Post the Second: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

*I’m going to put a general spoiler warning here and on another page: SPOILERS: This post, and probably most of the other posts that I am going to write, will contain spoilers. I may or may not write a section that is spoiler free and then warn you when spoilers will come; there is no guarantee of that. However, be aware that you may come upon spoilers without having seen something expressly stating that they will appear*

All of the teen books I’ve been reading have been about such intense things. First there was After, featuring neglect, psychological trauma, teen pregnancy, and abandonment. Then came Purple Heart, which dealt with the experience of an 18-year-old U.S. soldier in Iraq, who wakes up in a hospital unable to remember whether or not he shot a civilian. Then come two books on teen suicide, Orchards and the one I’m currently reviewing, Thirteen Reasons Why.

Why do all the popular books out for teens have to be Teen “Paranormal” Romance or dark or about such intense issues? Most teen romance novels are trash (most romance novels (so-called) are trash) and one can’t subsist solely on emotionally wrenching stories. That’s not to say that some of the latter books are bad–nor that they are particularly good. But it should not be a matter of a choice between trash and emotional stress. And there are plenty of well-written books that deal with intense issues but leave the reader with some sense of hope (and not a post-modern sense at that). Of the two books I mentioned in my last post, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with an issue that was scandalous at that time, and rather an intense one in any era: a husband’s neglect of, controlling attitude toward, and infidelity to his wife, and her decision to leave him. Not only that, it ends hopefully and the main character is a wonderful example of strength, faithfulness, and compassion in the face of all their opposites. There seems to be nothing innocent for the teenage reader. And when I say innocent I don’t mean devoid of all evil, namby-pamby, everything is just fine and the earth is sprouting unicorns and rainbows. I mean books that can teach us about the difficult things in life without scarring us, without putting images into our heads that don’t need to be there–the meaning coming from the roots of the word innocence, meaning in Latin, “not harming” (check out here for a definition). Because, once something is in your head, it is impossible to ever completely eradicate it.

Now let me address one more thing before I get to the book review. The particular copy of Mr. Asher’s book that I read has an interview with him in the back. One of the questions asks whether he was concerned that people might be disturbed by the intense content of the novel. He said he knew that it was possible, but he was trying to encourage dialogue about heavy subjects between adults and teens. Talking about important stuff with your parents/teens, is, well, important. But this should have naturally been going on in your relationship. Also, some important questions don’t necessarily deal directly with things like suicide, teen pregnancy, neglect, etc. Sometimes, they deal with what happens before any of that, the whys and wherefores of how one acts and treats other people. I suppose I’m trying to get at the lack of innocence in fiction. Nowadays our children grow up so fast and seemingly without hope. I think we need to bring back that hope, but I don’t think that’s going to happen if all that teen authors churn out is trashy romance novels, dark realistic fiction, or dystopian novels. Of course, I’m not saying that the latter two can’t be a valuable addition to fiction and can’t be good–I’m just saying they shouldn’t make up the general selection for teen readers (and believe me, I totally enjoy the dystopian stuff, and even some of the dark stuff). If kids are taught from a young age to appreciate good fiction, and we teach them to appreciate the good fiction of long ago, they can learn how to discern what good fiction is in this day and age. If this book opens up dialogue between kids and parents, great; hopefully it will also lead to good choices in literature and discussing the less highly charged but no less important themes of such books (David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is actually another good one with some elements similar to Tenant of Wildfell Hall–and don’t be daunted by the length or Dickens’ lengthy descriptions. It’s worth it! And if you are afraid to tackle it yourself, try listening to it in the car, or reading it with a friend and doing accents!). I’m just afraid that many teens and pre-teens read books generally with little guidance from parents and often read those which are quite inappropriate for them.

And perhaps the reason that there is so much dark fiction is that the world is so dark today. But no one is going to make it lighter by writing only dark fiction. Just like maybe more and more kids are experiencing issues like suicide, rape, neglect, teen pregnancy, and other tough situations and/or psychological traumas. But writing only about them isn’t going to help kids out of them: they need to know what normal is like, too.

On to the review!

The basic premise of Thirteen Reasons Why is that a boy named Clay Jensen receives cassette tapes in the mail, recording the last thoughts of fellow high-school junior Hannah Baker, who committed suicide. Through these tapes Hannah reveals the thirteen reasons–actually people–that led to her suicide. Each of the occurrences she describes illustrate problems with society today: the sexual objectification of people, particularly women; the social ladder mentality; the passive acceptance of teen drinking and sex as normal, expected, and/or unavoidable; instant gratification, and general utter selfishness and a belief in “I can just erase the consequences of my actions.” 

However, Clay and even Hannah do not completely blame others for her suicide. As Clay so rightly comments, if she had reached out–if she had really, truly spoken to someone, had been completely, brutally honest–she could’ve gotten help. For instance, her last talk, with Mr. Porter, ought to have gone differently. Psychiatrists and psychologists can only help if you are open with them. You have to tell them what’s happened to you; you can’t hold back, even if you’re scared or ashamed. That’s why it’s so important that you trust them. If you don’t tell them everything, they’re liable to misinterpret things, as Mr. Porter misinterpreted Hannah’s report of the rape of another girl as her own rape. I do fault him for not going after her when it was clear that she was contemplating suicide. Again, I’m in no way saying that anything that these people did was okay: Marcus coming onto her on their date; Justin spreading rumors that she was “easy”; Alex using her to get back at Jessica by putting Hannah as “Best Ass in the Class” on the “Who’s Hot/Who’s Not” list (which in and of itself is just absolutely sick and horrific and disgusting); Tyler being a Peeping Tom; Courtney’s using her to gain rep with her peers; and the awful Bryce, who constantly came on to Hannah and even raped a girl. Their actions were horrible, and they led to the state of mind in which Hannah found herself, therefore bearing some of the blame. And I don’t think Hannah was evil or horrible or going to hell or anything. It’s just awful that she felt she couldn’t  reach out to anyone.

So, it was a very interesting book, and I felt it illustrated some of the ills of society rather well. However, there were certain parts of it that were not so good: namely, those describing when young men were feeling Hannah up, in addition to a few excessive descriptions of kissing.

Verdict? 2.5 out of 5 stars. I don’t think it was a particularly good or bad read. The simultaneous narratives was an interesting idea, but the fact that Hannah was able to think about things as clearly as she did before she killed herself–that she planned to record the tapes and kill herself–makes it seem slightly implausible.

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