"What You Hide" by Natalie D. Richards
If you had to pick one word to sum up what it's like to be a teenager, I think the appropriate word would be angsty.
And I'm not only reflecting on my increasingly distant years as a teenager in selecting this adjective.
No, I work with teenagers every day.
As the principal of an urban school, I constantly witness their angst and see the ramifications of their ill-advised hormone-driven decisions.
And as much as I now — out from under the cloud of frustration and confusion and unexplained annoyance — can see how, for lack of a better word, silly, all of this angstiness is, when you're in the middle of it, it all seems to make sense.
When you’re a teen, everything seems like the end of the fucking world.
Even the smallest slight can piss you off to the point of severing life-long friendships.
And receiving a lunch detention from your 7th grade ELA teacher can upset you so much that you spend the entire double block crying in the hallway. #StillNotOverIt
One of the challenges of writing YA is depicting this angst in a way that makes it seem understandable, even though it often isn't... In a way that makes the issues that plague teens seem consequential, even though they often aren't.
In order for a YA book to really work, IMO, the author needs to make readers — many of whom are no longer teens themselves — really remember what it’s like to be a teen.
This is a difficult feat to accomplish when dealing with one teenage protagonist.
It is a monstrously large challenge when dealing with two.
In writing this book, the author tackled the more formidable of these two challenges, establishing dual protagonists who, despite being about as different as two people can be, share two important characteristics: they’re both teens and they are both angst-ridden.
As the book opens, we meet Mallory. She was long raised by a single mother but, recently, her living situation has changed. Her mother has married a man named Charlie and gotten pregnant.
Mallory doesn’t have a problem sharing her mother with someone, but she does have a problem sharing her mother with Charlie.
Since marrying her mother, Charlie has become controlling and aggressive. Mallory worries that his behavior is only going to continue to escalate and encourages her mother to leave, escaping to a battered women’s shelter.
While her mother initially agreed to this plan, when Mallory arrives home early from school intent on putting the plan into action, her mother changes her mind and refuses to leave the apartment.
Though she’s loathe to leave behind her pregnant mother, Mallory simply cannot live under Charlie’s thumb any longer, so she heads out alone, resigning herself to do anything it takes to be free of Charlie — even if what it takes is living on the street.
Spencer, on the other hand, is living a very different life. He was adopted into a wealthy family as a baby and has enjoyed the privileges associated with affluence his entire childhood.
Living a decidedly more carefree lifestyle than Mallory, Spencer divides his time between playing hockey and practicing his other favorite sport, rock climbing.
While out living life and making bad choices — as teens so often do — Spencer decides to scale the local library. Though he’s confident he will be able to mount the library and climb down undetected, things don’t go according to plan and he ends up breaking a massive, old window on an upper floor of the building.
Alerted to the presence of a problem by the alarm, police arrive and discovered Spencer, still atop the library, the obvious culprit.
Fortunately for Spencer, his dad’s deep pockets allow him to get off with only some community service hours — which he will logically fulfill at the same library that earlier served as a makeshift jungle gym.
It’s at the library where these two stories finally come together. Mallory, unable to return home but having nowhere else to go, seeks shelter there and meets Spencer. The two have an immediate — and inconvenient — connection.
But before they have time to get beyond the flirty stage, something goes horribly wrong. A body is discovered in the library. And, as if that singular trauma weren’t upsetting enough, in the days following this grim discovery odd happenings start occurring — black smudges appear on the floors, weird writing suddenly covers the walls and an oddly ornate art display, for which not one takes credit is erected.
With issues growing to the point of becoming subscriptions, it seems like our teen protagonists actually have something to be angsty about. Frustration and fear prevailing, they find themselves worrying not about the trivial trials of teenage life, but instead about their very survival.
When I received a copy of this book, I was rather optimistic. I mean, it prominently featured a library — which is basically nirvana for a reader — it was YA — a genre I enjoy — and, bonus points, it was set in Columbus, OH — my hometown.
Unfortunately, as I read, this optimism faded about as fast as a high school quarterback’s athleticism post graduation.
I wasn’t that far along on my journey through this text when I started to hit some serious stumbling blocks.
My first issue — the authenticity of the dialogue.
When I’m reading a YA book I, logically, expect the characters to sound like teens.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who go around dissing John Green books, saying that the dialogue is too high-brow for adolescents.
Teens can be smart and verbose and lexically deverse.
I know, because as a teen I was all of those things.
But even teens who know their way around the English language better than the average bear still have a... teenageness... to their speech.
For example, if Spencer were a real teen, he would never say, "the male ego is a heavy yoke to bear."
He just... wouldn't.
And because I don't believe a teen would say something like this, it made it difficult for me to see the teens central to this novel, who did say things like this, as anything more than fictional characters populating the pages of this book.
And, because they were just fictional characters, I neither gave a shit about them nor did I give a shit about what happened to them.
Then I ran into some fallacies.
Admittedly, these were inconsequential, but they were really nails-on-a-chalkboard level of annoying.
For example, at one point in time, Mallory says," My mom is having a girl, so technically I'm a sister. Or will be soon."
Umm... Okay... I mean, I'm an only child, so maybe I'm not so clear on how this works... But, if you're a girl... And you have a sibling (of ANY gender) you are a sister, right?
I mean, it would have been such a simple change!
"My mom is having a baby, so technically I'm a sister. Or will be soon."
There, fixed it.
Next came the believability issues.
I’m a reader. I’m willing to suspend disbelief from time to time.
Like, this morning when I was reading An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green and I was totally willing to accept that *Another Spoiler* an alien statue could turn someone's insides into grape jelly.
But, in this novel, there were just too many unlikely coincidences.
Example - At the same time that Mallory happens to take refuge in the library, a drug addicted girl and her sister, who is nonverbal, also decide that that's a good hidey hole into which to climb.
And then the sister dies.
And then the remaining sister, despite being incredibly limited just keeps hiding out?
It's just too improbable.
All of the aforementioned issues were obviously small… nitpicky, if you will. But there was, unfortunately, an inarguably large issue with this book as well — there was too fucking much going on.
I, honestly, can’t even catalog the number of subplots and spin-off issues and blind alley ways that were present in this novel.
And, because there were so many subplots in this novel, it essentially lacked a through line.
It sucks because there were moments when I would get pulled into the story — invested in the characters and their struggles — but then there would be another fucking subplot.
I would be reading along thinking, “Oh, I’m really liking this Mallory / Spencer connection… I hope the next chapter delves further into it… Oh. Great. The next chapter is some unnecessarily vivid description of rock climbing… or hockey… or the library.”
It. Just. Didn’t. Work.
I walked away from this novel shaking my head and regretting the fact that it, in my eyes, didn’t reach its potential.
Ultimately, I wish that it could be re-written. Stripped down. Tidied up. Because, under all the extra bullshit, there is a good story here. It just never got the chance to shine.
This one earns a disappointing 2 out of 5 cocktails.
Whenever I read a book set in my hometown I feel like I’m in on some special secret #ImJustNerdyLikeThat. Do you ever read books set in or around the place where you grew up? Tell me about it in the comments, below.
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