Damage Done is right. Damage to my time and my reading sensibilities and my respect for YA literature. I have got to stop picking books from generic lists of ‘awesome books’. But when I saw Damage Done on one of these lists, I was immediately attracted to the simple cover and the idea of a Gone Girl style YA book. And there’s something about a book on a subject as gutwrenching as school shootings that’s meant to be read by an audience that is the age of the typical victims that’s intriguing. A book that challenges our treatment, not of the perpetrators of such crimes but of the people related to them. That shows how those people treat themselves. How we are coloured by the actions of the people in our inner circle. That’s the book I wanted to read. Panitch promises the story of Julia Vass in the aftermath of her twin brother’s mass shooting at their high school. A shooting in which she, and he, were the only survivors. But what we get is a mildly ridiculous love story where the shooting feels a like little more than a plot device.
Julia is now Lucy Black. In a new town, with a new name, and a new past. Her family relocated to escape the nightmare of media and threats that became their lives after Ryan killed eleven students. They run from the blame. Julia/Lucy’s parents were easily the most interesting part of the novel. Their reactions to the shooting were heartbreaking. Even though we don’t see them often, we see the impact of their withdrawal. The Blacks have essentially cut off all interactions with their daughter. They refuse to talk about Ryan at all. All pictures and memories have been removed from the house, left behind when they moved. Lucy has only one picture left. Hidden in the back of a drawer away from her mother’s cleaning hands. Mrs. Black has irised her life into cleaning. All she does is scrub. Bleach and scrub. A physical manifestation of her need to remove the memories of her child. Mr. Black is mostly absent. He allows his work to take him away from his wife and daughter. And he refuses, absolutely refuses, to allow Ryan’s name in the house. Any reference to their life as the Vasses is met with an immediate shut down. At least it is when Lucy wants to talk about their past.
Turns out (and from here you continue at your own peril) there’s been more Ryan discussion happening than Julia/Lucy thought. Ryan’s been out of his coma almost since he went into it. He’s awake. He’s semi-healthy. He’s not talking to anyone except Spence – his former psychologist. Julia’s parents know. They’ve made a conscious decision not to tell her. If you haven’t predicted the upcoming twist by the time this information appears, it seems a little cruel, but also makes sense. Why would they tell her that her twin is awake when she’s never going to be allowed to see him? They’re protecting her from more pain. If they keep his condition quiet, they save their family more pain. But there’s more to their silence than initially thought. Julia isn’t the girl she’s led us to believe she is.
And here’s where some of my biggest problems in the book start to come in. And it’s totally the fault of the writing. I don’t need a likable protagonist. I don’t even need a reliable one. But I do need one that makes sense. Julia/Lucy doesn’t. Let’s flip to some other unreliable narrators for a second. In Gone Girl, we have a woman giving us her lies in a journal, but her truth in her thoughts. In We Were Liars, we have a narrator that thinks she’s telling us the truth, but is eventually revealed to be lying. Julia/Lucy isn’t lying to herself, not really. Or if she is, I never bought it. In the beginning of the book, maybe. Maybe. For the first ¼ of the book, I could have gotten behind her as an unreliable narrator. As someone who was lying to herself as much as us. But then the writing took a turn from simple to silly. It just stopped working. She wasn’t just unreliable. She wasn’t a liar. She was inconsistent and fake. She read like a fictional girl (which I know she is, but that doesn’t make for a good book). She never felt right. Her relationship with Michael… Ugh. First of all, what a sap. Is that the kind of thing teenage girls want? Honestly, why would any girl want to be with this guy who didn’t let her make any decisions and treated her like a child? He’s this fabulous cook who basically force feeds Julia/Lucy, even when she asks him not to. He just keeps telling her that she’s wrong. That her thoughts are wrong. That she can’t possibly know her own opinion. Then he does stupid shit like going with her to find Ryan and just listening to her when she tells him not to report a house full of dead cops (let’s not even talk about that ridiculous conspiracy side story). I never, ever believed that she was falling for him. That she was trying to figure out what love was. But I also never believed that she was this broken psyche she’s eventually revealed to be.
Julia/Lucy reads like a nothing character. She’s so boring. And bland. She could have been a hollow character. She didn’t need to be searching to be whole. That would have ruined the story. But I wanted to feel that she was really broken. That she didn’t care. That she was faking and she knew it. That she was using Michael – cause that’s absolutely what she was doing. She knew she was doing it. But it’s never portrayed that way. She’s shown as a flighty girl who can’t stop talking about her super hot, swimmer boyfriend, who’s so super hot. Guys, you won’t even believe how hot he is. Even though he apparently never showers and always stinks of chlorine. And remember the whole treating her like a child thing.
But I haven’t even talked about the part of the book that bothered me the most. The journal entries by Dr. Spence. I considered closing the book for good when I read the very first one. These sections read like they were written by a teenager who thinks that adults never stop speaking like teenagers in tv shows. He doesn’t read as arrogant or delusional. He reads like a petulant child. It’s so… I don’t want to say terrible, but, well, it made me mad to read. Every time Spence shows up in the book, I would roll my eyes like the aforementioned teenager. Spence was the most unbelievable character in a book peppered with unreadable characters. I actually can’t even waste any more energy or finger power to talking about him.
There is one good character in the book though – Ryan. I believed in Ryan. The would be psychopath Ryan. Maybe it’s because we never get into his head. It’s the thoughts that really seem to go wrong in tis book. Ryan’s willingness to hurt things because his sister wants him to is absolutely believable. Their codependence is totally believable. Even the totally unnecessary inclusion of incest as the motivator for the shooting is believable in a fictional setting. I could follow Ryan into his emotionless journey. He would do anything for his sister. And post killing her brother Julia is also okay. I get the characters when they’re allowed to be broken. It’s the entire middle portion of the book that fails. My connection to the characters never sparked. I did not care if any of them died or lived or loved or anything.
I wanted to love this book. But nope. I do hate saying bad things about a book. Someone spent their time on this. Someone loved writing this. For me, when it wasn’t annoying it was so bland. How is a book about a school shooting boring? It’s not that the book is unbelievable it’s that it’s unbelievably written.