Sanity Slippage: Sam fears this is happening to her when she keeps seeing hallucinations of Cassie and glimpses of her memories; undergoing such an episode in public causes her to be dubbed "Insanity Sam" by her own former friends Veronica and Candy. Her fear is intensified when she finds out she was the one writing the warning notes to herself, as she apparently wrote them during her brief moments of recalling her memories.
  • Shout-Out: Single White Female is referenced when discussing Cassie's envy of Sam and obsession with one-upping her.
  • Third-Act Misunderstanding: After sleeping with Carson, Sam has a memory of threatening Carson with getting him suspended and having his Penn State scholarship taken away while she was still in her Alpha Bitch phase, and becomes paranoid that Carson tried to kill her and succeeded in killing Cassie the night she went missing. When she accuses Carson of this, he's furious and upset that she thinks he's low enough to have done that and breaks up with her despite her attempt to apologize. Even after that, though, he still comes to her rescue when she calls him for help after discovering Cassie's real killer.
  • Token Minority: The cast is mostly white, and although there are a few tertiary characters of color (Sam briefly interacts with an Asian-American student and the investigating detective, Ramirez, is implied to be Hispanic like Carson), Carson is the only one with substantial development and page-time. Possibly justified because the setting is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a relatively small town with a majority white population.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: This happened to Sam in the backstory prior to the plot—she used to be a nice girl when she was friends with Carson and Julie, up until she met Cassie and turned into a spiteful bully who cut ties with her childhood friends in exchange for a shallow Girl Posse and a Jerk Jock boyfriend. After losing her memories, she works to reverse this and become a kind person again.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Sam became a bullying Alpha Bitch because of her friendship with Cassie, which was what caused her to sever ties with her old friends Carson and Julie. Finding out what she used to be like is a massive source of shame for Sam, especially when she finds out that her relationship with Cassie deteriorated because of Cassie's constant envy of her.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Sam's friendship with Cassie was like this, though it became less and less friendly as they began to clash more because of their similar headstrong, bullying personalities. It hit its lowest point when Sam discovered that Del cheated on her with Cassie and dumped him, on the same night that led to Cassie's death and the accidental fall that caused Sam to lose her memories.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Carson is described to have intense blue eyes, "the color of the sky right before day ended and night took hold―the color of dusk".
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pretty much everyone not named Sam, Carson, Scott, Julie, and Joanna is absent from the ending after Steven's arrest. Some particularly glaring examples are Detective Ramirez, as he never appears again after attempting to interrogate Sam alone, and Del, who disappears from the story after Carson punches him out for trying to harass Sam into taking him back after the prom.