#37: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Clay comes home from school and there’s a package waiting for him.  Inside are 13 cassette tapes.  He finds a cassette player, pushes play, and hears Hannah’s voice.  She’s dead.  Killed herself a few weeks ago.

She calmly explains that there are thirteen people who are responsible for her death.  Each person has to listen to the tapes, then pass them along to the next person on the list.  If they don’t?  There’s another set of tapes out there that will be spread around and everyone will know that these thirteen people are the reasons why she did it.

Clay is of course stunned.  He had a crush on Hannah and they sort of hooked up at a party once and he has no idea why he’s to blame for her death.  He listens to the tapes while wandering around town visiting the places Hannah talks about.  As he pops in the next tape he is terrified that his name is next, and yet he wants it to happen to he can find out what he did to her.  He starts staring at people, wondering if they’re on the list, if they’ve already listened to the tapes, and if they know what he does. 

Hannah’s voice is relentless.  She explains everything that’s happened and how they’ve slowly worn her down.  At times she’s angry, other times she’s sad, and other times she’s matter-of-fact.  She wants to explain why.

The book is well written and I absolutely had to keep reading to find out what happened.  It’s a mystery and I needed to know where Clay came in and what happened on the thirteenth tape that finally pushed Hannah to the point of no return.  Clay is a great character.  He’s believable and I felt as panicked as he did.

But, the subject?  I cannot come to terms with it.  This is a YA book and it falls firmly into Drama Queen Topics, but it’s worse than that.  I vividly remember how powerful it was in middle and high school for someone to announce that they were going to kill themselves because a relationship didn’t go right.  I remember how girls would cut themselves in places that were easy to hide, but also easy to show so that they could make sure a boy knew what happened.  For a lot of this, the self-harm and threats were clearly attention cries.  Yes, there was anger and frustration, but the girl didn’t want to end it.  She wanted love or attention or the skills to deal with life.  The girls who actually cut or attempted to OD were very quiet about it.  They didn’t want people to see the cuts, so they kept them hidden.

This book really creeped me out to the point of … not quite horrifying me, but really bothering me because it plays into the whole “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone” mentality.  Is a girl going to read this, write a note or record something and then kill herself?  It’s too easy to say that this book could make it happen, but for some of the Unbalanced Drama Queens, it’s going to be very, very tempting.

Clay’s voice makes it worse because he had a crush on her.  So many teenage girls want that idealized version of love, and Clay seems to be it.  The idea that a boy will be in agony wondering what he did or didn’t do and if he had tried harder he could have saved her could be very appealing to a girl.

I can’t make this a black or white issue and say this book is dangerous or harmful or a cautionary tale or harmless.  For me, it was disturbing.  I was the type of girl who would have loved this idea.  I was a freaking mess and didn’t have the skills or brain development to handle myself on a good day.  I don’t know what I would have done with this book, but I would have been obsessed with the idea of having that much power over people, especially people who had wronged me and who I wanted to suffer.

Hannah does have legitimate complaints.  She has been wronged and tape thirteen is the most heartbreaking of the bunch.  She should be angry.  And I felt like that was never really addressed.  Yes, the book was about Clay, but there wasn’t an answer about what could have been.  Clay could not have saved her, and there’s another problem with the book.  He felt like he could have done something and that is not the message that teens need to hear.  It’s not up to them to try to save their friends.  Yes, they need to share information, but they are not the ones to provide the help needed.

I was expecting a total After School Special at the end from the author with statistics about teen suicide and other topics from the book, but it wasn’t there.  I don’t have a copy of the book on me, so I can’t remember the exact thing, but I think it was just a suicide hotline and website with not much else.  I don’t think the book needed to end with a big This Is Bad, Don’t Do It, but I also felt like it had a responsibility.  Laurie Halse Anderson did it beautifully at the end of Wintergirls, so it bothered me that there was nothing here.

The book is well written and the emotions were realistic, so I don’t want to dismiss it as a bad book.  But looking at it from a pure plot perspective, holy hell…  What message is this sending?

I’m sure people will tell me that I’m overreacting, but I wanted more responsibility.  I am in no way saying a book like this should never be written, but I wanted there to be a lifeline thrown in at the end.  Something that a YA reader could see that told them there was help out there, they weren’t alone, and suicide does not have to be their plan.  Again, I really wish I had the book in front of me because this might be really unfair.  I don’t remember it being there, but maybe it was.  I’ll come back and edit this if needed.

EDIT:  I checked the book before returning it to the library.  There is nothing listed.  NOTHING.  No number, no websites… nothing.

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3 responses to “#37: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

  1. Pingback: pyrajane’s #37: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher | Cannonball Read III

  2. It’s really interesting to me that you had pretty much the opposite reaction to this book than mine. I can definitely see what you’re saying, and this is a topic that comes up a lot about YA books that deal with subject matter like suicide, eating disorders and cutting. Honestly, it’s been long enough since I read this book that I don’t really remember much of my reaction except that I really liked the book. Thank you for sharing!

  3. allibabarama

    Well written review. I agree with you that young people are emotional and impressionable and it seems that if you write this type of book then you should be including some sort of help resource or something like that at the end.

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