Title: Hate List
Author: Jennifer Brown
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Five months ago, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.
Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.
I’ve heard about some of Jennifer Brown’s books before now and recognized the title, Hate List, but I never knew much about it or its subject matter, nor had I read any of her other books. So, when I decided to give some of her issue-heavy books a shot, I decided to start with her highest-rated, which just happened to be a book about school shootings, a subject that fascinates, terrifies, and disgusts me all at once.
Wow, what to say about a book like this? Well, I guess I’ll start with one of the biggest elements: the school shooting. Unfortunately, school shootings are something that never seem to be as far from the headlines as they should be – there are too many minor incidents happening a lot, and then there was Sandy Hook less than two years ago. It’s hard not to already have an opinion about school shootings and what can be done for them, but this book wasn’t focused on solving such a complex problem. Its focus was on the aftermath, how it affects so many different people in so many different ways, mainly the main character, who was the girlfriend of the shooter, one of the victims, and indirectly involved in the incident. So, if you come into this book hoping for a political look at school shootings, then that’s not what you’re going to get.
The shooting is revealed to us in various flashback chapters, and some chapters begin with articles about the victims, both those who survived and those who didn’t. Part 2 or 3 also flashed back to the weeks directly after the shooting, but the majority of the book focused on Valerie’s senior year, from her first day back at school since the shooting on the very first day of the school year to her graduation. Valerie hasn’t exactly handled things well – although I’m not sure there is a good way to handle such a horrific event – and she has a lot of trouble readjusting to school. Many of her classmates also have trouble accepting her, since many of them blame her for helping write the Hate List that her boyfriend used for targets, even if she never pulled the trigger.
I was a lot happier with the relationship Valerie has with her therapist in this book than many others in YA. Too often, therapists are dismissed and insulted, which can be equally insulting to any readers who have to go to therapy themselves, but Valerie’s therapist is one of her biggest champions and she often trusts him with things she tells no one else. There are times she’s unhappy with him, but that’s realistic, not frustrating. Of course, she was much more negative to a therapist at the hospital and had trouble with being put into the psychiatric ward to the point where I was frustrated that she wasn’t able to recognize that she needed help, but that wasn’t too big of an issue.
I sometimes struggled with sympathizing with Valerie. I just didn’t always connect with her. Sometimes characters got mad at her for various reasons, and even though I often disagreed with their reasons, I would feel kind of the same. I also wasn’t too happy with her relationship with her parents. I read a Q&A at the end of the paperback version of this, and the author says that she wanted Valerie to be mostly on her own, but I just had a lot of trouble getting a grip on who her parents were and what they really think.
Her relationship with her parents and classmates definitely improved by the end, but then that ending happened. It wasn’t bad, it was just so open-ended. Open-ended books can be a good thing, but I feel like it left too many strings hanging and relationships that sound like they’re just destined to fall away now that high school is over, and I wasn’t too happy with that. I don’t always need – or want – books to be wrapped up with pretty little bows at the end, but with a book that had such an emotionally-wrenching story, a tiny and slightly messy bow would have been nice.
I did appreciate that there wasn’t a romance in this, though. I mean, there are flashbacks to Valerie’s relationship with Nick – which is also wonderfully complex to the point where you often feel sympathy for a boy who could do something so horrible – but Valerie isn’t fixed by some magical new romance, which is always refreshing.
So, overall, I really did enjoy this book. I had some problems with it and I definitely wanted a lighter read once I was done with it, but I read through it so quickly despite its large page count because I just had to see what was going to happen with Valerie. I’m definitely interested in reading more from Brown.