Clay Jensen arrives home from school to find a package waiting on his front porch. Inside are seven cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a girl at his school who recently committed suicide and a note explaining that the tapes will tell the story of why Hannah made the decision she did and the events that led up to it. Also included is a map with red stars indicating where some of the pivotal events occur.
Clay had a crush on Hannah, but due to her reputation thought he wasn’t “advanced” enough for her. The two did connect at a party and Clay is curious to find out why he’s mentioned on the tapes and what impact he had on Hannah’s decision. So, he begins to listen as the story unfolds in Hannah’s own voice.
New novelist, Jay Asher, says he got the idea for this book while walking around a guided tour of a museum–hearing a voice on the earphones that wasn’t there but was talking directly to him. Asher takes the concept and expands it with the story of Hannah.
I listened to this book on audio CD and that may have helped things a lot. I’ve looked at the print edition and see that Hannah’s story is told in italics while Clay’s is done in standard print. While this could become tired on the printed page (the two tend to interrupt each other a lot as we hear Clay’s reaction), it works well on the audio with the two characters stories flowing together and almost forming a conversation of sorts.
As for the story itself, it’s a nice idea but it becomes a bit heavy-handed at the end. Hannah has had some setbacks in her life and Asher makes a lot of interesting points about how reputations can define a person for both good and bad. Hannah gets a reputation as being easy after a boy brags that he got to second base in the park when she first moved to town. And when a guy publishes the “hot or not” list with Hannah listed as “best butt,” it also creates complications. And as the novel progresses and Hannah becomes more and more frustrated that her desperate pleas for help are being ignored by everyone around her, things do become a bit melodramatic. It’s almost as if Asher is trying too hard to make his point in the final few days of Hannah’s life instead of allowing us to truly understand her decision.
Or maybe that is the point. Maybe it’s that suicide is an illogical, irrational thing that can’t be explained easily. If that’s the case, Asher has succeeded.
But I still found the Hannah of the last third of the book becoming too self-absorbed for my liking. It’s hard to like her at times. Again, this may be the point. We are seeing a side of her she doesn’t want known. Hannah wants someone to notice and ask what’s wrong or come to her in a way that people can’t or won’t. It ends up making her final choice both frustrating to those left behind and shows the selfishness of it. At several points, Clay references Hannah’s parents and their withdrawal from the community in the wake of Hannah’s suicide. The two own a shoe store and a quick comment made early in the novel about competition from a new mall in town and then the shoe store being closed for several weeks hits home as you realize the toll the decision takes on her family.
It may also be “easier” for me being older than Hannah to realize that while high school can be hell, one can survive and grow beyond it. I can see how the moments Hannah experiences are intense and they would be damage to a high school person who is already on shaky ground.
In the end, “13 Reasons Why” is a story that has some fascinating questions raised, but no easy answers. It’s a book I’d recommend to young adults to read though parents should be ready for some discussion and possible questions about the decisions made by not only Hannah, but several other characters in the novel. The novel is frank and direct, so be warned.