Thirteen Reasons Why was easy to read, but also hard to read, if you catch my drift. I zipped right through it, but I felt such a range of emotions along the way that after finishing, I couldn’t really concentrate on anything else enough to clear my mind. The book is about Clay Jensen, whose crush, Hannah Baker, has just killed herself. Clay receives a set of tapes recorded by Hannah, with instructions to listen to each tape and then pass them on to the next person on the list, chain-letter style. If he doesn’t, he’s warned on the first tape, a second set of the tapes will be publicly released, which, Hannah’s voice assures him, nobody on the list wants to happen. Supposedly, each person on the list contributed to Hannah’s decision to kill herself, and the tapes tell exactly why.
Listening to Hannah’s story is hard for both Clay and the reader. The book’s triumph is in making the reader feel everything right alongside Clay, from sadness at Hannah’s death, to anger with her persecutors, to anger with Hannah herself. Though much of the book is upsetting and some of it rather graphic, the most poignant scene for me is the one in which Hannah’s class discusses a note she left anonymously in a student question drop-box. The note says that the writer is considering suicide. Instead of showing concern or dismay, the students in the class evince frustration and even annoyance at the writer, as if he/she were only trying to get attention. If she really wanted help, the class reasons, she would talk to someone about it. Though I felt rage and impatience with the class’s ignorance, I found myself understanding exactly what they were experiencing. We all tend to feel empowered by problems we can solve, and we usually try to ignore or rationalize ones we can’t. There are a few more heartbreaking instances like this, in which Hannah reaches out for help in the only ways she can think of, and is denied support at every turn. Each person she reaches to might reason that he did the best he could, but obviously, as Hannah points out, it wasn’t enough.
At one point in the story, Hannah tells her listeners that there was a lot more going on in her life at the time than she talks about on the tapes. I found myself wishing that Asher had made the decision to tell us more about some of these problems, rather than making roughly half of Hannah’s difficulties involve sexual objectification and assault. I’m not decrying Asher’s message that teenage girls and women in general experience constant pressure and even danger on account of their sexuality. His depiction of the entitlement and flat-out hatefulness of some of the characters rings frustratingly true to life, and it’s important that teens and people in general know the kind of damage this behavior can inflict. I also appreciated the way in which seemingly small actions performed by certain characters resulted in dire repercussions. But hinting at further complexity while largely focusing on just one element of Hannah’s depression is a choice that closes the door on our further understanding of Hannah’s character, and of depression and the suicidal mindset in general.
The girl who is hated and tormented for being beautiful is a cliché trope, one not worthy of the depth we sense in Hannah. The deployment of this trope and its attendant circumstances actually subtly undermine the book’s point that women need to be treated with respect. Hannah is unable to make female friends because the two other main female characters are a jealous backstabber who sees her as competition, and a fake backstabber who sees Hannah as, literally, a free ride. So now we have a book in which women are either beautiful persecuted victims or bitchy competitors for attention. The male characters aren’t treated much better, but at least we see more variation in their type, and some of them, like Clay himself, show kindness to Hannah. Asher gives Hannah enough personality in her narration to give the reader an idea that she is more than just a vessel for others’ sexual desires, but these ideas were never solidified in the plot, at least not to my satisfaction.
Notwithstanding this criticism, Thirteen Reasons Why is a powerful, provocative story. I would love to sit in on a high school English class while the kids discussed this book, which I’m sure they would do with relish.