Nerve, by Jeanne Ryan

I’ve been blogging about two years now, and I was recently looking at the list of books I’ve reviewed. I’m proud of the fact that I have quite a collection of reviews, enough that I have almost every letter of the alphabet covered when it comes to book titles—Q, X & Z notwithstanding. But I was missing N. Considering that N is one of the five consonants provided to the finalist on Wheel of Fortune, I thought this missing letter seemed odd. I lamented this fact to my daughters, and my oldest (15) suggested the book Nerve because she had seen and enjoyed the movie. I had seen the trailers, and it looked like it could be a thrill ride of a story, so I checked it out at the library.

Nerve is one of those contemporarily set stories that could be on the verge of happening in reality. It’s about a social media reality game where the “players” (usually young adults and/or teens) are dared to do increasingly dangerous tasks for prizes for the “watchers” to view via live stream. Because of this idea, I went into the book expecting it to be satire of society’s fixation on social media, fame, celebrity, and entertainment. After all, there are a lot of reality shows out there following celebrities or other people trying to cash in on their fifteen minutes of fame. And I’ll admit to watching almost every episode of Survivor. There are some good reality shows and some bad, and perhaps something like Nerve is in our not-so-distant future.

Just hopefully not like the game as portrayed in this work of fiction.

Our narrator is Vee, and she works backstage—particularly in costumes and make-up—for her high school’s theatre group. Her best friend Syd is playing the female lead in the show, and her hunky crush Matthew plays the male lead. Meanwhile, Tommy the techie has an obvious crush on Vee. These characters are basically stereotypes: Tommy is nerdy, Matthew’s a jock who says borderline raunchy things, Syd is a popular diva, and Vee is a wallflower. Granted, we see these characters through Vee’s unreliable teen-angst narration, but there’s not significant depth to them.

Through most of the book, this didn’t bother me, as I approached the story as social commentary. Vee’s initial motivation for playing NERVE (always capitalized in the book) is to be noticed, especially when it looks like Syd and Matthew are getting closer to becoming a couple. Adult-me wanted to tell Vee to be happy with who she was and not change herself to impress a boy and/or friends. But I know how teens act, and many do worry about how they’re perceived, so her initial motivation for playing didn’t bother me.

The video dare she submits to apply for the game is relatively innocuous, and for reasons I won’t mention, it is popular. Soon she’s partnered with the handsome (misunderstood bad boy?) Ian on a series of progressively more challenging and more distasteful dares. NERVE claims she can quit at any time, but they tempt her with prizes of clothes and tuition for fashion school—prizes that are suspiciously tailor-made to her interests. But there is no suspicion, as we have put our lives online on sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Again, this works for me as social commentary.

Even the NERVE player app she downloads to her phone, which blocks her ability to send and receive texts and calls, isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Hackers can do stuff like that, and it’s scary. The tension definitely builds as the dares get more dangerous, particularly one connected to Vee’s recent obligatory YA-book “dark secret.” Very dangerous, in fact, and the satire of the watching audience becoming more sickeningly voyeuristic made me a little uncomfortable.

But that’s when logic and legalities replaced my suspension of disbelief.

I recently took my daughters to an “Escape Room.” Lots of fun. They “lock” (not really) you in a room, and you have an hour to solve puzzles to get out of the room. Though the staff states at the start that none of the tasks require more than finger strength and nothing is dangerous, players still need to sign a waiver. Because my children are under 18, I have to sign that waiver as their legal guardian. The game NERVE is considerably more dangerous, yet Vee and some of the other players who are under 18 cannot legally sign such a waiver. The creators and controllers of the game would get sued in reality once things went drastically wrong, and I can’t imagine investors or anyone creating such a game with that potential legal outcome.

So I’m torn. The premise of Nerve, especially considering it as social commentary, is strong enough for me to overlook flaws in characterization. However, when a book is set fully in reality, it needs to stay there with the details—in this case, the legalities. But it was an easy and mostly thrilling read. The resolution shows a little bit of growth, though not enough. I’ve compared notes with my daughter, and apparently, the movie’s dares and prizes are very different. Maybe I’ll watch it some time, if I have the nerve, but till then Nerve gets a watcher approval rating of THREE AND A HALF STARS.

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Nerve is available at Amazon.

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