My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Publisher: Random House
Summary: In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents' expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public: postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.
This close look in at a group of financially privileged students who attend a high school in Mill Valley, CA & their teachers was pretty lush. All the characters were written with brilliant insights and equally stunning blindness. The teens were given so much but not enough. They didn't have enough expected of them yet caved and wilted under the enormous expectations of them. The parents and teachers were either absent or too close in the wrong ways. Everyone's true lives and selves were excruciatingly on display yet obscured. They all burn bright and are tight black holes where light can't penetrate.
The dichotomy of being a teenager isn't just what's lain out here, it's that of being a human being in this modern age. A world where feverish online interaction of likes & friending has never equated to a real life true friends. Where caprice can amplify words & reposts on a screen carry over into the real world where real feelings are felt. Where a litany of posts of care & love don't even translate to a real world visit when you've almost died. These teenagers were like gladiators hurting and trying not to be hurt at every turn. It took the majority of them to learn over the course of years what Tristan Bloch learnt from them earlier on. That insecure & thoughtless people aren't to be trusted with hearts. They don't know what to do with them so will likely mistreat and break them, so put down that silver tray upon which you were about to offer yours up to them.
Each chapter is from the POV of a character so here they are ( students only but I'm not telling you their names so as not to spoil):
The Note- The one who broke my heart early on. Done in by a cruelty he didn't understand & wasn't equipped to parse or deal with.
The Pretty Boy. The predator who eventually becomes prey.
The Sleeping Woman. The catalyst, then a virtual ghost who in the end awakens to likely reinvent herself yet again at some uni on the East Coast. The one who wants to repent and atone but doesn't know how or to whom.
The Lover. The over-achiever who hits all the marks from academics to sports and still can't get her parents' attention but does get attention from another adult.
The Dime. The beautiful one with no friends, as her silence is perceived as loftiness & arrogance.
The Striver. The over-managed one who, in a final gambit to make his parents' dreams for him come true goes to illegal and wholly understandable lengths.
The Dancer. The soaring bird streaking across the sky that doesn't realize until she's fallen that gravity applies to her too.
The Ride. The slacker who realizes too late that while he was earnestly in ennui everyone else is probably going to not just pass him by but leave him behind.
The Artist. The smooth dealer who hides his intellect from others and uses it to run cons and criminal entrepreneurial endeavours.
This book also made me think about teachers in a way I never had before. I'm more impressed and confused than ever about this group of people who choose to spend their lives in the pursuit of pedagogy & mentoring in a place that most people couldn't wait to escape and never look back. They don't remain there after they graduate, they willingly return to this place & it isn't because the pay is great. Madness. Sublime and beautiful madness. Beth was a tertiary figure but was, I thought, the best drawn of the bunch here. I felt her portrayal was believable and expressed all the pathos that I didn't get from Molly or Doug's.
While there's plenty to engage with here, there isn't a lot in the way of rootable characters or happy endings (the only two who have them were the least objectionable or culpable in the initial incident) & I thought that was a positive. I did like all of the endings or not and they varied on level of bleakness or hopefulness. This book gave me anxiety and a nervousness that made me all the more glad it was my treadmill book so that I could burn it off. The heights and depths of teenage viciousness is obvious but this also highlights the damage they do to themselves with those acts. This book also has interesting things to say about social media and from what I've seen in the book and real life, teenagers are not the only ones doing it wrong.
In some ways this reminded me of last year's Those Girls by Lauren Saft. Just like that book, people don't necessarily become better people after they do bad things, they just come out on the other side and it's on to the next thing. Real. Definitely recommended.