Ever since Lillian's death from anorexia, Hannah has been haunted by her best friend. Not by the memory of Lillian, no, but by her ghost. Lillian follows her around, giving her advice or criticizing her behavior, or both at the same time. Only Hannah can see Lillian, and, after six months of this, Hannah's pretty resigned to it, even though it can be an inconvenience and having ghost Lillian around isn't the same as having the real Lillian there.
Paper Valentine follows a lot of different plot lines, weaving them together expertly into a powerful novel. The first arc deals with friendship, with peer pressure, and with self-acceptance. Hannah and Lillian were incredibly close, best friends forever. They were also the most popular girls in school, making their own style and setting the trends. With Lillian gone, stuck with the rest of their group, now dominated by Angelie, Hannah's coming to realize that, much as she loved her, Lillian wasn't a very nice person all the time and that she could be a bad influence on Hannah. Watching Hannah come into her own as a person, both accepting the parts of herself wholly unlike Hannah and incorporating a bit of Hannah's advice made me so glad for her. Hannah needed a bit of Lillian's gumption, enough that she could tell off Angelie for being horrible and rude, but also needed to be Hannah-enough to not get too hung up on being popular.
Family, though a more minor thread certainly, still plays a crucial role in Paper Valentine. The parents are mostly absent, though the mother does ground Hannah for sneaking out and insist on meeting a boy before Hannah can go out with him. The relationship being dissected here is that of the two sisters, Hannah and Ariel. Though Ariel annoys her, understandably so, the two clearly have so much love for one another. Hannah can see how much Ariel tries to protect her and gets what Hannah is going through more than their mother and step-father do. I found their relationship touching, and loved that there was much more focus upon it than usual.
The book gets much creepier than just Lillian's ghost, however. Girls are being murdered, left in the park, heads bashed in, surrounded by the trappings of childhood, toys and candy. Next to each body is a paper heart. Needless to say Hannah will become wrapped up in the murders. Yovanoff does suspense and eerie settings very well, and there were some scenes that straight up freaked me out. What made Paper Valentine special, though, was how Hannah reacts when she finds herself in danger: she uses her brain and does not just collapse into a weeping heap waiting to be rescued. Unlike some heroines, she doesn't spend her doom-filled moments thinking of how much she loves some boy, but of ways to escape and of her sister and her dead best friend. As with when she fought back against bossy Angelie, Hannah held her own and refused to be cowed, and that just made me respect her and root for her so much.
Admittedly, I was quite skeptical of the romance at first, because I feared it was going straight down stereotype highway. See, Hannah has a secret crush on one of the bad boys. When we first see him, he's wearing a wife beater, even. He dyes his hair white-blonde with Clorox, has tattoos, and a missing pinkie. Early on, he shoplifts. I mean, not really swoon material. He never really does become the kind of guy I would swoon over, but Yovanoff makes him work, and I totally ended up shipping Hannah and Finny, who made me think a bit of Hanna and Caleb from Pretty Little Liars. Also, their romance reminded me a bit of Pushing the Limits too, only with less focus on romance, no pet names, and a murder mystery.
Yovanoff gives the reader a little bit of everything, and, after my lackluster first experience, I now plan to read The Space Between, her second novel, as well as whatever she has coming next. What a wonderful lesson in the importance of not writing an author off based on one book, especially a debut, because they have so much room to grow.