Review Detail

4.7 2
Young Adult Fiction 11401
The human side of school shootings
Overall rating
Writing Style
Reading Jennifer Brown’s books in reverse chronological order (by publication date) has been a unique exercise; it’s interesting to see where an author is today, then go back and see where she came from—what her roots are and how she developed her talent. In reading Hate List now, after Perfect Escape and Bitter End, I can appreciate how strong an author Brown is. Even in her debut novel, her talent shows itself consistently, and the emotional bond the reader forges with Valerie Leftman is intense and heartfelt.

This book is about a school shooting, but, as Jennifer Brown explained in her author’s note, it’s more than that—it’s Valerie’s story. Hate List is about how a woman grows and comes to terms with who she was, who she is now, and who she wants to be. This book is about a school in the aftermath of tragedy, and also a family too broken to pretend everything is okay anymore. Brown’s topics cover an unexpectedly broad range, and they do it with depth as well.

One of the beautiful things about Hate List is the way it causes you to examine and understand all sides of the issue. Valerie was the shooter’s girlfriend and she still loves him; she saved the life of a girl who made fun of her every day for years. Her former friends are convinced that, even if she didn’t pull a trigger, Valerie is still guilty; they’re horrified by what she did, that they didn’t see it coming. Valerie’s mom is out to protect the world from the monster her daughter has become; her dad is furious that his daughter’s problems have ruined his life and wants her locked in a psych ward. Fellow students, family members of victims, Valerie’s psychiatrist—no perspective was left behind. Jennifer Brown covered everyone, and she did in in a way that in no way criminalized or sermonized as to who was right and who was wrong.

And in spite of that, in spite of Valerie’s selfishness, her bad decisions, her past mistakes—in spite of all that, the reader cannot help but be on her side. She is a flawed human being, yes, but she isn’t evil. In my opinion, being inside Valerie’s head was an entirely authentic experience, and though I couldn’t say that I’m “in love” with her as a character, but I respect her and thoroughly enjoyed witnessing her grow and develop.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel has many facets to it, and I’m sure that some aspects will speak more strongly to some readers than to others. For myself, I was most struck by the dynamics and relationships portrayed in Valerie’s family. Jennifer Brown did not give her protagonist perfect parents, nor were they affected with Disappearing Parent Syndrome. They both loved their daughter, but they had baggage and an imperfect understanding of the reality of Valerie’s situation. Her mom worked through it and attempted to do better; her dad threw in the towel and left, saying he could never forgive Valerie for what she did. And Valerie’s brother, Frankie, who genuinely loved his sister, was not a perfect angel. Everyone in the Leftman family struggled, not just Valerie.

But though I loved Hate List quite a bit (or maybe quite a lot), it wasn’t completely flawless. While it was hardly an earth-shattering letdown, I did spot a few realistic fiction clichés I could have done without. And, as is quite usual for me, I had a hard time warming up to Jennifer Brown’s prose, as I don’t find it to be super-engaging.

Those are small potatoes, though. In the long run, Hate List is a fabulous debut novel, a genuine novel about difficult and serious situations, and a glimpse at an issue that is entirely relevant in today’s world. This is the kind of book where you reach the final sentence and sit there, gaping, not entirely able to accept it’s all over, because it’s so good and so touching and so real.
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