Five months ago, Valerie Leftman’s boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saves the life of a classmate, but is implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things they hated. The list her boyfriend 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.
Before I picked up Hate List, Jennifer Brown’s stunning YA debut, I thought about the tough task Brown had—making Val likeable. A girl involved in a school shooting? I was convinced I would find Val despicable and weak at times, considering the role she played in such a horrifying event. I would probably pity Val and her plight, caught between her high school tormenters and the ultimate bully, her boyfriend Nick.
But I was surprised by Val’s strength. Pity Val? The idea seems completely laughable to me now. Ms. Brown immersed me so deep into Val’s head, she pulled me back to my own high school years when I was teased yet also befriended. Val is real, alive. I know her. Part of me was her. Val exhibits that contradictory mixture of confidence and insecurity inherent to the teen experience. She’s tough and vulnerable, but never a subject of pity.
The story opens in the fall, as Val awakens for her first day back at school, her mother frantically calling Val’s name, hand grasping the telephone, ready to dial 9-1-1 if Val doesn’t answer. The reader immediately understands Val’s fragile state and the strained relationship between mother and daughter.
Brown weaves back and forth in time, between Val’s first day at school and the morning of the shooting on May 2. Newspaper snippets give a subjective and somewhat sanitized view of the violence and victims, juxtaposed with Val’s real-time perspective. There’s what everyone thinks and what actually occurred. Val believes her boyfriend Nick has very different intentions on May 2—standing up for his girlfriend, not bringing the school down—and the reader feels as helpless and shocked as she does when the violence begins.
Brown paints a vivid, complex portrait of Nick that never succumbs to stereotypes. We see Nick through Val’s eyes—the Nick who understood how Val suffered through her parents’ troubled marriage, the Nick who made her feel safe and beautiful, the Nick who could recite Shakespeare. We also realize how Val missed the warning signs of Nick’s tragic actions. The hate list they created united them; hating people who hated them deepened their bond. It was a joke to Val, but a manifesto to Nick.
Val’s innocence is so well documented that when she is questioned by detectives, presented with incriminating evidence—the hate list, the surveillance video, the emails—you want to shout, “Leave Val alone! That’s not how it happened! Tell them, Val!”
Rich with layers, Hate List explores Val’s deep emotions as she moves through her grief, loses friends and gains unlikely ones. Her family unravels and she learns dark secrets about how her parents feel about her and each other. At its core, Hate List examines the complexity of relationships. How we can misinterpret those we love the most. How we often see only what we want to see, not what’s really there.
What’s really there in Hate List is an expertly crafted tale, an ordinary girl coming to terms with an extraordinary event—and becoming an extraordinary young woman.
Coming September 2009 from Little, Brown BFYR
I’m giving away an ARC of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List.
Just leave a comment below to be entered. Blog or Tweet about the giveaway and you’ll receive an additional two entries.
Contest ends May 31 at midnight EST. Winner will be drawn on June 1. Good luck!