Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

I’m super busy doing the final read-through and line-editing of the proof copy of Skipping the Scales, so I’m not currently reading anything else. However, I want to keep the reviews going here at the Stuff. Between now and the release date (July 14), I’m posting reviews of a few books that I read before I started blogging.

I read Thirteen Reasons Why during the summer of 2012 because it was the book that the students at my school voted to be the school-wide summer reading book. I know I’ve mentioned that cool thing we do a few times before, and I’ve posted reviews of our summer 2015 and 2016 books. Out of the six years we’ve done this, Thirteen Reasons Why is my favorite.

I read this book in one night because I simply didn’t want to put it down.

My favorite aspect about this book is its structure. It effectively tells two first-person stories, and the transitions between the narrators are smooth—which is an incredible feat because they occur multiple times within each chapter. How could this be pulled off? Let’s look at the two stories being told.

First, there’s Hannah Baker. Prior to the events of the book, Hannah committed suicide, but prior to doing so, she recorded thirteen messages (each on a different side of seven cassette tapes)—the titular Thirteen Reasons Why she chose to kill herself. Each message is for a different person, mostly classmates of hers, that played a part in her ultimate decision. The tapes detail how she received a bad reputation at school and how friends and classmates deserted, disappointed, and denigrated her. I won’t go into further detail so as not to spoil the story.

Second, there’s Clay Jensen. The story begins with him receiving the box of tapes, without a return address on them. After finding a Walkman (they still exist in this millennium?), he begins an auditory journey through Hannah’s life while he journeys around the town to many of the locations she mentioned. He has received the tapes because one of the messages for him. I won’t say which, but he’s not the first or last, and one suspenseful aspect of the book was waiting for his tape and his role in her life. The reveal, when it came, was excellently executed.

The narration starts in Clay’s voice, and he comes across as genuinely caring and reliable. He has to listen to the tapes because there’s a note claiming a second set will be made public by an unnamed classmate if they aren’t moved along. Hannah’s voice is what he hears on the tapes, and her narration is italicized, so there was never any doubt who the narrator was. It was absolutely seamless.

When we returned to school that fall, opinions of the book were mixed. Some students complained that Hannah’s story got a little far-fetched in some of the last few tapes. I won’t disagree with that, but it certainly wasn’t anything that couldn’t have happened, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Other students claimed that even though Hannah did try reaching out for help, she didn’t try hard enough. A few students claimed that the reasons Hannah gave weren’t really reasons to kill herself but a list of thirteen people who wronged her in some way. I’ll leave that debate for therapists/counselors whether these really are signs of suicide, depression, etc. This is a fictional story, and if one purpose of fiction is to make us think about society—to reflect upon our own lives—then this book has gotten many people thinking. I countered to those students that the book’s real message is that we should all be more aware of the people around us so we can recognize when they are reaching out to us or are in need of reaching out. Whether the book is accurate or not is secondary to the truth that we have to respect one other and help those in need.

Through Hannah’s story, we learn the unfortunate truth that people can be cruel to each other but need to think carefully about how their words and actions can affect others. Through Clay’s story, we learn humility and humanity, as he doesn’t pass judgement on Hannah and feels guilty for neither seeing the suicidal signs she had displayed nor helping her before she killed herself.

The book has received many awards and accolades, all well-deserved, and I commend Asher not only for taking on this topic and handling it sensitively, but finding a way to make the story a page-turner. It’s an impressive book that everyone should read, and there are many reasons why Thirteen Reasons Why deserves FIVE STARS.

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Thirteen Reasons Why is available at Amazon.

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