Okay, so let’s get something straight from the start, just so that we have it out of the way and done with. Months ago I read Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why and I reviewed it on Goodreads. Only, I gave it a not-so-good review, and kind of, sort of slammed it. There, I said it. I read it and I did not particularly like it.
Now, before you judge I would like to point out three things that are semi- redeemable on my part:
- I re-read the book
- I watched the Netflix series
- I pulled down my original review.
I am now replacing my Goodreads post with this one and I hope that it does it justice.
Here it goes:
13 Reasons Why a book and show review
First, let us start with the book. It looks like this:
Clay Jensen comes home from school to find a box waiting for him. Inside is a set of tapes recorded by Hannah Baker and on each tape is a secret so damning that it could destroy the reputation and the seemingly perfect life of those who have made things difficult for Hannah. On each tape is a story, but the crux is that each story points to a reason why Hannah Baker has killed herself.
Appropriately, Clay Jensen freaks out. I mean, you sort of would wouldn’t you? The secret lives of teenagers are revealed in this gut-churning novel by Jay Asher and the writing is a fast-paced, slightly discerning and somewhat uncomfortable read. The tapes are in order of Hannah’s recent life, starting with the story of Justin, the over-eager jock dick who starts a less than amicable rumor about Hannah that has later repercussions, and ending with a disastrous encounter with Mr. Porter the school counselor. Each story is one of terrible choices, their consequences and the overall lack of morality which contributes to Hannah’s demise. And this all culminates in the climax of the story in which Hannah Baker slits her wrists in a bathtub.
The book’s time-frame is fast (Clay listens to the tapes and follows the map that Hannah has left in one night), and it sticks to a singular story-line in which Clay follows Hannah’s story with little deviation outside of what is recorded for him. There are some strong characters from the offset, Clay being one of them. But, make note also of Tony’s character in the book. Although he does not play a hugely prominent part, both characters serve to introduce a level of morality that is missing from those people that Hannah surrounded herself with.
Now, here’s why the book was slightly meh for me. The story was brilliant. Clay is extremely likeable and he really does often have WTF moments throughout the book which did made him identifiable. Yes, I spent the book up until tape nine (Clay’s tape) wondering what this very nice person could have possibly done to Hannah that would see him included in her awful story. In this regard, Asher doesn’t deviate from Clay the nice guy. There is no unreliable character narrative in this book. Which is good because everyone else has serious problems.
So, when I first reviewed the book my meh was related to the fact that Hannah’s suicide was a result of the actions of those around her and that Asher didn’t really cover (at least for me) the fact that she had deep psychological issues that made her relate more to death than to life. In short, she committed suicide because of the actions of others. But I have since taken back this opinion after discussing with a friend who pointed out that there is NEVER a “good” reason for committing suicide. None of the 13 reasons make sense and really nothing would. Good point, well made. So, okay let’s take that into consideration and admit that perhaps Asher’s aim was to make Hannah’s suicide confusing and senseless. I mean they usually are right?
So, I reconsidered and discussed and after much thinking, I have redefined my meh. See, I have evolved from my view of Hannah and her psychological issues and have instead realized that Hannah has the unfortunate luck of being surrounded by a bunch of complete asses. Seriously, how many asses can there be? Well, lets revisit this again, there’s Justin the ass, Alex the ass, Jessica the ass, then there’s Tyler the peeping tom ass, the there’s Marcus and Zach the double jock asses, Ryan the poet ass, then Justin again (apparently he’s a real ass), then there’s Bryce the really-like-for-real ass, then Mr. Porter the incompetent ass. The only non-ass, as I said, appears to be Clay which is convenient because there’s only so many asses one can take in one book. In conjunction with all of these asses, Hannah had to have incompetent teachers, a counselor that should have been fired and apparently unapproachable parents. I mean, wow, what luck!
And that’s where I guess my meh comes in. I guess I don’t buy it. But hey, what do I know? I’m no longer a teenage girl. I don’t know what happens in high school anymore. I grew up in Australia for heavens sake, for all I know there’s some kind of special ‘make them all asses’ vaccination that happens in American middle schools ready for the all-American high school experience. So, I did research. And by research I mean that I asked a high-schooler. And this is what she said (and yes, I quote):
“From the moment that another girl would have slapped me across the face (as Jessica did to Hannah), I would have been done with her…like seriously, Bye Felicia kind of done.”
Okay….good. Because Hannah does not do that. Instead she spends more of her time stumbling across and hanging out with the asses. She’s kind and caring and strives to be their friends. Which I guess is what Asher aims for. Hannah the nice girl is a victim of her own goodness. Ah, the irony. She does not tell anyone about the awful things that happen to her. She does not go to her parents, who for all intents and purposes seem to be nice peeps. She does not stay away from the God-awful people who appear to get away with everything at her high school. Instead she internalizes these amazing and terrible things that befall her, and she carries the load alone. It’s a dramatic and riveting story, except that I agree with my above quoted high-schooler. It’s a whole lot of nope….Okay, maybe. Maybe there is someone out there that would allow this to happen to them, maybe there is a series of unfortunate events that would transpire that make these things seem very realistic to someone. But just not to me.
That’s it. That’s my meh.
Now let’s move on from it. Because actually the book is brilliant. I mean really brilliant. Clay’s character provides us with the moral fiber that the story needs, but more than that, he provides reason. He is disturbed by Hannah’s tapes, as he should be, and as we should too. Because, yes, I do find it a little far fetched that all the evil of her high school should befall Hannah; but on a serious note, what do I know? Maybe there are hundreds of Hannahs out there. Maybe there are thousands who have to put up with the asses. And if Asher can get to just one of them through this tale, and if he can show them that there is a Clay for every Justin, Jessica, Bryce, Sheri, etc, et. al. then he’s done a brilliant job hasn’t he?
So, as far as I’m concerned, despite the meh, I really enjoyed this book. And yes, I was hasty in my Goodreads assessment of it, but I’m really glad for what happened next, and I’m really glad for the opportunity to revisit my review.
What Happened Next
So, after the first reading of the book I came across a little article somewhere (and I’ll be honest here and say that I usually post a link but I really don’t remember where I saw it). The article told me that 13 Reasons Why was about to be a Netflix series. My ears pricked up, because the thing is that even if I originally wasn’t a fan of the book, I am interested in seeing artistic versions of it in all forms. In short, if someone makes a TV version, I’d be interested in seeing it, to see what they do with it.
Here it is:
So, on April 1st I diligently sat in front of my Netflix screen, which was no small feat because I just moved house and had to get my TV set up for this. I hit play. And this is what happened.
I took one look at the actors and determined that the average age of them all is in their early 20s. Sure enough after a little internet research my suspicions were proved true. Both Katherine Langford (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) are 20. Christian Navarro (Tony) is 25 and the youngest is Devin Druid (Tyler) at the age of 19. And could we also just take a moment here to appreciate Brandon Flynn (Justin), aged 23, who regales us with his fabulous tattoos (sorry guys and gals it turns out not all of them are real). Point is, no, these very glamorous looking actors are not high school age. But then, what else is new? It’s not like any TV series based in high school actually employs actors of high school age; that would be just totally unrealistic and very un-cool, right?
Once again I’ll really quickly say that my original meh for the book stands for the TV show too. Won’t mention more of this.
What I will say is that the Netflix series lives up to all expectations. It is absolutely riveting and totally engrossing. I literally marathoned the series and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning just to watch one more episode. It was brilliant. Not just for the story, but for the amazing talent. My personal favorite was Minnette (Clay) who absolutely nails the harrowing journey that Hannah’s tapes bring us on. His WTF moments are epic, he completely embodies the grounded character of Clay who is caught in an unreal world of….well…asses. He is tough when he needs to be, he loses his s&*t when he needs to and he brings to the show the guts that it needs. Langford is also very mentionable as Hannah. Throughout the series I had to constantly remind myself NOT to become attached to her because she really is going to die in the show. And, her amazing performance in Episode 13 makes her suicide everyone’s worst nightmare. A very serious role and a very good performance of it.
BUT I do just want to take a pause here to talk about one more actress, and that is Kate Walsh who plays Hannah’s mother. I do not know where she dug her performance from or how much the producers (Selena Gomez is an executive on this one) paid the make-up department but her performance of a grieving mother is possibly one of the best I’ve ever seen. She looks beyond distraught. Specifically look for her performance upon discovering Hannah in the bathtub in Episode 13. Simply brilliant, that’s all I’ll say at this point.
If you have read the book and then watch the series, you’ll find more artistic embellishment on TV than in the novel. The story follows the lives of many of the characters and takes place over many weeks, instead of a night in which Clay listens to the tapes and follows the map in the book version. As such, in the TV series, you’ll see the ins and outs of dramatic stories which contribute to the angsty teenage asses and their behavior. Of course this justifies nothing, but does serve to produce a more elongated series. You’ll also see some of the characters take a more lead role than in the book. Tony for example is not mentioned after the fourth chapter of the book but features throughout the TV series. Hannah’s parents are not often mentioned in the book, but their significant role and their lead in the investigation into her death is featured in the series. And, I do have to mention here that in the books the tapes stop for Clay with very little else to offer him in terms of closure. Hannah is there, her voice filling his ears, and then she is not. And there is nothing to be done about that. It is an unsettling ending. The TV show doesn’t offer more by way of a resolution, but we do see the incredible scene in which Hannah’s suicide takes place and we do see the absolutely devastating effect that has on those around her. I hope that anybody who is considering suicide can see this.
So, final verdict? I loved it. I re-read and revised my review because of this TV series. I looked again at things that I’d glossed over. I reconsidered. I hope that the series can do the same for someone else. This is a brilliant show with brilliant acting and I hope that you’ll see it. Because you should. And after you do, maybe you’ll think about how you treat others. Kindness, after all, costs nothing, and yet could make all the difference.
Take a moment, take a few, to read and watch this. You will not regret it.