This is a major spoiler free review and discussion of Thirteen Reasons Why, a contemporary YA novel, by Jay Asher. I rate it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Several weeks after his classmate Hannah Baker commits suicide, a shoe box filled with cassette tapes arrives on Clay Jensen’s doorstep. The tapes are Hannah’s suicide note, passed on to each of the twelve people with the greatest connection to the events that sped her spiraling depression and hopelessness. The book follows Clay as he listens to and follows the footsteps of her story in one sleepless night.
For a book told almost entirely in flashback, with a known ending, I found it to be extremely suspenseful and compulsively readable. Every side of every tape could be Hannah’s note to Clay and the tension over what she might say about him drives both Clay and the reader through the story. The tension doesn’t dissipate after we get to him though, as all the threads of her story come together and we see the final weeks of her life.
I loved the composition style of this book. We hear all of Hannah’s words, italicized in the book, and Clay in first person before and after each tape as well as interjected throughout so his thoughts and emotions are experienced immediately and intimately. I haven’t heard the audiobook, but I bet it’s great, since this is pretty much the perfect story for the format. I also loved that Clay was on the move throughout the story, travelling to the places she mentioned on the tapes, because it lent a artfully misplaced sense of urgency to the story. Hannah mentions the place immediately before she talks about what happened there so that her listener arrives after her story there is done. It emphasizes her disconnect from the world before she died and the fact that everyone is too late to help her.
I had some mixed feelings about Clay as a character. He came out to be a little too perfect, Walkman theft and lying to his mom excepted. Nearly every other character was such a strong mixture of good, bad, and misguided that he felt a little more flat in terms of traits. His relationship with Hannah was completely embedded in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which I find to be over done, but the book did make an effort to challenge the idea that people can be viewed with simplicity. I guess I just struggled with Clay because he was a narrator that I felt wasn’t as realistic as he could have been, though I’m not sure because I wouldn’t relate to him (which I don’t mean a bad thing!) even if he was.
Ultimately, it’s a book with a clear message that it executes well: everything we do and say can and does affect someone else. There wasn’t really one major event that caused Hannah to lose hope, it was the accumulation of many missed chances and negative events, both small and large. I recommend it to teens (and their parents!) and fans of teen contemporary novels, I think it’s earned its popularity. It has an element of mystery and suspense to it as well, so if you like that kind of thing and don’t read a lot of contemporary, you can definitely give it a try as well.