Author: Ilsa J. Bick
Genre: Contemporary YA
You know, it is really difficult to see grey, when all the author gives you is black.
First of all, let me clear things out by saying that I loved Ilsa J. Bick’s original intentions with this book. I loved the fact that she chose such a brave theme, the way she reflected the moods of the story through it’s setting, and the use of metaphor with the title and the climax, which, don’t worry, I will not reveal here.
There needs to be more to a character than a list of problems and mental illnesses.
But what this author, a child psychiatrist by profession, forgot while writing this book, is that there needs to be more to a character than a list of problems and mental illnesses. Bick may be a good doctor, but fiction writing does not seem to be her forte. She uses basic language and primitive plot devices to advance her story, which is filled with clichés and forced plot twists.
The book is about Jenna Lord, a troubled 16-year-old recently out of a mental hospital and therapy, who narrates the story of her relationship with Mr. Anderson, her chemistry teacher in her new school, into a voice recorder provided to her by a detective. The two have just been in a serious accident together (the climax) in the beginning of the novel and are in the hospital. Mr. Anderson’s condition is critical but Jenna is conscious and awake, which is why the detective requires her account of everything that happened.
Jenna is a fire survivor with PTSD and a self-harm addiction that had resulted in her having to be institutionalized. She has a ‘Psycho-Dad’ surgeon who’s a man-whore and always busy, and a mother who spends way too many hours running her bookstore. Her brother, who is away in the army, seems to be Jenna’s only support system, but there hasn’t been any recent e-mail from him, nor has he come home in years.
To be completely honest, from the point of view of a voracious reader of YA fiction, the character of Jenna Lord seemed pretty bland to me. There is nothing fresh or new about her – she is a stereotypical YA sob story with a messed up family, history of trauma and a nagging, teen voice that dominates the narrative of the book. She is an uninteresting protagonist and a typical teenager who thinks calling authoritative elders (the detective, in this case) disrespectful nicknames (Bob, Bobby-O etc.) does a successful job of conveying sarcasm, or whatever it is that she is trying to convey.
Then, there are the extremely Wattpad-ish clichés that this book is full of. Jenna is clumsy. She keeps tripping on things and spilling coffee on herself and, you know, the usual. Her first encounter with Mr. Anderson is when she accidentally stumbles upon his toned, half-naked body glistening in the sun *eye roll*. Next, you have the stereotypical high school bitch Danielle, who hates Jenna from the moment she sets eyes on her and is jealous of her closeness with their teacher. And finally, to top it all off, you have the dysfunctional, overprotective parents who suddenly get over all their issues and over-protectiveness and disappear for a week-long vacation so that the protagonists’ relationship can develop in peace.
I mean, seriously, Bick, seriously?
However, my main concern with this book is really not Jenna, or even the juvenile clichés. It is the other, older protagonist – Mr. Anderson (Mitch).
Bick tried her desperate best to make her readers sympathize with this character, but all I could feel while reading about him was extreme discomfort and hate. I tried really hard to like him, trust me I did. I kept telling myself I was being too judgmental, that the principal theme of the book was clouding my thoughts.
But I couldn’t. And here’s why.
First off, is the immense disequilibrium in the power dynamics of Mitch and Jenna’s relationship. Mr. Anderson is Jenna’s teacher, but let’s just overlook that fact because I am actually kind of okay with it.
The man is in his thirties and married, though unhappily. He has prior access to all of Jenna’s medical records, which had been released to her school against her will. But it doesn’t end here. He is also a stalker, with information about Jenna saved up in his computer from up to a month before meeting her, and he indulges in that extremely middle school technique of faking similarities in order to get closer to her.
Mr. Anderson is an independent adult who, instead of trying to fix things in his own life, chooses to isolate himself and obsess over his 16-year-old student. Who, instead of being clean and honest, chooses to lie and sneak around. How can the author expect someone to see that as grey? Just because of the feeble excuse of “he wanted to help her”?
I cannot sympathize with ‘broken’ people who like to revel in their ‘brokenness’.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the Bick’s intention to portray ‘broken’ people. But you know what? At the end of the day, Jenna is a helpless teenager with limited freedom and means to help herself. Whereas Mr. Anderson is a fully-functioning adult who chooses to act like a teenager. And I cannot sympathize with ‘broken’ people who like to revel in their ‘brokenness’.
The girl tries so hard to justify her lover throughout the book. So hard, in fact, that sometimes you have to sit back and think, who is she trying to convince – the readers, or herself? And as you do, the truth hits you: poor girl doesn’t even know better. She is in no position to objectively evaluate her situation. But one day when she is older, she will be. And it will all become as clear as day to her then.
That’s when two particular feelings bubble up within you – immense pity for Jenna, and intense hatred for Mr. Anderson.
Alright. Let me ask you something, Mitch. Just the two of us, adult to adult, okay? Do you really think that your Severus Snape-y love for your student can justify all the horribly questionable things you did to – can’t even sugarcoat this – get in her pants? Did you ever stop to consider that letting a psychologically unstable child throw her whole emotional dependency on someone who is equally psychologically unstable, was not an adult thing to do at all? Did you think of the long-term consequences on said child’s mental state before getting sexually involved with her?
‘Course you didn’t. Because if you had, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this right now, wondering why some people think it’s alright for adults to sleep with sensitive teenagers who are under their authoritative responsibility.
Even with all its drawbacks, I really want this book to be read.
But to my readers, I don’t want this review to discourage you guys from reading this book. Because, with all its drawbacks, I really want it to be read. I want the toxic elements of the relationship portrayed to be identified. I want people to understand where the problem with people like Mr. Anderson lies.
I want people to realise how dangerous they can be.