There’s this weird thing that happens when you start reviewing the books you read. You start to really understand exactly what it is that you like about books and what you don’t. Things I’ve come to realize – I’m not a fan of flowery writing and metaphors and I’ve got a big o’ girly hard-on for books that don’t give me all the answers. Books that leave you hanging. Books where the mystery is simply a tool and not the goal. I fall in love with books that seem to make other people insane. I started to realize this with Tana French but Brenna Yovanoff solidified it. This is the first of her books I’ve read and holy crap, I cannot explain how much this book punched me right in the metaphorical gut (yeah, I see how that contradicts what I just said a few sentences ago). Her writing style is so straightforward. It’s just there. In your face. But there’s something under the surface that’s positively magical. Now I’m going to talk about the book. This is the part where I get cranky about having to warn that I’m going to talk about the book content while I talk about the book.
Paper Valentine is the story of Hannah, a sixteen year old girl whose best friend died from an eating disorder about half a year earlier. Hannah is small and insignificant, both in size and personality. Now dead Lillian (the former best friend), has taken to haunting Hannah. She is constantly there. Always influencing. Always prodding. Always controlling. Even in death, she has Hannah under her thumb. Happy, pleasant Hannah, who always wants to please everyone. Even when she’s at the height of unhappiness, she puts on a happy face for the world. Lillian’s presence is overwhelming and not just for Hannah. She presses down on the reader. She’s always there. You want Hannah to have her moments. You’re pulling for her. You can feel her on the verge of becoming and suddenly Lillian is right there, right in her space, in our space, making herself known. She’s smothering. She’s suffocating Hannah just as slowly as she killed herself.
Hannah knows it’s weird that she can see Lillian, but she doesn’t think too hard about it. This is one of those things that will make some readers crazy. Why can she see ghosts when no one else can? I say, who cares. Like Hannah, just accept that this is a new thing in her life. She accepts that all she has now is this tiny, terrible piece of who Lillian was. Accepts that this is better than no Lillian at all. But here’s the thing, this ghost, this fragment of personality, is more Lillian than the girl she showed the world. The girl who was desperate to stand out. The girl who embraced gregarious fashion because it was better than being boring. The girl who dictated her friends’ actions and clothing and thoughts. The girl who acted dismissive and bored when she was really angry with at someone. The girl who was so, so unhappy with herself that she slowly, painfully, starved herself to death. A girl who had no idea how her personal pain directly influenced the people around her.
We see the influence of Lillian on Hannah, obviously, but there’s no one we see it in more clearly than Angelie. The new leader of the pack. She is trying to step into Lillian’s role, but she’s changing the dynamic of the group. She’s slowly changing everything that makes Hannah comfortable. As Angelie’s style becomes more and more mainstream, as she becomes more ‘normal’, the group starts to fall apart. Angelie was so damaged by Lillian’s treatment that she no longer knows how to be a real friend. All she knows now is how to damage and control others because that was what she was raised on. That’s how she was formed into a real girl. And it wasn’t just Lillian. She blames Hannah, too. Hannah who was perfect and tiny and fit so easily under Lillian’s arm. Hannah, who was always the favourite. Every tiny moment of happiness Hannah remembers, Angelie remembers as a moment when she wasn’t good enough. The saddest part of this whole situation is that this is how it works. Everyone is so worried about being seen, that they make themselves brutally visible. No one sees beneath the surface because there’s just so much surface. Lillian and Angelie are the same in this way. They hide how terribly sad and insecure they are by being in everyone’s face.
Hannah’s been doing the same thing, but instead of being mean she’s being happy. She’s hiding the fact that she’s a little strange and a little strong and a lot of personality under lipgloss and flower appliques and in your face dresses. She’s always got a smile and a twirl. She never wants to rock the boat. She never wants to stand up to anyone. She doesn’t even know she deserves to be able to do those things. Hannah doesn’t realize she has these layers until Finny comes into her life. Finny, the stereotypical badboy who gets in trouble and takes the non-academic stream of classes. Who dug her face into the snow when they were in fifth grade. Big and silent and scary. The exact opposite of what girls like Hannah and Lillian and their flock want. The boy Hannah’s always, secretly, wanted.
Finny is such a good character. I know I just said stereotypical, and that’s what he could have been, but Yovanofff uses her writing prowess to make him so much more than that. But this is another area of the book that might drive people insane. People seem to need a reason why characters are the way they are. They need these in depth backstories to explain everything. Those books make me insane. I don’t get the backstory of the people in my real life. I don’t get to know every moment that made them who they are. I just know that this is the person they are now. This is the person they have baked into. Yovanoff makes us live with her characters right now. She doesn’t try to make Finny into this great example of how to overcome a bad life. She doesn’t go into this big sobby background about what brought him to the point where he lives with his aunt in a home full of foster kids. We just know that his life has been a series of people discarding him until he now believes every terrible thing people say about him.
Yovanoff gives us the most important moments of the story in her silences. In her perfect, exquisite, silences. Why does Finny steal that lighter in front of Hannah at the beginning of the story? Why does he stand there and stare at her and just take it, knowing that a good girl like her will probably turn him in? It’s the silence. That silence. If Hannah had filled it, if she’d given in to her need to be a good girl, she would have ended their relationship before it began. He was giving her the opportunity to prove to him that she was exactly who she was supposed to be.
Silence is one of Hannah’s only defenses against Lillian. When she’s in public and Lillian is all over her, she can’t answer. She can’t speak to her. She can’t ask Lillian what she means. She has to parcel it out on her own. She has to take the bits and bobs of information and figure out what they mean. She has to work out for herself that Lillian’s inability to be silent was one of her biggest downfalls.
When Finny keeps touching Hannah’s cheek, he can’t bring himself to vocalize, to apologize for, what he’d done to her in fifth grade. If he’d been in her face about it, Hannah wouldn’t have been able to a genuinely accept her apology. She would have ended up spewing platitudes. His words would have broken the moment that really brought them together. Their scene in the hammock was beautiful. I love this strange little couple who haven’t figured out how to really talk to each other, but have somehow already figured out that communication is more than just words.
Hannah has spent so much of her life smothered in the fear of silence that she’s missed how important it is. But with Finny, she begins to see how much of her life she’s been missing. And then the voices come. The incessant, overbearing, voices. The voices of all the dead girls trying to tell her how to find who did this to them. They swallow her. She can’t figure out what they’re trying to tell her. It’s not until the voices are so loud and terrible that she can’t handle it anymore, until she tries to shut them out, that they go silent and finally give her the answer she needs. She has to shut out the noise to finally hears them.
So, in the beginning of this review I mentioned that there are a group of people that would be pissed off by this book. I’ve talked about it a little already. People who need to have everything tie together. People who need answers for everything. I’m not one of those people. I don’t think everything needs an answer. I don’t need the details about why Finny is damaged. I just need to know that he is. I don’t need to know why Hannah can see ghosts and no one else can. There are a couple other areas that I admit might cause some readers problems.
I don’t need the heat wave and the avian disease to be directly connected to the other things happening in the book. The heat is a catalyst. It’s dry and terrible and suffocating. It is so prevalent that you can feel it. I mean feel it in your bones while you’re reading. This heat sits on everyone, like a physical presence, and the longer it stays, the higher the tension in the town becomes. It’s a legitimate sociological phenomenon that tempers rise with the heat. Especially people in crowds. It’s no wonder that when the group of friends finally blows up they’re trying to escape the heat. The heat also gives depth to Lillian’s control over Hannah. Lillian’s icy touch is the only thing that provides Hannah any relief at the beginning of the story. Lillian’s cool presence is representative of how disconnected she is from everything around her. How disconnected she was from everything even when she was alive. The stifling heat is the backdrop for everything.
The resolution of the murder will also be something that may give people problems. If you went into this book expecting a murder mystery full of tension, with the candy centre being the resolution of that mystery, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not what this book is. We get a resolution. It’s simple and straightforward. It’s not complicated and it comes fairly quickly. It’s people giving in to their reality – Connor’s a bad person, a legitimately bad person, who’s able to hide it pretty easily. Nick is a scared little boy who puts on a front but really just wants someone to take care of him. Everyone in this book is hiding their true natural. And that, more than the mystery, is what this is about. This is a coming of age story.
When Hannah finally realizes who she is. When she finally saves herself. Lillian is able to leave her. Hannah realizes that she’s always been the stronger friend. She’s always been more sure of herself. And that’s the heart of this story. Yes, there’s a mystery here. It’s solved in a quick and easy answer. It’s not the point. It’s so not the point. People looking for a flat out mystery won’t be satisfied with this book. People looking for one of those over the top love at first sight romances won’t be satisfied. This is a story about the importance of finding yourself in the shadow of friendship. Yovanoff’s straightforward, haunting style is perfection. I have not been this satisfied with a book in a long time. I’ve read some excellent books recently, but I have a feeling this one is going to stay with me for quite some time. I’m a Yovanoffian. Is that a thing? If it’s not, it should be. This woman deserves to be on everyone’s reading list.