Tuesday, February 21, 2012


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Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher, Razorbill, 2007, 288 pp

I put off reading this story of teen suicide for five years. For over a year, it was one of the hottest YA sellers in the bookstore where I used to work. I just wasn't sure I could deal with the subject matter. I'm still not sure about that (I have some deeply ingrained feeling that suicide is taboo) but I am sure this is a masterful novel.

Hannah Baker, new girl in small town, gets bullied in subtle, almost psychological ways right from the first few weeks of high school. Actually it begins with teasing and I remember how emotionally painful it was to be teased by male classmates and then have certain girls join in.

Hannah is not weak, not even all that innocent. She is just dreaming about boys and friends and the usual things young teen girls dream about. The bottom line is that she has no one to talk to; no best friend, no boy friend, parents distracted by money troubles. When she goes to a counselor (male) at school for help after what amounted to rape, he lets her down in the worst possible way.

I was not crazy about the structure. The 13 reasons are recorded by Hannah on seven cassette tapes, one reason per side. By a clever ruse, she makes sure each person who either tormented her or failed her is compelled to listen to the tapes after her death.

Clay Jenson had a crush on Hannah but his insecurities prevented him from getting close to her. The book follows Clay through a day and night as he listens to the tapes and fills in his back story while Hannah tells hers.

The structure seemed a bit too forced, a miffed attempt by the author to be clever, but if I had been 15 or 16 when I read the book, I would have been enthralled. The overly melodramatic mood, the revengeful tone of Hannah's tapes (is suicide a form of revenge? I thought it was inspired by apathy) and Clay's extremely dense but grief-stricken attitude all made me cringe.

Yet I could not stop reading. In fact I stayed up all night with Clay, to find out all thirteen reasons and to see the bullies get what they deserved.

(Thirteen Reasons Why is available in paperback on the YA shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie store, click on the cover image above.)

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