Review Detail

5.0 1
Young Adult Fiction 4856
A Valuable Examination
Overall rating
Writing Style
A timely, relevant, and thought-provoking debut.

What We Saw is a well-constructed cautionary tale—littered with all too realistic considerations and consequences to issues American culture tends to downplay, glamorize, and otherwise distort for a variety of reasons. At its heart, this is a story about doing the right thing—even when the right thing is unpopular and costly.

“What if it’s all true?”
“What if it doesn’t go away because it happened?”
“What if it goes away even though it happened?”

For the vast majority of this book, there is a persisting who-done-it element—first in regards to whether the boys accused of rape are guilty, along with the more close-up question of whether the main character (Kate) can completely trust that her boyfriend had no knowledge of the incident. Is Stacy telling the truth about what happened to her? Is Ben as good of a boyfriend catch as everyone seems to believe, or did he fail a serious test of character? These are the questions that will keep readers pressing onward through the small-town politics, biases, and intrigue.

What I Liked:

Hartzler’s writing style makes for a smooth, easy read. He also provides a number of solid, catchy quotes to spice up overtly teachable moments. Those who appreciate an exuberant and abundant use of metaphors ought to be thoroughly charmed.

The author doesn’t shy away in depicting this unsettling medley of rape-culture, victim-blaming, and the blinding extremes that sometimes result from the ethos of sports-worship. At the same time, readers are allowed a certain amount of emotional distance—shielded from the heaviness and agony that would have been inevitable had it been told from a victim’s point of view. Instead, the chosen perspective feels spot-on in balancing serious issues with mundane teenaged existence. It goes the extra mile of calling out the dangerously naive idea that “bad kids” can’t come out of stable, upstanding families.

Many readers will appreciate the sibling relationship portrayed between Kate and her younger brother. Her desire for him to not turn out to be a jerk, and the general proximity jostling between them, were perhaps the most realistic elements of this story. Their interactions provide a natural backdrop for examining how the objectification of girls lends itself to a numbing of empathy and can—potentially and insidiously—escalate.

“Not being able to say no isn’t the same as saying yes.”

What Didn’t Work For Me:

This is the kind of book readers have to be patient with. The tension doesn’t pick up until after page 50, and even after that the pacing is a bit stop-and-go.

Readers may find it difficult to get to know Kate or find her relatable. Her dreams, goals, aspirations, and personality took a far backseat to her romantic aims and to the plot at large. As a result, the telling often lacked the intimate depth one would expect from a first-person single POV narrative. Unfortunately, I never really felt like I was in her head or could anticipate her decisions. It was actually easier to like and understand Ben from seeing him through Kate’s obviously bias eyes than it was to form a connection with her. (Her parents suffered from a similar side character version of this cardboard-cutout syndrome, so readers may be able to blame it on heredity.)

Physical descriptions (especially involving adults) were fairly scant. There is a repetitious threading of certain sentences that goes a touch overboard, in this reader’s opinion. The effect is a literary tapestry that sometimes comes across as more busy than memorable. There is also a heavy reliance on social media slang, which may cause the work feel dated entirely too quickly.

CONTENT NOTE: It seems unnecessary to point out that this story contains sexual content—as a valuable portion of its theme involves multi-angled consideration paid to the concept of consent. For the most part it is handled with sensitivity. Casual teenage drinking is implied in the blurb, and realistically delivered.
It is unfortunately worth noting that this book also projects subtle yet consistent undercurrents of disdain toward Christianity. This comes across too much like author intrusion, and could prove alienating to some readers and stereotype-enforcing to others.

While certain elements get in the way of the storytelling this is, on the whole, a book that dares to address difficult-yet-necessary issues that teenagers are too rarely well informed about. I believe its greatest strength will be as a catalyst for initiating discussions—both between teens and, hopefully, the adults who care for them in the midst of today’s society.
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