Tuesday, January 4, 2011

REVIEW: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
Published 10.18.2007
288 pages
Razorbill, Penguin Young Readers Group


Jay Asher's brilliant first novel is a moving, highly original story that focuses on a set of audiotapes made by a girl before she committed suicide, and which explain to 13 people the reasons why she decided to end her life. Told in a highly effective duel narrative -- alternating between the girl s voice and the thoughts of a boy who is listening -- this honest, poignant story reveals how other people's actions shape, and by extension can ruin, an individual's faith in people. Intensely powerful and painfully real, Thirteen Reasons Why reveals how brutal high school can be, the consequences of spreading rumors, and the lasting effects of suicide on those left behind. (Taken from GoodReads)

REVIEW: I really wanted to love this story, but I ended up simply appreciating it a great deal.  I really loved the originality of the premise of this book.  A voice from beyond the grave pulling people’s strings is a great way to structure a plot, and making that voice belong to a teenage girl who recently committed suicide made it poignant and heartbreaking.

It also made me REALLY freaking angry.  For a few different reasons.

First of all, people failed Hannah, no doubt about it.  She deserved better, much better.  I certainly can see how some of the people on her list ought to shoulder some of the guilt for her plight at school.  Hannah was ignored and used by mean girls, made a public object of sexual harassment (that boiled my blood), and apparently, was the victim of false rumors that are incredibly damaging to an adolescent girl.  Hell, in one case especially, the kid was the lowest of the low, and he ought to have been properly and publicly beaten for the heinous and illegal things he did.  I can see why Hannah was so angry about why few really reached out to her.  That last one. . .  man, I couldn’t believe it!  Why, why, why did he not go straight to the principal or her parents? 

However, I have to be honest -  I found the fact that Hannah, through all her pain and desperation to end it all, found the time to plan and execute a macabre tour of the way people let her down and hurt her to be really, really sickening.  I had a lot of anger towards Hannah right from the start: the teasing comments to the tapes’ recipients, the carefully planned map, the orderly and methodical way of going through her list of people and telling their parts in her story?  Such things take time and planning.  To me, it made Hannah’s death feel more like revenge rather than a heartbreaking out from her pain.  In the beginning, she initially seemd to take pleasure in the shock and horror she knew she was giving the tapes' recipients.  This set the tone before I heard the 'whys', and for me, overshadowed the actual pain people put her through and made her death feel like a well-constructed component in a plan to have the last, sick laugh.  It made me so angry!

I am not trying to make light of the way Hannah was used and treated by others.  It’s heartbreaking for anyone to feel like they are on the outside, but it’s especially hard to go through that in high school.  I honestly did feel for Hannah, and I actually cried while reading the book (and even while writing this review).  I understand how the little things really can add up to the snowball effect.  I usually have a great amount of heartfelt emotion for people who go through depression (see my review on Revolution), but I found it hard to do with Hannah since she seemed hell bent on making people feel guilty for her choice to end her life.  Did everyone on that tape deserve blame for what she did?  Nope, not all of them, and you’ll never convince me otherwise.  Most of them should have to answer to someone for the things they did, and sometimes, that 'someone' definitely was Hannah.  But in some of the cases, that person was not Hannah.  However, because she decided to point the finger. . .  some of them now have a ghost unfairly following them for the rest of their lives. 

In terms of the writing, it’s a well-written book by a first-time novelist.  I had a few instances of questioning the characters’ decisions and how the plot played out.  However, each voice is strong and distinct.  I really love that we heard personally from Hannah. In all fairness, she really called out people on some things she had a perfect right to be upset about (I just wish she had been that articulate with them while she was still living).  There were a few times I wished she could have gone on uninterrupted by Clay’s thoughts and reactions, but generally, his reactions gave a very real feeling of how the living deal with suicide, and the Hannah/Clay interaction provided genuine emotion, a solid substitution for dialogue and good pacing.  Clay's quick turnaround surprised me at the end, but I loved his character  My sole complaint with Clay is that it felt like he got an ‘easy out’ with Hannah’s tapes.  I think he could have been put to better use to get the point across if he had failed Hannah in some way, some actual way, rather than being the right guy who came along too late.  That part still makes me so angry – there was proof right in front of her that she had possibilities in her life, and the realization of it was so powerful that it made her cry.  Yet, she still decided to end it. 

Maybe that’s the true point of this book.  I’ve seen so many reviews praising it for its portrayal of suicidal teens and how we have to reach out to them, how it’s a cautionary tale that what we do has a very real affect on others.  That’s a point that no one can argue with.  Everyone belongs to a community, and in communities, we are responsible for the well-being of others, and people do deserve to be treated with kindness.  However, in the end, even Hannah knew that there could be second chances, and she decided not to take them.  Her death didn’t make sense.  It didn’t serve any purpose, it did no good, and from the sound of the tapes, she didn’t go looking for peace; she went angry and wanted others to know about it.  So, I think the other message here is when things like this happen, you have to take what lessons you can from them and resolve to not let another person go down that lonely path to nowhere, if you can. 

In the end, I recommend this book.  It’s on an important subject, it’s well-written and really makes you think about how your little actions that you think are insignificant or a good laugh can really affect and hurt others.  Maybe my reaction is simply too personal.  I just have a lot of anger towards Hannah after reading this (and other characters, as well).  Maybe I’m supposed to.  I don't mean to for my review to seem like I blame her for wanting a way out of her pain - I don't.  I have a great amount of compassion for her, and my heart aches for that girl inside who just wanted not to be judged, to receive kindness, and to have a good friend or two.  It's the way she treated her own death like it was the last laugh on others that had me so angry.  I feel so badly for people contemplating suicide, but please, believe me – you are loved, you are wanted here on this earth, and your death would bring far more pain than peace. 


  1. This book made me cry really bad. I understand Hannah, but I also get what you are saying as well. Nice review!

  2. Wow Linds, this one sounds like an extremely difficult read and you described it beautifully. I feel like much of what made you angry would make me angry as well, but I usually like to be that emotionally involved in a story. I'll have to mentally prepare before taking this one on though. Loved your thoughts as always:)

  3. Nice review hun. I understand all of your points, but remember that depressed people aren't always rational. They can plan things and prepare, but what they are doing at the time, no matter how crazy it seems from the outside, can seem perfectly normal to them. Some part of me believes that is the case with Hannah and the tapes. What we might think is a sick plot for revenge may very well be what Hannah thought was her only way of warning people that their actions create ripples, and that those ripples, however seemingly small, can affect another persons life.

  4. I love this book, but I see what you're saying. I struggled with similar thoughts about Hannah. I'm not sure she's supposed to be 100% sympathetic though. I think that's why Clay is the main narrator, not Hannah. He can respond to how messed up her tapes are and how understandable but unnecessary her death was.

  5. Hi Everyone! Yes, it was a difficult read, that's for sure. I guess where I was coming from. . . yeah, S.F., you are correct - depressed people do not behave rationally. I think the reason my response was full of anger is because I had a personal experience in high school with a friend who tried to commit suicide the same way Hannah did. She didn't have the rumor issue or friends using her issue that Hannah did, but she had some very painful things that had happened to her in her life that she had trouble coping with. Thank God, she survived, and we all rallied around her. But. . . she started using the threat of another attempt as leverage for getting what she wanted. Anytime she couldn't have things exactly how she wanted, she would say, "Oh,well I guess it doesn't matter because I am not going to be here for much longer anyway." I know now that she simply wasn't being rational due to her depression and even then, I knew, but at 15-16, I didn't know how to cope with that kind of pressure and responsibility of those threats. I felt stuck in between a rock and a hard place - my friend obviously needed support, but she was manipulating us at the same time, so then you felt guilty for being upset with and felt very pressured to hide your frustration from her because you knew she wasn't well. I don't think I knew how to handle it, and I started getting upset about going to school myself - it was such a bad domino effect for our group of friends. Hannah on those tapes. . . it struck a chord and a memory.

    @SR - I agree with that - Clay was definitely the one I sympathized with.

  6. ???

    Linds, you have me in tears... again!

    Well, I have this one sitting on my book shelf, but I have yet to read it. My sister has and loved it, but she never described it to me the way you have. Now I feel like I'm caught in between a rock and a hard place on whether or not I should read it.

    I don't think reactions to books can ever be too personal. I think they should be. After reading what you said about why Hannah did what she did, I would be angry too.

    I have to guess that what you mentioned was the point, and that we struggle to make sense of it is the right(?) reaction. There is never good reason.

    Try to find solace in that. Even if Hannah had a brief realization, it wasn't enough for her at the time. I'm certainly not trying to justify it, just offer some form of comfort because I know a book like this would probably have me reeling for days.

    Thank you for the in depth review, my friend. My admiration continues to grow.

    Leaving you with my favorite Buffy quote: "The hardest thing in this world... is to live in it."

  7. Really fantastic review! Really in depth. I got a really good view into why this book made you angry and I found that I would probably be angry at the same things you were if I read this book. I guess I would have to read it myself to find out for sure though. Altogether sounds like a very emotional read.

  8. I love this review, truly. You went so in-depth into this one and remained very eloquent, even if Hannah did anger you. I've heard a lot of great things about this book and have wanted to pick it up. But apparently, it's so amazing that everyone in my library has it checked out all the time. I deal with depression myself, and both of you guys are correct: depressed people behave irrationally. Especially if it's not just depression they're dealing with (anxiety, paranoia, bipolar, autism, etc). I have to admit that I used the guilt/manipulation card on my friends a couple of times. I was miserable and I inflicted that misery on the people around me, and I regret it every day. I remember the last time I talked to one of my best friends - we were in my living room, and I was showing her my arms (which were marked up with Sharpies) where I'd cut myself, to die, that night. I even used that tactic on my mom. It didn't help - I knew it didn't help. But you lose a lot of yourself when you get depressed.

    I think if I read this book, I'd probably be able to relate to it a lot more. Or at least, my 15/16 year old self could. I do want to check it out, since it seems like one of those books that gets under your skin. Thank you for this wonderful review - it was very beautiful. :)

  9. @ Missie - How are you, friend? Yes, that is the thing to do. And despite my anger, I don't think the book could have done that if it wasn't a powerful read, so I would encourage both you and Aylee to give it a try.

    @Kristina - thank you so much for the kind words, and THANK YOU for adding to the conversation with your own story - that was very good and brave of you to do, since I know sometimes people don't like to put their personal experiences out there. I think it's a very good thing that you are able to relate to both sides, and even recognize how your behavior has affected others and yourself - I agree with S.F. that this was a part of the author's point. I, too, had a bout of the blues in college, so you really do have my sympathy - it can be tough, and it really does feel like you lose yourself at times, doesn't it?

    Oh, Frazzled Book Nommer (love that name) - please feel free to reach out whenever you need to - I know we are a virtual community and located in different places, so sometimes it limits us, but do know that we are a community, and if you need to vent/or just write everything out - we're here.