Friday, December 21, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

After reading the Future of Us, I decided to pick up Jay Asher's first novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. The premise alone - a young man learns more about the events that lead to a schoolmate's suicide through the prerecorded tapes she left behind - is enough to make most anyone want to know more. So I was curious to see how Asher was going to handle both this ambitious premise and the sensitive issue of teen suicide.

The Situation: Clay Jensen is your average teenage boy. Actually, according to pretty much everyone, Clay is better than your average teenage boy. No one seems to have anything bad to say about him. Hannah Baker was already pretty curious about Clay, and the lack of negative information about him only made her want to know more. Hannah and Clay have brief encounters either at school, or at the movie theater where they work, but unbeknownst to both of them, the other one desperately wants to have a deeper relationship. But on the day that Clay receives a mysterious package with no return address, that opportunity is already long gone with no hope of ever returning.

The Problem: The package is a set of seven tapes that Hannah recorded no more than a few days before she decided to take her own life. By the time Clay receives the tapes, Hannah has been dead a few weeks, and the school and community are still in mourning. But the tapes will bring a different sort of grief. Each side of the tape names a different person and event that Hannah blames for leading her to her ultimate decision. And the people that are receiving these tapes are the people she names on them, which apparently include nice guy Clay. And he will spend the next few hours, over the course of one night, starting from when he got him from school, listening to all seven tapes and finding out all 13 reasons why Hannah decided to take her own life.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is a young adult fiction novel which, to me, the overarching theme of is that hindsight is 20/20. And maybe also that high school, and the people in it, ultimately suck. Many of the events that Hannah recounts Clay was a witness of, and there are many things he starts to wish he would have done differently. And while I was definitely not a fan of high school while I was in it (or now even), it does seem to me that Hannah had to deal with an insane amount of awful people. I get it...teenagers can be cruel, but Hannah's high school seemed to have more than its fair share. And the book also throws out the idea that even if we could go back, knowing what we know now, would we do anything differently? And maybe more importantly, would it really matter? Would the outcome change at all? And how much of the stuff that happens to us are we allowed to blame on other people? At what point do we take responsibility for our own fate?

My Verdict: And it is those last two questions from the previous section that cause me to take issue with this book. Well, maybe not take issue with the entire book, but at least with the character of Hannah. It seems to me that of the 13 reasons why she took her own life, only four of them are actually a really big deal...and  two of those didn't even happen to her personally. In fact, she sort of serves as an accomplice. And with a few of these people, her argument is that they didn't care enough about her or about anyone outside of themselves to help her. But my argument is that this is the great lesson of high kind of have to look out for yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. And maybe that is the lesson of this book, that you can't really blame others the way Hannah does for stuff that happens to you. Because if the actual point is to say that Hannah is justified in wanting to haunt the people she blames for her decision to take her own life, then I take issue with that. But if it is something more along the lines of how everything we say and do to other people, and I mean everything, has an effect, positive or negative, then I could get behind that.

Aside from how I feel about how the book handled heavy issues such as bullying and teenage suicide, I also felt like there was more Asher could have done with this scenario. It is such a strong and interesting premise, and I feel like Asher just doesn't take it far enough. And for some reason, I don't believe Clay's emotional investment in Hannah's life. Some things just feel like they are missing here.

Favorite Moment: When Clay starts to realize that Hannah may be just as much to blame for her decisions as the people she names on the tapes. 

Favorite Character: All in all, Clay actually is a really nice guy. He's loyal, a good student, caring, makes sense why Hannah would gravitate towards him, especially considering her track record with other guys at her school.

Recommended Reading: I have to recommend Asher's book The Future of Us, which he wrote with Carolyn Mackler. With the use of Facebook, this book looks at what teenagers will do when given access to what their futures will look like as well as the ability to possibly alter it.   

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