I sat on the 3-star/4-star fence with this book, simply because the writing is incredibly simple: small words, short sentences, very teenager-fied narrative voice. In other words, this book isn't going to be taught in many literature classrooms. However, I teetered into the 4-star arena because the book has so many other fine qualities, and because I don't believe the author wanted to write the great American novel, just a difficult and important book.
The narrative weaves together two story threads: what happened the day Valerie's boyfriend shot several people in their high school including her and himself, and what happens when Valerie eventually returns to school after the crisis. The crux of the matter is whether or not Valerie should blame herself in whole or part for her boyfriend's actions like many of her classmates and her father, or write him off as a nutcase and exonerate herself of blame like the police and the popular girl whose life she saved.
I loved how realistic Valerie is, the teen who talks about morbidity and murder constantly as an outlet for her anger and frustration at being bullied. Despite the events of Columbine and other shootings, most kids like this never hurt anyone and grow out of what's just another coping mechanism. As Valerie says, many authors like Poe and Shakespeare told stories about death, and she thought that was all she and her boyfriend were doing, too. She has many flaws: she's whiny, believes she has more power over events than she does, is self-centered...You know, she's like many real people!
The scenes portraying the shooting are sensitively handled, heart-breaking but never gratuitous. The relationship between Valerie and her boyfriend Nick is so well-developed that the reader understands Valerie's grief at losing him, even though he turned out to be deeply disturbed.
I spent a lot of the book feeling angry at Valerie's parents. Despite the fact that she didn't hurt anyone and never meant to, her mother keeps her under furious lock and key and treats her like a criminal. Her father believes she IS a criminal; I didn't really buy into their impending reconciliation at the end. I mean, he's a lawyer, and he let her be questioned by a police detective, alone, right after the shooting? Really? Not to mention the butt-chewing he gives her at one point about how she's ruined everyone's life. But her parents were a major source of problems for her from the beginning, so I'm sure the author meant for them to come off as infuriating.
The portrayal of high school life is dead-center accurate, from the social collateral and intense bullying among kids to adults who see what they want to see. While the author never gives the impression that the intense bullying justified the shooting, she also methodically shows the pain and humiliation the shooter suffered, which together with his mental imbalance, poor home situation, drug use, and inappropriate friends made a lethal combination.
My far-and-away favorite character was Valerie's therapist. He provides stability in her life as well as an escape from school and her family, but he pulls no punches and isn't afraid to tell her to do things that push her out of her comfort zone. On the flip side, though, I didn't at all care for the mysterious woman who offers Valerie art lessons. She's nice, but she's never developed or explained beyond a kooky artist who spontaneously took Valerie in because she could see an opportunity to help her. Valerie was already using drawing as a way to deal with trauma, so the art teacher didn't really add anything. Also, Valerie got awfully good at art in a big hurry, even though she hadn't so much as drawn since she was little. I had a hard time believing in her instant know-how.
The very end wrecked the book for me a little; there's no such thing as a train to "destination unknown". Trains go to specific places. And it was hard for me to believe that her overprotective mother would let Valerie ride off into the beyond with no plan, no destination, no job, friends or lodging when she got there...More detail was definitely called for.
All in all, though, a great but sorrowful read on an important, tough subject.
Recommend to: Age 14+, anyone who has survived or is trying to survive tough high school situations, anyone who needs to know what it's like to survive in a tough high school situation, reluctant readers.
Don't recommend to: Anyone impressionable enough to get into trouble after reading the book.