Loaded (and controversial) subject matter, obviously, so be prepared.
Let’s forge ahead, shall we?
First of all, let me be real: I completely hated the book version of Thirteen Reasons Why. I originally gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, but looking back, I truly can’t remember a single remarkable thing about it; YA books are one of my easy-to-read/enjoy genres, so that might have been part of it. However, I feel I should lower my review to 1 star. (Maybe 1.5 stars, because it was at least compelling enough to finish.) I read this book in November of 2016, so obviously I didn’t feel driven enough to review it. (And, admittedly, I didn’t want to write a review that would potentially offend the hardcore fans.)
Since its publication in 2007, Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a fanatic, cult-like following. Over the years, I’d heard nothing but rave reviews for it (which, funny enough, was also the case with the irritating Gone Girl; maybe I should stop listening to raving reviewers?). So when I found a perfect condition hardcover at Goodwill, I decided it was finally the time to check it out.
Right off the bat, I’ll admit that it’s been many moons since I read the book, so my memories are a bit stale. But I can tell you one thing: it held me captive only because I’ve dealt with depression and wanted to see Asher’s depiction of this illness. So although I ended up disliking the book, one of the problems was probably that I read this as a (mostly) mentally stable 22-year-old rather than in my much-less-mentally-stable high school years. Then again, had I encountered this book in those darker times, I can’t say for sure if it would have resonated with me, helped me, or caused me to believe suicide was a viable option.
I consider myself not easily moved by social cues, so I doubt a fictional character would have convinced me to kill myself, but other youngins may not be as resilient. I very strongly believe this is not a book for high schoolers unless they are mature, or unless they are planning on discussing their thoughts on the book afterward. Though the consensus will never be in, there’s no doubt in my mind that this book glorifies the act of suicide. Hannah Baker, the main character, is a decidedly selfish individual and either ignorant or blind to anything but the nastiest or most careless acts of her peers. Clay Jensen, the awkward, caring, gangly love interest, is even worse. Hannah I couldn’t stand. Clay I despised.
Hannah goes through the novel detailing every wrongdoing from her thirteen classmates/peers, and the reasons they are ultimately responsible for her death. That’s right: Hannah, in her last act of selfishness, displaces the blame of her own suicide onto the hands of thirteen high schoolers, who will then have to live with the knowledge for the rest of their lives. The reasons for these people being on the tapes varies greatly; some, I can understand how the acts were no doubt malicious (for instance, the photographer stalker who took pictures outside Hannah’s bedroom, or her first date where the guy insinuates to his classmates that they went way further than just kiss).
But ultimately, the tapes are a last act of pettiness: I’m going to kill myself, so now you’ve got to listen to everything mean you did to me so you’ll feel bad forever; otherwise they’ll be released unto the world and everyone will know. Hannah never took the time to actually sit down and have a discussion with any of these people, mind you. Even the scene with the guidance counselor, where he asked pointedly if anything is wrong, illustrated this point. Hannah mumbled her way through a non-explanation, then ran out of the guidance office. When the guidance counselor didn’t follow her and demand (for the tenth time) an explanation, she put him on the tapes.
The fact is that Hannah didn’t want help. She didn’t want to give an explanation to anyone, she didn’t want to talk it out. She wanted to die, and she wanted to place the blame for that on anyone’s shoulders but her own.
Now, on to the horrible Clay Jensen. Because beside the annoyance that is Hannah Baker, Clay is the second most intolerable aspect of this book.
Clay has a complex. To be specific, it’s a nice guy complex—potentially the worst complex one can have. Clay received the tapes and starts them, and his first thought is, There must be some mistake. I had a giant crush on Hannah—surely I can’t be one of the reasons she killed herself!!!1!
Well, as I discussed earlier, nobody was really the reason Hannah killed herself—but that’s beside the point. Because yes, Clay, regardless of how much you lubbed Hannah with all your heart, loving someone doesn’t make them any less depressed. Being nice to someone doesn’t make someone less depressed. Just because someone smiles at you and jokes with you doesn’t mean they’re not depressed. You get the picture. Clay repeatedly wonders why he’s on the tapes, going so far as to say he could have “saved” Hannah if she’d only come to him. Honestly, I can’t even remember the reason Clay ends up being on the tapes (again, it’s been a while), I just remember despising his attitude toward the whole thing. I do remember, however, that Clay’s chapter is completely disappointing, because we find out something along the lines of “Yeah, Clay was a great friend and he didn’t really do anything to make me want to kill myself, but he also didn’t stop me.”
So, like, he was basically on the tapes so that we could have a sympathetic main character bear witness to everyone else’s wrongdoings… All right. Wouldn’t want to mess that up halfway through with a big reveal that the main character is actually flawed!! Clay’s seeming “perfection” killed the book for me more than Hannah’s insufferableness.
The book ended on a high note (sarcasm, mind you) because Clay realized the error of his ways and saw that one of his old friends, Skye, might also be suffering from depression because—I kid you not—she wears baggy, unattractive clothes…
Anyway, Clay decides to sit by her on the bus and be her friend, like the true messiah he is, because if he couldn’t save Hannah he can at least save this poor, ugly creature.
So there’s that. I really disliked the book. I’m not sure I remember why I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, because it feels much more like a 1 star to me after writing this.
The good news is that the Netflix show sucks, but it doesn’t suck quite as much. While it sticks pretty closely to the books, each 45-minute episode expands deeply on the incidents that Hannah talks about in her tapes, all while exploring the ways Hannah’s death not only affects her classmates, but also her community and her grief-stricken parents (an area the book lacked in). The longer episodes give the story room to breathe and expand on some of the relationships between the characters, and especially the relationship between Clay and Hannah, which is another thing the book lacked in entirely. Clay came across as less a friend and more a casual stalker who had barely interacted with Hannah enough to be so infatuated with her. The show makes this much more palatable and has regular scenes of them interacting, going on cute “dates” (like star-gazing), talking at their mutual workplace, etc. Their scenes together are adorable and make the subject matter even more heart-wrenching.
I haven’t finished the show yet, but I appreciated that it also normalizes mental illness in smaller ways. Mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean being suicidal: in one scene, Clay’s parents present breakfast for him, and he notices a pill bottle on the table spread. Later, it’s revealed that he hasn’t been taking his anxiety medication regularly—he’s prone to panic attacks—and since Hannah’s death, his parents have worried about him. Not only does this normalize the stigma against such medications, but it instantly makes Clay a more relatable and sympathetic main character; he’s not a perfect character who thought he could have saved Hannah if she’d only have given him a chance, he’s a normal human with personal issues to deal with.
TV SHOW: 3/5 (Although it’s much better than the book, it obviously can’t escape the book’s curse of badly presented subject material. Also, some of the acting is pretty cringe-worthy.)
BOOK: 1.5/5 (I give it this much because, again, it was for the most part well-written enough to hold my attention, but in the end it handled heavy material in a way that made it feel more melodramatic than sincere.)