Being a teenager can be really hard. It’s an awkward stage of life- you’re no longer a child, yet right at the cusp of adulthood and that transition alone is enough to send you in a tailspin. Then, things like puberty and what that does to your body are thrown in, and on top of that, there’s the fact that you’re constantly trying to figure out “who” you are and what defines you, which is incredibly confusing and time-consuming. And then there’s school. And grades, and teachers, and other students, first kisses and first dates, and so on. If you’re lucky, your teenage years are awkward, sometimes painful, but mostly just something you went through unscathed, with a handful of bad and good memories. If you’re unlucky, well…
Jay Asher’s first novel, Thirteen Reasons Why explores the “unlucky” side of adolescence. The story is told through two narrators, the main one being a high school senior, Clay Jensen. The book starts off with Clay receiving an anonymous package at his house one day, and when he opens it up, he finds a series of cassette tapes. After starting the first tape, he is shocked to realize that the tapes are recorded by a girl from his school who just committed suicide a few weeks prior, Hannah Baker.
Hannah has sent out the tapes to list of people- 13, to be exact- all of whom have had a hand in her suicide. The tapes are meant to be sent down the list of people- after each person finishes listening to them all, they are to send them to the next person on the tape, who will continue on, until the tapes have made their full cycle. Clay spends the night listening to each tape, hearing Hannah’s first-hand account of what brought her to her suicide.
The first thing that I found interesting about Asher’s novel is the way it’s written. Every other paragraph skips between Hannah’s voice on the cassette (which is written in italics), to Clay’s thoughts as he listens to the tape. Sometimes, Clay’s thoughts go off on tangents, often unrelated to the last thing that Hannah spoke about. The changing of narrators does take some time to get used to, and a few times I’d have to go back and read a few paragraphs over again to make sure I knew which narrator was speaking at the moment. However, the prose works surprisingly well once you get used to it; Hannah’s words mixed in with Clay’s thoughts give an interesting perspective, and you do begin to feel as distressed, worried, upset, and anxious as Clay does throughout the experience.
That being said, one thing I didn’t enjoy about the novel was Hannah’s dialogue. I’m not sure if it’s because Asher was in his thirties when writing this novel, or because he’s male, or both (or perhaps neither and he’s just not a good dialogue writer), but I found Hannah’s speech to be completely out of touch with what teenage girls actually sound like. The majority of the things Hannah says sounds like a third person narrator instead of her speaking into the tape recorder, and it bothered me throughout the novel. Why would Hannah describe minute details of the settings she went to (like a box on top of a desk, or the decor of the diner that everyone at school goes to)? To me, it seems that if Hannah were a real person, recording these emotionally charged accounts of why she was led to suicide, she’d be too upset and too distracted to spend time describing settings that all of her listeners are already familiar with. I know Asher does this so that we, the reader, can picture these things in our mind, but it comes off seeming very unrealistic and forced, and not like natural speech. Also, some of the words Hannah uses just seem completely out of touch (for example, referring to several of the people in the tapes as “honey” or “sweetheart”…she sounds more like an old lady than a teenage girl).
Actually, the entire characterization of Hannah threw me off. From the premise of the story, it’s easy to believe that you’d instantly go into the story feeling bad for Hannah, the poor girl who was bullied to the point of suicide, and makes these tapes just to have her voice heard. But she isn’t portrayed this way at all. Often times, Hannah comes off as callous and sarcastic, and it really seems that her only point in sending these tapes out is to get revenge, rather than closure, or even empathy. It’s hard to feel sympathetic for her character, and I went through the majority of the book disliking Hannah, and feeling more sympathy for Clay than for her.
I’m an active user on goodreads.com, and I saw quite a few people panning this book because of the “reasons” Hannah lists regarding her suicide. I struggled a lot with them as well. Though the majority of them seem trivial (Hannah’s bullying is never “that” bad, and it’s easy to think that she overreacts/”creates” a lot of bad situations), the thing I eventually told myself is: I’m a 25-year-old woman, reading a book about a teenage girl. Of course I wouldn’t react to the situations the same way Hannah did- I have a good seven or eight years on her and a lot more life experience and perspective. However, when you’re a teenager, you don’t have a lot of life experience or perspective, yet, and “small” things can seem like really big things, especially when those small things keep adding up. The snowball effect, as Hannah refers to it in the book. Not to mention, everyone is different. To one person reading this book, all the reasons Hannah listed might be “enough” to commit suicide over. To someone else, it might take a lot more. Or a lot less. Everyone has a different threshold for pain. I understood Hannah’s reaction better when I put it in that perspective.
I think Thirteen Reasons Why is an interesting and thoughtful book, but I was definitely not Jay Asher’s target audience here (it is aimed at young adults. I am a fan of young adult novels, but I honestly only read this one because another adult friend recommended it to me). Despite my small issues with the prose and narration, I do think this is a good book and should be required reading for pre-teens and teenagers. The message the book conveys, more than anything else, is that you never really know what a person is going through. Hannah didn’t kill herself because one person did one thing to her. She killed herself because multiple people did multiple things to her.
I think young adults would gain a lot from becoming more aware of their actions and the effects they have on other people. Even the very small, seemingly inconsequential things we do, might end up having a much bigger impact on someone else, and I think that’s a very important lesson for young people (and perhaps even adults, if they’ve somehow not figured it out yet) to learn.