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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.

pact

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

One quick disclaimer before I launch into my rave review of Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why": I listened to the audiobook version, which is performed with compelling depth and emotion by Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman. While I think the text alone should make a fantastic read, the audiobook brings it up to a whole other level, as we get to hear the sad, increasingly desperate voice of suicide victim Hannah Baker.

Yes, as stated in the preceding sentence, high school student Hannah Baker is dead as the novel begins. Her suicide, shrouded in mystery and rumor — as her life often was — has devastated her sort-of-friend and one-time hookup Clay Jensen. As the novel opens, Clay has received a mail package with no return address. Inside, he finds a set of cassette tapes (think 80s-style Walkman) recorded by Hannah in the time before her death. Hannah has directed one side of each tape (13 in total) to a friend, classmate, or enemy who in some way contributed to her emotional destruction. Clay listens to the tapes through his headphones as he retraces Hannah's last steps, visiting the home of a peeping tom, the local coffeehouse and diner, and the site of a climactic party. As each tape passes, Clay is increasingly horrified to discover that the most popular girl in class, the cheerleader, and the guy who is everyone's friend have committed awful — or at the very least terribly mean-spirited — acts upon Hannah. At the same time, Clay keeps searching his memory for the instance when he, too, wronged Hannah. Clay is confused, because he genuinely cannot recall feeling anything for Hannah but longing, affection, and, finally, sorrow.

At first, I thought Hannah's voice from beyond the grave, and her insistence that the tapes' recipients retrace her steps, keep her secrets, and pass her package along to the next person, smacked of an ugly vindictiveness. But as Hannah's heartbreaks become clear, as the awful toll of each misery, ill-founded rumor, and broken friendship pile up, I lost any sense of animosity toward her character. Instead, I felt much like Clay, wanting only to reach through those tapes and somehow stop this sad, broken girl from completely destroying herself.

I won't say too much else about the plot, because it's important to follow Hannah's story of betrayal in the order in which she presents it. As I mentioned, it's the impact of all those actions, the sum total upon Hannah's psyche, that makes this book so devastating. I think as soon as you start reading, you'll be hooked. Even knowing in advance that Hannah is dead, this gripping novel is full of suspense. It also works great as a discussion book, as "Thirteen Reasons Why" raises lots of complex issues like the effects of teen gossip, self-destructive sexual behavior, loneliness, and, of course, suicide. Since many of these topics are a bit sensitive for younger readers, I'd say this one is targeted squarely at high school age folks. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read in the past year, and it deserves every bit of praise I can heap upon it.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Warning! This book looks a lot thicker and harder to read than it actually is. So although "It's Kind of a Funny Story" tops out at 444 pages, it's honestly not as long as you might think. Please don't let the book's size discourage you from reading what is an insightful, wry, touching look at the effects of mental illness on one ninth grade boy.

Ok, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's talk about the book. We start right out seeing that Craig is in the throes of clinical depression. He can't eat, sleep, study, or even hang out with his friends anymore. His thoughts tend to "cycle" (his word), keeping his mind on an anxious track that blocks out the rest of the world. One night, in the midst of this violent inner turmoil, Craig decides to kill himself by leaping off the Brooklyn Bridge. He stops himself by calling a suicide hotline and, in the middle of the night, checking into a local hospital.

This is where the book truly takes off, after Craig is committed to the psychiatric ward of the hospital for a five-day stay. What starts out as a scary, unsettling experience for Craig becomes an awesome journey during which he makes new friends, gets a girlfriend, rediscovers his love of art and mapmaking, and begins to take his first brave steps away from depression. I think you'll come to adore Craig's fellow patients, all of whom have their own quirks and eccentricities, and the very believable relationships he forms with them. Even better, you'll admire the way Craig starts to forgive himself for his perceived failings and frees himself from the stressors that have been attacking his life.

Author Ned Vizzini, who wrote the very popular "Be More Chill," spent time in psychiatric care immediately before writing this novel. He does a terrific job of removing some of the stigma from mental illness and showing that Craig's depression is an illness for which he should not be blamed or embarrassed. The book ends on such a hopeful, uplifting note that it may help give some comfort to teens who are fighting their own battles against anxiety and depression. I highly recommend this sweet, funny, and ultimately inspirational story to high school age readers.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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