Liz Emerson, her head full of Newton’s Laws of Motion that she has been learning in physics class, drives her Mercedes off the road and into a tree to put an end to her misery. That’s how this captivating novel begins. A mysterious omniscient narrator starts there and takes the reader slowly backwards in time, to gradually tell us about the life of Liz Emerson and how she got to this point. We meet Liz’s best friends, Kennie and Julia, Liz’s mom, and even Liam, the boy who Liz made fun of in 7th grade, with devastating consequences for both of them. In fact, Liz made fun of a lot of people and along the way became the most popular girl in her high school class.
We gradually learn Liz’s backstory and go back and forth in time to see how she became the way she is – what happened to her and what she did to others. This novel is all about cause and effect, and it’s fascinating to see the story gradually spool out, as more becomes clear. Meanwhile, Liz barely clings to life in a hospital room, surrounded by her weeping classmates. Throughout the novel, there are brief snapshots of moments in the far past with Liz as a little girl, always accompanied by the mystery narrator.
This is a clever and heartfelt novel, combining powerful emotions with physics and consequences, as we learn, bit by bit, how Liz got to the point where she decided to end her life. Amazingly, I came to feel some sympathy for the main character who at first seemed to be a typical spoiled mean girl, as the layers were slowly peeled away to reveal the true person underneath and how she came to feel trapped by her life and her choices.
I thought it was incredible how well Zhang got inside the mind of a high school girl and characterized the details of life for a modern teenager…until I found out that she wrote this novel when she herself was just a junior in high school! I listened to this wonderful podcast interview on Bookrageous with her (as well as an interview with A.S. King) and really enjoyed learning the backstory about how she wrote her first novel at such a young age (but I recommend you read the book first and then listen to the interview, especially if at the end, you are still unsure about the narrator!).
I listened to this novel on audio, and it was very well done, with the engaging reader pulling me right into the story. Zhang is now a freshman in college, taking English and writing classes like any other student when she is already an accomplished YA author. She said she recently turned in her manuscript for her second book to her publisher, and I can’t wait to read it!
304 pages, Greenwillow BooksHarperCollins Audio
NOTE: This book is best for older teens and young adults, as it tackles some difficult and serious issues, like alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and, of course, suicide.