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Thomas Duffy
To Never Know
Thomas Duffy, author

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

Steven Lewis is a young man with no concrete plans for his future after school. For a short time during high school, he wanted to ask a girl named Kelly out on a date but never had the courage to do so. As his life is taken in a different direction than he had hoped, he holds on to the thought of actually getting to know Kelly. Even after several years pass, he is determined to find her again. His quest to know her leads him to learn a tragic discovery. When he meets her mother, Emily, his life will never be the same. This is a story of love, loss and hope. It is an unforgettable personal journey about the quest for happiness after tragedy.
BlueInk Review

To Never Know Thomas Duffy CreateSpace, 206 pages, (paperback) $10.99, 9781536898385 (Reviewed: March, 2017)
To Never Know is a coming-of-age story about love, loss, and life's unpredictable opportunities.
Steven Lewis is a smart, reserved high school senior, unlucky with girls. He senses a mutual attraction with new classmate Kelly Brennan, but lacks the courage to ask her out. Upon graduation, they go their separate ways. Steven eventually leaves New York and moves to Florida but soon returns to the area, positioning himself in a low-paying neighborhood pharmacy job, forever hoping to run into Kelly. A chance meeting with Kelly's mother, Emily, compounded by unexpected revelations, ultimately sets Steven on a surprising emotional path to navigate his own uncertain future.
Duffy presents a simple, yet well thought-out and developed plot line. By placing the story within the timeframe of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he not only skillfully incorporates stark realities of the day, but thematically this context seems a pointed reflection of the unsettling turmoil surrounding the central protagonists. 
While the fictional narrative moves at a slow, yet steady pace, there are moments that seem weighted by excessive dialogue that can sound wooden and unnecessary. Consider an early conversation between Steven and Nancy, a woman he meets via a chatline dating service:
“ ‘I write short stories on the side,’ she told him.  “ ‘That is so wonderful. I love to write.’  “ ‘Maybe I’ll read one to you sometime.’  “ ‘I’d love to. It sounds fun.’  “ ‘Why don’t you read a paragraph or two.’ “ ‘Don’t mind if I do.’”
Additionally, Steven often resorts to cliched comments that do little to enhance the dialogue ("[it’s] never too late to live life the way you want"). 
Still, for those who can overlook issues with the dialogue, Duffy provides a heartfelt and largely provocative read. Those drawn to solid narratives enhanced by emotionally wrought characters, particularly those who look for hope even under the most dire circumstances, should find rewards in the author’s fifth novel.

Feathered Quill Book Reviews

To Never Know

By: Thomas Duffy
Publisher: CreateSpace
Publication Date: August 2016
ISBN: 978-1536898385
Reviewed by: Skyler Boudreau
Review Date: August 31, 2018

To Never Know follows Steven Lewis, a recent high school graduate without any solid plans for his future. Several years after graduating from high school, and a few months after leaving New York City to move to Florida with his family, he decides to reconnect with Kelly, a girl he briefly knew and possessed an unrequited love for during their final year of high school. The two have not spoken since graduation and finding her proves to be a challenge. It is only after he returns to New York City and meets Kelly’s mother that he learns it is too late to build a connection with her.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand, it provides an excellent demonstration of a family coping with grief and trying to put their lives back together after being ripped apart by a tragedy. Steven and Kelly’s mother Emily help each other heal after the loss of their loved one, all the while struggling to sustain a living in one of the most expensive places in the United States.

Author Thomas Duffy builds a believable image of the fight for financial stability. After moving in with Emily, Steven is reluctant to find a job very far from her house in case she needs him during the day as she has fallen into a deep depression. That leaves a pharmacy job barely paying minimum wage as his only option. With Emily herself living off social security, they struggle to make ends meet.

This novel is essentially a portrait of two lives with very little in common intersecting by chance. Watching both characters build each other up after being torn down is inspiring.

To Never Know is not without its faults, however. While his situation is sympathetic, I did not find Steven himself particularly likeable. It was hard to empathize with him. One of the main components of the story was Steven’s regret of not having spoken to Kelly while he had the chance. He had become convinced that dating her would fix all his problems. When one of his co-workers tells him not to fear going after the things he wants, he responds in kind by saying, “She’s not a thing. She’s a person” (Duffy 29). Yet throughout the book he describes her more as an object. The only adjectives he ever uses in association with Kelly are “beautiful” and “special.” When he begins to date another woman, he spends most of their relationship wishing she was Kelly and trying to convince himself that she’s good enough.

I don’t agree with the way Steven views women, but it is fascinating to watch him realize they can be more than romantic conquests and that it is possible for people of opposite genders to have meaningful, platonic relationships. As the novel went on, Steven did mature, but I still found it difficult to connect with him.

Despite that, To Never Know did make me think, and that’s what every book should strive to make its audience do. It examines just how crippling grief can be while providing an example of two people trying to move past it.

Quill says: To Never Know will leave you conflicted and wondering what new course of life you would choose were you given the chance.

Foreword Clarion Reviews

Reviewed by Gregory A. Lowe
June 12, 2017

To Never Know is a novel of unrequited love that deals with issues of trauma in a very nuanced way.

To Never Know by Thomas Duffy is a dynamic tale of loss and hope in the wake of a national tragedy. Well-developed characters and a strong, plot-driven story make this novel of unrequited love very distinct.

Steven Lewis went to high school in New York City, where he met the love of his life, Kelly Brennan, but was never able to muster the courage to ask her out. As time passes and Steven’s life changes drastically, he holds on to the hope that he will one day see Kelly again. When he moves back to New York and meets Kelly’s mother, Emily, Steven’s plans are once again thwarted as he finds out Kelly has died. Dealing with the trauma of her death takes Steven on a journey of hope and redemption as he attempts to find a new life purpose.

When Steven is first introduced, he is irresponsible and generally apathetic to the events of his life. However, when he strikes out on his own, he is forced to grow up rather quickly as he learns that he must rely on only himself to make ends meet. Steven’s money problems seem very true to life as he attempts to find employment in an unstable job market and save money in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Additionally, learning about Kelly’s death shakes Steven to his core as he now must learn to let go of the past in order to move on with his life. It’s through these events that Steven matures into a more decisive and outspoken adult who is able to take control of his own destiny.

This story does an excellent job of portraying different types of response to trauma. Steven tends to seek others out when times are tough. He also internalizes his feelings, not openly talking about them unless prodded. In contrast, Emily has become a shut-in after her daughter’s death, not leaving her house and pushing away anyone who tries to make social contact.

Although the novel tells the physical location (cities or apartments), there is no description of what these spaces look like, skipping valuable opportunities for character development. The writing seems very mechanical and clinical. Events are described using very simple language, but with many superfluous details that detract from the overall narrative. However, in terms of pacing, the book’s plot-driven narrative makes it a quick read.

To Never Know is a novel of unrequited love that deals with issues of trauma in a very nuanced way.

Hollywood Book Reviews

To Never Know by author Thomas Duffy is the story of love lost, found and lost again, as a young man is trying to break free from his troubled past.

When we first encounter Steve Lewis, he is a senior in high school in New York City. He is a bit shy, lacking in confidence even though he achieves good grades. He’s just not like the other kids, and doesn’t have a date to the prom. This small fact is the hinge for bigger events yet to come, as he suddenly meets a new girl to the school, Kelly, who like him, is an outsider and also has no prom date lined up. The attraction is immediate and mutual. But just when things seem to be going right with Kelly, school is over and Steve loses touch. Desperate for female companionship, he meets Nancy on an online dating website. They get along well for a while, but their relationship, like that with Kelly, is gradually derailed. Steve’s family moves to Florida, but after the 9-11 attack, Steve feels he must get back to the city and reconnect with Kelly. She seems to have dropped out of sight—but Nancy is back in the picture—until tragedy forces Steve in a different direction, alienating Nancy, probably permanently. Realizing he’ll never know what life with Kelly, the girl of his dreams, might have been like, Steve decides to help her mother, Emily; what develops is an unconventional connection based on need and grief; yet it seems, at times, to have the potential of blooming into a true love affair.

Life has more in store for Steve, though. He can’t go on accepting low paying jobs and dodging the possibility of forging a professional career path. He must stop compromising with his work life, acknowledge his abilities and make the most of them. And he must stop compromising with love, and seek the fulfillment of his heart’s deepest desires.

Practiced novelist Thomas Duffy writes in plain language displaying a fascination for the supposed minor details of life, which he depicts capably. We know where Steve works, how he gets there, what he does there, and how he feels about his workmates. Through such spare, seemingly mundane details, Duffy subtly reveals the intensity of his hero’s secret suffering and the blunders he makes as he learns how to be a man and most importantly, how to treat a woman and win the love he has been waiting for. The ending that the author has chosen for Steve’s story will certainly surprise and satisfy the readers.

Thomas Duffy has built a complicated tale out of the simple events of everyday life, with a hero wrapped up so tightly that it takes the prodding of fate to help him see the larger landscape.

Kirkus Reviews

"Duffy (Heartbreaker, 2015, etc.) expertly describes both Steven’s economic anxieties and his romantic longing for the girl who got away."--Kirkus Reviews

Literary Titan

To Never Know depicts the story of Steven Lewis, and how he is affected by his life choices, his stalled inertia, and forces far beyond his control.

To Never Know, by Thomas Duffy, is a millennialist coming of age drama centered on the late adolescence and early adulthood of the main character, Steven Lewis.  The story starts in 1994 in Queens, New York. Steven is in his Senior year of High School. Steven has a crush on a girl in his class, Kelly Brennan. She seems to be interested in him, finding excuses to interact by asking for his notes and a stick of gum. But he never works up the courage to ask her to Prom.

The story skips past graduation and things have changed for Steven. His life continues a downward progression: his grades are not as good at college as they were in High School, he drops out, takes some time off. He tried calling Kelly again, but he could not bring himself to talk to her.

A family friend encourages him to send Kelly a letter, so he does, on September 10, 2001. Keeping in mind that Kelly lives in New York, you can make some good guesses about where the story goes after that, but this story packs a lot more into it, as Steven’s life events continue to unfold. 

This story is an exploration of millennialist worries and fears in a post-9/11 life: adulthood with its ever-increasing responsibilities, how to live a good life, intimacy, isolation, establishing one’s self-identity, and the existential fear of death. The story is deeply emotional, with conflicting emotions. The quality of writing is strong enough to convey nuanced emotions and details. There were a few copy editing issues, but none bad enough to detract from the powerful meaning of the story. 

The title, To Never Know, gives some insight into the central themes within the story. There is a strain of philosophical agnosticism (not in the religious sense) that there are unknown unknowns in our lives and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. There is also the theme that there are “bells that cannot be un-rung.”  Steven cannot go and have the relationship he wanted. We will never know what life would have been like if one thing would have been changed in the distant past, and we cannot know what tomorrow will bring.

This book is good, but really heavy at times. It is intended for adult audiences, and probably best understood by older millennials. There are depictions of sex, death, terrorism, and coarse language. The content of the story takes an odd twist at one point, and the end is unexpected. 

Publishers Daily Reviews

It’s the year 2000, and Steven Lewis is adrift.

He’s living with his parents in Florida after moving from New York City following an uninspired college career. His prospects are dismal. He works at a video store and is being driven everywhere by his mom and dad.

To make matters worse, his love life is nonexistent. In fact, if it weren’t for his near-constant fantasies about a girl from high school, he sometimes feels life would not be worth living.

The next year, a cataclysmic event galvanizes him into a new resolve — the 9/11 tragedy in NYC. He decides to return to the city and try to make a new go of things. The move will, he hopes, include a reacquaintance with the girl from high school — Kelly Brennan — even though she hasn’t yet responded to the one tentative letter he sent recently.

After getting settled into a miniscule apartment, he takes a job at a pharmacy and renews a relationship with a young woman named Nancy. She’s nice, he thinks, and very supportive, even paying part of his rent one month.

But she’s no Kelly.

The storyline becomes more involved as Steven encounters Kelly’s mother one day at the pharmacy. It is, he deems, his big chance to gain an inroad with Kelly. Then, he receives some shocking news that takes his future in a completely new direction.

His budding relationship with Nancy reaches a crisis point. His parents, still in Florida, tug on his emotions from afar. And he just can’t find a job that will elevate him above a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

But it’s the revelation of his new roommate that will really draw the reader’s attention.

There’s drama and angst in equal measure throughout this dialogue-driven story that examines Steven’s problematic penchant for drifting with the tides of life rather than striking out boldly for the things he says he wants most — as he should have done way back in high school.

It’s also a tale of tragedy and rebirth, of second chances and the beauty of being there for those we care about. It’s deceptively complex, probing Steven’s insecurities and subsequent struggles to find his true path — as well as his one true love.

This is author Thomas Duffy’s fifth book. Fans may also want to try his others: Heartbreaker, Stockboy, One Love and Off the Line.

Readers' Favorite

Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite

To Never Know is a coming of age novel written by Thomas Duffy. Steven Lewis was adrift. A high school senior with little more than good grades to boast of, he had no prom prospects nor did he have a real grasp for what he would do in college. He did have dreams of going to NYU and getting into the Tisch School of the Arts for film, but he had no technical experience or the portfolio they would require. Then something strange and marvelous happened during his Humanities English class. He was reassigned the seat behind his normal place to accommodate a new classmate. Her name was Kelly Brennan, and while he had seen her in the halls at school, they had never spoken or shared a class before. For her part, Kelly was intrigued by the boy who was sitting behind her. He was cute in an intellectual way, and she began to wish he'd get to know her better, to ask her to the prom. Steven was immediately entranced by her. He didn't have gum that first day in class when she had turned around and asked him for some, but he made sure to have gum for her the next day.

The days went on, yet Steven never quite mustered up the courage to ask her to the prom. Neither of them ended up going. Graduation came and went, and Steven ended up settling for a college on Long Island, taking classes that didn't really excite him. Throughout his decidedly bland and uninspiring existence, he never stopped thinking about Kelly and wondering what she was doing and whether she ever thought about him. It would be a few years until he finally mustered the courage to write and send the letter he had always planned on writing. Sadly, by then, it was too late.

Thomas Duffy's coming of age novel, To Never Know, is a poignant and moving story set in New York around the time of the 911 bombing of the World Trade Center. Steven Lewis's life can’t really begin until he resolves his deep and continuing need to connect with Kelly Brennan. Duffy's hero seems to be sleepwalking through life until he resolves to break away from his parents' control and forced move to Florida, and he returns to New York. I cheered as he got on the northbound plane and smiled as he chose the pharmacy job that would keep him close to where Kelly grew up. To Never Know has a dreamy ambiance, echoing the rootless state of Steven's half-life as he works a job that fails to challenge him, and is befriended by Emily Brennan, Kelly's mother. Then something about the grieving mother calls out to him, and things are never quite the same -- which is in most respects a very good thing indeed. To Never Know is a well-written, lyrical and thought-provoking coming-of-age romance. It’s most highly recommended.

San Francisco Book Review

To never know. Three little words that can mean so many different things to so many different people. In Thomas Duffy’s novel To Never Know, the life of Steven Lewis is chronicled from his senior year in high school to becoming an adult. The story starts off in a New York with a glance between Steven and the new girl in his class Kelly. Little is said between the two but both wonder what the other might be like. However, graduation comes and goes and the answers to their questions remained unanswered as they go their separate ways. Once finished with college, and unsure what to do with his life, Steven follows his parents as they move to Florida but thoughts of Kelly never leave his mind. He sends her a letter that is never answered, but she still remains present in his thoughts. Then 9/11 happens, as does the opportunity for Steven to return to New York and possibly reconnect with Kelly. As he returns to New York he finds that life is not as it was when he left and nothing is as easy as he thought it was going to be. A chance encounter with Kelly’s mother leads him to finally attempt to make contact with her, only to learn that that opportunity has changed as well. As Steven remains in New York, he makes new personal connections with Nancy, the on/off girlfriend, and Kelly’s mother and also reconnects with his parents. Where Steven will end up and how he will get there…only he knows. However, finding out will be the key.

To Never Know is a touching, heartwarming, and heartbreaking novel about growing up and learning to carry on when you aren’t sure how. Duffy shares this message through the characters in his story. From Steven’s uncertainty about his personal and professional future to Kelly’s mother’s ability to move forward after an unimaginable tragedy, each character is written so that their emotions are raw and real. Though the topic is told in such a way that it feels real, at times the staccato nature of the writing during the dialogue interrupted the flow and pace of the novel. To Never Know is a 4 star novel that is that is concise, heartfelt, and enjoyable.

Reviewed By: Amy Synoracki

Self Publishing Review

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.

The US Review of Books

To Never Know
by Thomas Duffy

reviewed by Anita Lock


"Everything happens for a reason."

Steven Lewis first meets Kelly Brennan in a high school Humanities class. Even though they seem to hit it off from day one, Steven hasn't the courage to either ask her out on a date or the prom. After graduation, the two part ways and head in different directions. Years roll by, and Steven's thoughts about their missed moments turn into an obsession. His preoccupation on Kelly has a negative affect not only in job choices, but also his relationship with Nancy, a new gal who has come into his life. Steven deliberately takes a low paying job at a pharmacy in Kelly's neighborhood. While hoping to bump into her at some point, Steven is unaware of all that will transpire, especially when he meets Emily, Kelly's mom.

Duffy spins a unique romantic tale in his latest novel. Set in the later 20th and early 21st centuries, Duffy's narrative immediately draws readers into a common human-interest theme known as the "what ifs." In the case of Duffy's principal character, Steven wonders what life would have been like if he had pursued Kelly. Keeping to a small cast, Duffy surrounds Steven with well-meaning people who frequently offer unsolicited advice. Duffy's slow-moving plot is sprinkled with plenty of emotional tension. Steven hesitates on pretty much everything, which leaves him moving toward progress at a pace slower than a sloth. Duffy concentrates heavily on dialogue to develop both his storyline and characters. Readers may feel as though there is lack of depth in Duffy's cast and his plot is full of banality. Don't be fooled! There are good reasons why his characters function as they do. In addition, Duffy subtly throws in plot twists and turns when you least expect it. That said, To Never Know is nothing less than a timely coming of age read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review