Most of the time I don’t have much trouble picking out what an author’s themes are. I can say, “this book is about moving on after grief” or “this book is about learning where loyalties lie” or something along those lines. But to be honest, I can’t do that here. For me, Brenna Yovanoff just sat down to write about real people in real situations, and if there were any messages she wanted readers to take away from Paper Valentine, they weren’t obvious or easy to pick out. Everything was subtle, kept beneath the surface, and, in my opinion, masterfully done. This entire novel is approached with a fairly light hand, and the story was allowed to grow and shape organically. Authorial presence in this book is kept to a minimum.
Paper Valentine’s main character, Hannah, is teenager who’s being haunted—literally—by her best friend, Lillian. Lillian died six months ago after several years of being anorexic. And Lillian’s ghost is a projection of all the very worst things about Lillian. Her selfishness, her need for control, her obsession with perfection, her snobbishness. But in some way, Hannah still clings to Lillian, and neither of the girls is able to let the other go.
Aside from the obvious problem with Lillian’s ghost, Hannah’s also dealing with the reality of a serial killer loose in her town, one who targets young girls. Her parents and younger sister are understandably freaked out, and so is Hannah in a less significant way. Primarily, Hannah and Lillian take on something of an obsession with the murders, and that leads them into trouble. Trouble, in this case, takes the form of Finny Boone, a trouble youth with the scars and foster care experience to prove it.
Initially, Hannah is taken aback by her attraction for Finny, but not for long. With him, she finds the voice she’s always kept hidden, and when he tries to break things off, she isn’t afraid to speak out.
“Stop,” I tell him.
He glances over, squinting at me. “What?”
“Stop acting like you need to protect me from yourself.” And I sound angrier than I ever usually sound. “I’m not a victim or a fragile little thing. And maybe there’s dangerous stuff out there, but not you. Okay? I don’t need to be kept safe from you” (pg. 272).
And now that she’s found the courage to do it, Hannah begins talking back. First to her friends, who are jealous and petty and snooty. To them Hannah proves that she won’t be controlled any longer, not the way Lillian controlled her. And Hannah also speaks to her mother, who’s clung so long to an image of what “perfect Hannah” should be that she doesn’t quite know how to deal with Hannah’s grief and confusion.
“For maybe the first time in my life, she is listening to the words I’m saying and not telling me the words she thinks I should use” (pg.241).
As the different relationships in her life come into sharp relief, Hannah is forced to think about things and people differently. She has to learn (to some degree) who she is now that she’s out of Lillian’s shadow, and how to step out of the mold everyone expects her to fit into. Without a doubt, Hannah was a dynamic, well-rounded character, though her growth isn’t immediately obvious.
Eventually, of course, the serial killer catches up with Hannah and Lillian and Finny. The villain gave the obligatory monologue for the reader’s benefit—to recap important plot points without too much difficulty on the author’s part. But it all comes out right in the end, of course. Everyone safe and sound, happy and well. But Hannah still has to learn to come to terms with Lillian. Who she was, who she is as a ghost, and what their relationship meant.
“The idea that a person can be defined by anything so superficial [as sickness] is terrible. […] The simple version isn’t even recognizable when you hold it up against a living, breathing human being. Her ghost will always be so much less of her than the girl I used to see every day” (pg. 256).
Paper Valentine is a book that really defies categorization. It is its own entity, separate from anything else either the paranormal or mystery genres have to offer. Brenna Yovanoff’s storytelling is unique, her prose is engaging, and the way she treats characterization is uncomplicated and straightforward.