Review: Book recalls the tumult of the teen years
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16
Review by Nancy Matson
November 29, 1999
(CNN) -- If you've been through years of therapy trying to suppress torturous memories of your isolated, clique-less, academically unsuccessful high school years, and have beaten back memories of attending the prom stag, awakening to the sound of the cool kids egging your house, and being tripped in the hallways by snot-nosed upstarts a year behind you, don't read "Speak." Laurie Halse Anderson's first novel, a National Book Award nominee in the young people's literature category, is a dead-on portrayal of ostracized 9th-grader Melinda's day-to-day life in the Darwinian world that teen-agers inhabit. For the more sensitive among you who suffered the kind of off-handed cruelty that is a hallmark of the teen years, it may be too much.
For those of you who were on the other side of the equation, who had perfect skin, more friends than you knew what to do with, and a cruel streak a mile wide, this book may make you realize that your harsh behavior took its toll in ways you had not imagined.
Melinda is just starting ninth grade after her abrupt expulsion from decent society. At a big party over the summer, Melinda got into some trouble, and hastily called the police. The partygoers, some of whom were arrested (and all of whom were annoyed), turned on her. But no one knows the full story of why she did it, including the reader. As the pages turn, it becomes clear that it has something to do with a senior named Andy Evans, who Melinda refers to only as IT.
Offsetting this very serious matter is Melinda's amusing, slightly surreal analysis of all that goes on around her. She identifies different teen 'clans' recognizable to any high school student: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, the Marthas.
Also entertaining are the goings-on between Melinda and her one pseudo-friend -- Heather, who has just moved there from Ohio, and is unaware of Melinda's total outcast status. Melinda watches as Heather jockeys to get into the Marthas -- the do-gooder bunch who collect food cans for the less fortunate and decorate the teachers' lounge, but are not a whit less brutal than any of the other high school cliques.
As Heather strives to fit in, Melinda becomes even more of an outsider. Melinda's grades plummet, and she stops talking almost completely. It's only when she realizes her former best friend might be in trouble that she is able to discuss what's wrong; to finally Speak.
Laurie Halse Anderson is a gifted new writer whose novel shows that she understands (and remembers) the raw emotion and tumult that marks the lives of teen-agers. Readers will appreciate her honesty. Though marketed as a young adult title, this novel should appeal to both teen-agers and adults.
National Book Award finalists meet with young readers
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