I guess I don’t know precisely how to start this? Because this book is controversial. I read it specifically because I’ve been seeing controversy pop up all over the place and I’m a sucker for a good debate like that. And I don’t really know how to approach this review, because to be honest? After reading it, I don’t really have much to say. There’s no denying that it deals with some super important things, and there’s no denying that these things are things that we as a society NEED to have open, honest conversations about. But in the end I felt kind of meh about the book itself.
Now before I get into why, I suppose I should open with a few caveats. Because these things really sort of hampered my ability to really “get” what this book was selling.
1) I am no longer a teenager. While this surprises no one, I do feel like it’s an important aspect of my overall review of this book. Because here’s the thing – since I spend much of my time working with teens, I like to think that I’ve stayed pretty good at remembering what it was like to be that age. More so than your average about-to-turn-thirty adult. BUT, there’s a big difference between remembering what it was like, and actually experiencing the world that way. So I generally find myself struggling to relate to the characters in YA books, and even when I manage it, it’s certainly not quite in the same way that an actual teen can (which is one of the reasons when I read YA fiction I usually prefer fantasy, because age and worldview matter a whole lot less). As a result I feel like a good deal of this book’s emotional impact was lost on me.
2) While I have had my struggles with anxiety – which is often closely connected with depression – I am not, nor have I ever been seriously depressed or suicidal. So I cannot speak as to how this book would read to someone who has struggled with depression or suicide. I cannot speak as to how accurate the portrayals of Hannah’s suicidal tendencies are, and I cannot speak for whether or not it would glamorize suicide for someone who has considered it. Those two things seem to be the lightning rods for much of the controversy with this book, so although the controversy is what drew me to read it, ultimately I can’t really chime in on it, as I don’t really have a horse in that race.
So what do these things leave me with?
Well, it was an entertaining read. The plot device of the tapes was a very clever mechanism, and I must admit that I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this before – structurally speaking. Experiencing the tapes along with one of the recipients was engaging, and absolutely kept the suspense level up. I sped through this book in a single sitting, and it wasn’t because I had the time – it was because I could not bring myself to put it down. I started it intending to only read for 15 or 20 minutes before bed. Three hours later, it’s 2:30 in the morning, my alarm is set to go off in 4 hours, and I have no idea where the time has gone, but hey, the book is finished.
So it’s definitely an entertaining read. There’s no denying that. Emotionally, on the other hand, it fell a bit short for me. It packed a punch while I was knee deep in the narrative, but I can’t say that it left me raw for days, or that I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I finished. It was good, but just not that good. Not for me anyway. Honestly, I left the reading experience thinking way more about the cleverness of the premise than I did about the characters or the story, and that leaves the experience feeling a bit… sterile? Technical? I’m not sure how else to describe it.
Part of this has to do with the lack of connection I felt with the narrator, Clay. Honestly I was far more interested in the transcripts of the tapes than Clay’s thought process as he listened to them. His interjections were occasionally disorienting as we switched back and forth from Clay to the tapes, and I really kind of felt like he suffered from “Nice Guy Syndrome” a little bit. Some of the comments he makes as he listens – about Hannah, about his relationship with her – have SO MUCH POTENTIAL to expand into character development and self-reflection, to deal with the way society teaches young men to feel entitled to the affection of young women… but then they are just sort of brushed aside. Back to the tape. On to the next thing.
And that tendency to brush aside massive issues for the next thing as we race to the end seems to be pretty consistent throughout the book. Asher brings up a lot of really important points about the way boys are taught to view girls, about the way that teens interact with each other, about bullying, and rumors, and alcohol, and sexual assault, and rape, and, and, and. But many of them just get brought up and left at that. As I read, I spent a lot of time disappointed that we’re not going to get into the meat of the issue at all.
And, spoiler warning, even the big reveal we get when Clay is finally mentioned on the tapes feels like let down. To me it only served to leave Clay feeling even more one dimensional as a character. Again, if you haven’t read or watched the series yet – here’s a major spoiler alert. The revelation that Clay is the one name on the tapes which doesn’t actually belong there? Yea, that kind of feels like a cop-out, and just plays into this “nice guy syndrome” thing I mentioned before even more heavily. Like, I so totally would have preferred if there WAS an actual reason Clay was on the tapes, and he was forced to grapple with the fact that maybe he’s not the good guy he thinks he is. Grapple with the fact that his version of his relationship with Hannah was experienced entirely differently from her POV. Now that, to me, would have been powerful.
So in the end, while it was definitely a page-turner, and I certainly wouldn’t say that it was a waste of time or money, I just kind of feel “meh” about it. I’m glad I read it. I enjoyed the three hours I spent with it. But it’s certainly not the life-changing ground-breaking kind of read I was expecting based on the publicity it’s gotten recently.
Now, I have not yet watched the Netflix series that has reignited the controversy. I intend to, but to be honest I have no idea when I’m going to get around to it, since the series is a WAY bigger time commitment than the book was (13 hours), and the topic is, without a doubt, pretty heavy. Maybe when I finally get around to watching the series I’ll do a review of it and compare to see how it stacks up in comparison. It’s very possible that the series explores the topics the book brings up more deeply, and I look forward to finding out.
In summary: A good read, but nothing life changing – at least for me. But again, this assessment is tempered by the caveats listed above.
Rating: 3/5 stars, if only for the page-turner nature.
Would recommend to: Honestly, I’m not sure. I suppose anyone who is looking for a quick read that deals with some pretty heavy topics, and feels like this is the kind of book that they could read safely.