Thursday, December 9, 2010

Book Review: Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Today is my day off, and I spent it visiting the gynecologist, picking up application materials for a local charity, and checking a big stack of books out of the library. I've already read one of them: Hate List, by Jennifer Brown.

The premise of Hate List is simple: Boy meets girl. Boy dates girl. Boy and girl get bullied. Boy shoots up school. Everyone blames girl, who they believe is responsible because she wrote out a "hate list" that included a number of classmates who wound up getting shot by her boyfriend. Girl's entire life falls apart, and she has no idea how to glue it back together.

Valerie Leftman is a normal unpopular kid on the morning of May 2, 2008. On school bus on the way to school, a bully harasses her and breaks her MP3 player. Furious, Val exclaims that she wants to kill her when she meets up with her beloved boyfriend, Nick, in the parking lot. Much to her relief, Nick promises to take care of it for her. They walk into the Commons, or school cafeteria, to confront the bully. Instead of talking to her, Nick pulls a gun out of the heavy coat he is wearing and shoots her in the stomach, launching a bloodbath that leaves a number of students and at least one teacher dead, with many more wounded. Val is among the wounded; she stops the shooting by jumping in front of Jessica, one of the popular girls who had previously delighted in calling her "Sister Death." After realizing that he has shot his girlfriend, Nick kills himself.

Despite stopping the shooting and saving the life of a girl who had bullied her, Val is blamed for the massacre because she kept a "Hate List," a notebook filled with pages upon pages of people and things that pissed her and Nick off. Several of the students who were killed were featured on the list, along with algebra, teachers, cheesy movies, saccharine news reports, and other banes of a cynical teenager's existence. To Val, it was a way for her to vent her frustrations about her classmates who bullied her, the teachers who didn't care, and the stupid world that rewarded the popular bullies while continually punishing the less popular "bad kids." She never intended for it to be a hit list, and had no idea that Nick was serious when he talked about death and violence. Blinded by love and typical teenage naivete, she insists throughout the book that she had no idea Nick was actually violent, though her accounts of his behavior reveal an individual with serious anger management problems and obvious emotional dysregulation. Val eventually comes to terms with the complexities of Nick's personality, but far too late.

Much of the novel centers around the aftermath: Val returns to school and attempts to come to terms with the effect that the events of May 2, 2008 have on her friends, classmates, teacher, and family. The story is narrated in pieces, shifting back and forth between May 2, the days that initially follow it, and Val's return to school that takes place some six months later. The flashback pieces are integrated via newspaper clippings that describe a victim and aspect of the shooting that's relevant to Val's memories of Nick and the events that led up to the shooting. It mostly works, but the book nevertheless feels a bit disorganized. Perhaps that's an intentional commentary upon the scattered mental state of the narrator, but I nevertheless found the constant skipping around jarring. I also found some of the secondary characters a tad unbelievable, particularly Frankie, Val's younger brother, Briley, her dad's twentysomething secretary-girlfriend, and Bea, her art instructor.

Overall, though, the book was well-written and enjoyable as well as an excellent first effort. Despite its structural difficulties and handful of implausible characters, the action and characters really resonated with me, and I found myself unable to put the book down. The majority of the characters were very well-rendered, particularly Nick, Val's mother, Ginny (a classmate), and, of course, Jessica, the mean girl whose life Val saves that later befriends her. Brown has a gift for negotiating intriguing interpersonal dynamics between her characters; the relationships are just as expertly crafted and put together as the characters themselves. I also give Brown props in her handling of the issues associated with school violence and bullying. Her take is honest and real, and doesn't fall prey to preaching or moralizing. I also appreciate that she acknowledges that teenagers will continue to be jerks even in the face of extreme adversity: Val's classmates continue to antagonize her and one another (though their enthusiasm for being assholes is somewhat dampened). All in all, very good.

I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, or a solid B+. I look forward to reading Brown's future novels.

Also: I had a hate list of my very own back in middle and high school (circa 1996-2003). I think most teenagers do at some point or other.

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