Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Melinda and Heather talk about decorating her room & Melinda and Ivy discuss her art project.
I received this book from Hachette’s Children’s Group and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warnings: Rape, depression, PTSD, self harm
Speak is one of those books that you always hear about as a classic YA book, it was first published twenty years ago, which is kind of remarkable given the subject matter, society has been so quiet about the realities of sexual assault for a long time, so the fact that a book like this was published twenty years ago, and paved the way for books that followed is definitely a big deal. Having said that, the book wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think it’s important, but it didn’t have the emotional punch I was expecting and I found the writing and the characters a bit bland. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
The first ten lies they tell you in high school.
“Speak up for yourself—we want to know what you have to say.”
From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.
In Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.
I think the biggest thing that didn’t work for me with this book was the style that it was written in. Now this is probably a more, it’s not you, it’s me kind of thing, but I really don’t like reading diary formats. This book was no exception. I understand why Anderson decided to write the book in this way, the stream of consciousness style does fit with the story she was telling, but just personally, I didn’t really enjoy it. I also found the fact that there was no real chapter separation quite difficult because there wasn’t really a natural stopping point when I wanted to put the book down.
Speaking of the writing, I didn’t mind it, but it wasn’t nothing particularly special. I found it quite simplistic, which is fine, not all books have to have complex prose, but it was also kind of bland. I wanted to feel more emotion from the writing and I just didn’t. I did enjoy Melinda’s sarcasm and dry humour though, if the author had managed to infuse the same spark into the rest of her writing, I probably would have enjoyed the book more.
Melinda herself, I had mixed feelings about. For most of the book, because of her PTSD, she’s quite apathetic, she doesn’t really care about anything and though of course you come to understand why, it could be a little infuriating at times reading her thoughts. I also found her quite hard to connect to, to start off with and though that changed throughout the book, it was tough going for a while because I didn’t really understand why I should care.
For a very short book, I found this one incredibly slow. There’s not really a plot as such, it’s more of a stream of consciousness of Melinda coming to terms with what happened to her, and for a book that was only 230 odd pages long, it felt like it was a lot longer. We don’t actually get to the revelation of what happened to Melinda until about 150 odd pages through, which is quite a long time to wait, especially since I already knew what the book was about before reading. I would rather we’d found out what happened to Melinda earlier and then spent longer on the aftermath. I felt the ending was a little rushed because of this, although I was glad that it ended up in a hopeful place rather than a dark one.
It was definitely nice to read about a younger teen, Melinda is only about 14, and the younger teens (13-15) have definitely suffered from a lack of books aimed at their particular age group in recent years, so it’s nice to see a book that features a younger teen as the protagonist, even if it is a 20 year old one!
I definitely feel like more people should have been worried about Melinda. Her parents were awful, blaming her for her poor grades, and getting frustrated at her not speaking, but they don’t bother to try and find out what’s going on. That’s not to say that Melinda would have told them, but it didn’t seem like there was much of a concerted effort to help Melinda, even though she was failing school and becoming withdrawn from everyone.
I didn’t feel like the secondary characters were particularly fleshed out, this was probably because it was from Melinda’s POV, and she was pretty withdrawn from everyone, but still, from a reader’s POV, I would have liked it if the side characters had been a little more fleshed out, I would probably have enjoyed the book more. I was very glad she didn’t go down the romance route with David and Melinda though, considering everything Melinda had to go through.
Overall, I can see why this book is so important, and I definitely think that sexual assault is a topic that needs to be discussed, but I’ve read more recent books about the topic that I’ve felt packed more of an emotional punch (like Asking For It by Louise O’Neill). However, without this book, books like that probably wouldn’t exist, so it definitely has to be commended for that.
I’m not quite sure what my next review will be, as two of the books I’m currently reading are October ARCs. It will probably be my current audio read, Lair of Dreams, by Libba Bray, the second Diviners book (depending on how long that takes me to read).