Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hate List by Jennifer Brown

Reading Jennifer Brown's striking debut novel Hate List made me understand something about the way I read teen fiction.  I read it like a parent.  Even while part of me is getting in to the teen protagonist's mind and experience, another part is keeping a close eye on the parent/child dynamic and how it affects the storyline, even when that's not the primary thrust of the plot. After all, when the adults, with all of their supposed maturity and life experience, can't cope with their teen's life, what's going to save that kid from sinking?  We parents are always being told that we will only be influential with and important to our children up to a certain age, and then their peers will take over as primary influences.  But what I'm inferring from the teen fiction that I've read lately is that parents are still  foundational in teen lives. Good news for the real-life me.  Sometimes scary for the reader me. 

I must admit that the parents in Hate List have a doozy of a parenting situation on their hands.  Part of what Jennifer Brown does so spectacularly in this book is to set up an almost impossible situation, one that leaves both teens and adults reeling. She then makes the teens instrumental in hauling themselves out of the wreckage and taking the first step forward, while the older generation is still flailing.   It's slow and painful, and not all the teens can do it.   But it's compelling to watch, and Brown makes both the success and failure of it feel convincing. 

Hate List is told from the point of view of Valerie Leftman, a high school senior returning to school after being wounded by a bullet in the leg.  The bullet was fired by her boyfriend Nick in the school cafeteria, during a rampage which left a number of students and one teacher dead or critically injured.  Valerie's boyfriend shot her, perhaps by accident, as she thrust herself between him and one of his intended victims. 

Valerie and Nick were a target for school bullies.  Nick chose his shooting victims from their "Hate List", a notebook Valerie kept recording the names of everyone who had been abusive or annoying to them.  Valerie and Nick often talked about wishing these people were dead, although Valerie had no idea that Nick was serious about putting those thoughts into action.  And despite what he has done, Valerie can't think of Nick, who killed himself that day as well,  as a villain.  She mourns him and misses him desperately.  How can she do that after he killed all those people and devastated so many families?  To what extent does she share responsibility for the carnage that occured?  Is she a victim, a villain or a hero?  You can bet that everyone in this book has an opinion on the subject--and it's not always what Valerie expects.

What I liked best about Hate List was watching Valerie lurch back into that school where it seems like everyone now hates her and blames her.  I liked the wary and unexpected collaboration she forms with Jessica, the girl she took the bullet for.  I liked how brave Valerie was, and how scared, all at the same time.  And I liked how head-on Hate List tackles a big question--is it possible to eradicate hate from our lives?

Here's the moody and kinda haunting book trailer:

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