Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher, 2007

Spoiler Alert

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. Jay Asher

For the Y on the cover challenge, I chose the YA bestseller Thirteen Reasons Why. Three Y’s grace the cover as well as the actual word “why”. I figured my bases were covered.

High schooler Clay Jensen receives 7 cassette tapes in an unmarked package with simple instructions: Listen to all the tapes, send them on to the next person. To his shock, he realizes he’s listening to the audio suicide note of Hannah Baker, his classmate (and unrequited love) who died two weeks earlier. Each side (one side is blank) is dedicated to a person Hannah feels contributed to her choice to commit suicide. Clay can’t understand how he made the list and must sit through several tapes waiting to learn about his transgression. Though tempted to stop, Hannah has a foolproof plan to ensure that everyone listens, at least to their part. If anyone fails to pass them on, a duplicate set of cassettes will be made public, an act that could be devastating to some of them.  Clay spends an anxiety-filled night listening to Hannah’s scathing accounts of cruelty, feeling more and more guilt for not being able to help someone in need.

Author Jay Asher uses dual narration to tell the story. As Hannah’s tape plays, Clay reacts. This becomes annoying since Clay’s interjections don’t move the story along. They’re mostly generic exclamations of shock or defensiveness that break up Hannah’s monologue but also dampen the impact of her words. Luckily, Hannah’s dialogue is in italics, Clay’s in regular so its easy to skip over Clay’s.

Though Thirteen Reasons Why deals with some serious subjects, especially for the young adult genre, they aren’t handled with gravity they should be. The book treats Hannah’s suicide as a mystery to be solved instead of a lesson in prevention.  Really, the suicide becomes little more than a plot device for shock value. She didn’t have to be dead for the mystery to unfold. She could have moved away. It could have occurred over summer break when classmates naturally lose touch. Or when they were college freshman, miles away from home. The author just needed to keep Hannah out of reach from the others so she could maintain control, rendering the others helpless.

Major spoiler alerts, like for real

Throughout the tapes, Hannah accuses everyone of ignoring her pain, even as she admits going to great lengths to hide her emotions. Clay sincerely tried to be there for Hannah, not because he wanted to get in her pants like the other guys, but because he found her interesting.  However, he’s the one she pushed away, literally. Hannah admits that Clay doesn’t belong on the list because he’s genuinely a good person, but it never occurs to her that it’s the good person who would be most guilt-ridden by the inclusion, deserved or not.

Some of Hannah’s choices towards the end of her life make it difficult for the reader to sympathize with her. She watches silently from a closet while an inebriated classmate is date raped. Later, she allows the rapist to have sex with her—keeping her disgust secret. Not in a strange attempt at penance, but because she needed him to be the final straw that causes her to lose faith in humanity. On the last day of her life, she visits her guidance counselor, more as a test than to get real help. Mr. Porter, let’s see how you do, she says before placing the recorder in her backpack to secretly tape the session. She remains closed and esoteric and when he can’t give her the answers she wants, she prepares to go. He asks her four times to stay but she leaves and then gets mad because he doesn’t follow her.

Hannah comes across as the stereotypical drama queen who snaps “Nothing” when asked “What’s wrong?” and then is furious because you don’t keep asking. After purposefully hiding her feelings and thoughts, she lays her choice at the feet of people who aren’t equipped to help her and then blames them when they fail. The tapes are a physical manifestation of the “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” fantasy we all had as children.

And, to be completely politically incorrect and insensitive to the realities of suicide, as written Hannah doesn’t seem like the suicidal type. She seems more like the terrifying woman scorned, exacting revenge and then faking her death so she can watch her victims squirm (an ending I half expected).

I believe the real message of the book was supposed to be along the lines of “You don’t know what someone is going through, so be kind” but it gets lost in Hannah’s vitriol. Ultimately, the reason Hannah killed herself seems to be for revenge, which is a terrible message for a young adult book.

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