Monthly Archives: December 2015

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls“But still they ran, giddy and breathless, the pieces of June’s life dropping away bit by bit”—for about four years, June’s life was entwined with Delia’s, but that friendship was splintered by a boy. Now, Delia appears to have committed suicide by fire, which is unimaginable since she is terrified of any flame. And June can’t let it go; could she have stopped Delia if they had remained friends? Or if June had answered Delia’s phone call on New Year’s Eve? Or could Delia have been murdered? This first half of the novel alternates between June’s first person narration and third person flashbacks to their childhood. Then the ­Gone-Girl-like twist occurs and the narrative format changes. The “suicide” notes are interspersed throughout the novel, and Delia’s death is not the only one under suspicion, as the readers learn. While the twist is not improbable, the added characters who have all dropped out of society is. In the final chapters, June must decide if she, too, will allow her present life to drop away and join this band of misfits. Unfortunately, it is left up to the reader to decide what the final suicide note really means. A psychological thriller/mystery appropriate for high school and college-aged students due to drug and sexual situations.

This novel is third from a list of if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-then-read-these for young adults. It is possible that this book suffers from being the third of the books that I have read from this list and the third in a row over winter break. But I don’t think so; I think the creator of the list organized the books from most possible to least possible. Of the three, I enjoyed Vanished and will recommend to our media specialist that it be purchased for our library. While I will tell my students about both Damage Done and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls, I don’t feel compelled to tell my colleagues that they need to read either book nor do I want to nominate either book for ISLMA’s Abraham Lincoln Award.

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SPOILERS, STOP HERE!

So here’s the twist–Delia is not dead, which is easy to except. She claims that her stepfather attempted to rape her, and she has been planting this as a possibility since she met June in 6th grade. The impossible is that Delia has found a group of three other young adults (late teens/early twenties) who have all faked their deaths, assumed new names, and live however they please. With a trash bag full of cash that is never explained. To add to the impossibility, these are not people who are helping the abused escape a domestic situation; these are four people, including Delia, who destroy others. Sebastian seems to have a conscious, but Evan, Ashling, and Delia take too much delight in their destruction. Now June has to decide if she wants to be like them, if Delia has trapped her into joining them, or if she can return to her junior year of high school. The final suicide note, June’s, could be the first legitimate suicide note if Delia died two chapters earlier. Or it could be a complete fake if June has decided to join. Or it could be a forgery by Ashling, who has already proven her prowess at forgery, to cover up June’s murder. And the reader will never know.

My complaints with this book are similar to those for Damage Done. The adults are non-existent or are hapless. The second-to-last chapter implies that Delia has been a sociopath for the entire novel, but could she really have contained her tendencies for the past five years simply because June was her friend? That seems unlikely. And while I found the ending of Damage Done to be unrealistic, I am willing to accept it because there is some resolution. Even Gone Girl, the book moreso than the movie, has a conclusion with promise that justice will prevail eventually, which is also why I much prefer Vanished. But Suicide Notes has no resolution. How-did-it-end is entirely left up to the reader, which seems like a cop-out by Weingarten. If she couldn’t decide what should happen to her characters, why should we?

Damage Done by Amanda Panitch

Damage Done“Love was leaving someone free to destroy your life and stomp on the ruins because you couldn’t bear the thought of ending theirs” is Julia Vann’s epiphany in the final pages of Amanda Panitch’s debut novel Damage Done. Unfortunately, this epiphany arrives too late to rectify or to prevent all the earlier damage. Julia’s unreliability as the narrator is established by her—she is living under an assumed name and is the only living witness to her twin brother’s massacre of eleven classmates and teacher one earlier, but Julia claims amnesia for those twenty-two minutes. The novel opens one year later; as readers we learn about Julia’s past as she chooses to dole out the tidbits, but also through the reports from the brother’s psychologist. As part of a if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-read-this list, as well as telling taglines on both covers, readers should expect twists in this novel, and at least the first one should be obvious early on. It is quickly apparent that Julia is not only an unreliable narrator but also a master manipulator. The depiction of all adults as inept could be explained by the narration technique, but the psychologist’s reports are his own and Dr. Spence comes across as a self-centered doofus. It is difficult to accept that every adult was blinded by the damage done not to see the real damaged one.

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ANY SPOILERS, STOP READING HERE!

This book was from the same if-you-like-Gone-Girl list that also suggested Vanished, which I liked partly because that book read like a YA version of Gone GirlDamage Done takes the twists and the sociopathy to a whole new level, think Gone Girl meets Flowers in the Attic without the happy ending of the V. C. Andrews series. Twist #1–Julia Vann had something to do with the school shooting that her brother committed should be obvious, especially to a reader of psychological thrillers or viewers of any crime show. Twist #2–Julia Vann is more of a sociopath than her brother would be obvious to a more sophisticated reader or lover of Criminal Minds; I expect the textbook/stereotypical warning signs to go above the heads of high school students so that twist will be unexpected for them. Twist #3–Julia Vann and her twin brother have an incestuous relationship was hinted at, but I really didn’t expect the novel to fulfill it. The ick factor was too much for me. And because of all these, I find Julia’s epiphany, quoted in the review, hollow; I don’t buy it.

As an adult reader, I was troubled by Panitch’s inept adults; I could accept the parents being blinded by their grief OR a self-serving psychologist OR a policeman on the take, but not all three. Even the ending suggests that the police have just given up looking for Julia–she is not longer in the top results of a Google search another year later–which does not seem plausible. And no justice is served; Julia, as the unreliable narrator, seems to have become normal, but sociopathy doesn’t go away. I couldn’t decide if Panitch wants us to assume that Julia will be captured when she begins stalking people in New York, or if Panitch really wrote Julia as reformed after her epiphany.

I had wanted to add this book to my list of school shooting books, but it’s much more than that. I will keep if with the if-you-liked-Gone-Girl list, but with a caveat that these are not your standard plot twists. Definitely for high school and college-aged students; the incestuous relationship is not for middle grade students.

Vanished by E. E. Cooper

Vanished“Our group would become one of those urban legends that other kids talk about in hushed voices over summer campfires”—Mean Girls meets Gone Girl with one runaway, one suicide, and one losing her mind. E. E. Cooper’s Vanished has made the if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-then-you’ll-like-this-young-adult-novel lists, and those lists are spot on. Told from the perspective of Kalah, the younger transfer student who has been taken under the wing of the popular senior field hockey captains, the vanishing act occurs in chapter two. Beth, the girl from the middle class family unable to deal with the earlier loss of a perfect son, disappears on her eighteenth birthday. The disappearance triggers Kalah’s anxiety and OCD. In the meantime, Britney, the only child of wealthy but neglectful parents, discovers that her boyfriend may have been cheating with best friend Beth, which triggers her suicide. Once envied by everyone, Kalah becomes a pariah, detached from friends not sure what or who to believe, especially after she begins receiving emails from the missing Beth. Kalah’s realizations occur a little quickly for the lengthy build up, but readers will be left rooting for Kalah and wanting to know how she will exact her vengeance.

I make no secret of the fact that I typically do not enjoy reading young adult literature; I am not its intended audience, but more importantly, I find most of it formulaic. Nothing wrong with a formula and a happily-ever-after, but I want and expect more for my reading pleasure (I would probably consider my reading genre “literary fiction”). However, I chose Vanished and two other young adult novels because they appeared on a list of ya-books-to-read-if-you-liked-Gone-Girl. I liked Gone Girl, but the graphic violence and sexual references are too much for me to recommend it to students (it’s in our school library for any student who wants to check it out). I’m not sure why I chose to read Vanished first, but I’m glad that I did. As a debut novel, E. E. Cooper has a lot to live up to in her sophomore novel (that I will watch for and plan to read just based on the success of this novel).

The novel includes numerous allusion to Alice in Wonderland with the key to understanding the deception (which I won’t give away here) in “a line by the Queen of Hearts: ‘Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'” (220). Kalah’s anxiety is well depicted in her battles to not tap six times, in her panic attack, and in lines such as, “I’d already chewed my thumbnail down, exposing the tender flesh underneath, and I was working to complete the gnaw-manicure on my other fingers. It’s a good thing I wasn’t planning to hold hands with anyone soon” (278). Not only is the nail symbolic of Kalah–“tender flesh underneath”–but “gnaw manicure” summarizes in two words the toll that anxiety has had on Kalah and on the reader. Of course, for the plot, one of the girls has to be a sociopath, but she is believable and a little scary in that everyone would describe her as “normal.” But it is a work of fiction; I can accept a teeanaged sociopath.

As I said in the review paragraph, Kalah’s aha! moment is rushed. And while she is the narrator, I would have liked to understand about the problems at her previous school earlier; that backstory is also rushed at the end, but would have been more impactful if both the readers and the authorities had known about it, which would have undermined some of Kalah’s credibility but added to the suspense. The story ends without a final resolution, much like Gone Girl. I’m okay with that; I expect that Kalah has learned much and will be very successful in her vengeance.

This novel is most definitely for high school readers; I would even suggest it to my college-aged students. And, to repeat myself, keep an eye out for E. E. Cooper’s next book; I expect her to become an author that I recommend to my students without having read a new book because her writing is that good.