Book: “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Publishing Info: Random House, January 2017 (upcoming)
Where Did I Get This Book: An ARC through Random House (won on LibraryThing), for which I will give an honest review. Thank you, Random House and LibraryThing!
Book Description: In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.
Review: I can hear it now. When “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is officially published, I’m going to bet that there are going to be people who grouse that it’s either unrealistic, or an unfair portrayal of teenagers. But let me tell you. I knew these kids in high school. I basically went to this high school, though mine was in the Midwest and not on the West Coast. I knew kids who were vicious and mean to those who were different to the point that it became sadistic. I knew kids who were under incredible pressure to get into good schools because it was expected of them, and that it nearly broke them. I knew kids with serious drug problems who were shielded by their wealthy parents and faced few repercussions, while kids from less advantaged backgrounds were facing expulsion for not having good enough grades. It wasn’t wealthy enough for “Cruel Intentions’… but it was a Minnesota version of ‘Cruel Intentions’.
Suffice to say, this book was kind of like a walk down memory lane, the only difference being that in MY day there was no social media to make things that much worse. Thank God. So yes. While it may not reflect the experiences of all teenagers, it sure reflects the experiences of some.
What struck me hardest about “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” was that, while it was kind of a soapy thriller grit lit novel in some ways, it really read more like a character study of a number of privileged kids, and who they turn into after one terrible, avoidable tragedy. I liked that we were given a framework, a moment that has changed the lives of a number of kids (some tragic, some sympathetic, many horrible), and we get to see how this moment has predetermined how they are going to end up, in a way. This character study is seen through the eyes of a new, young, teacher named Miss Nichols. I think that it was a good idea to have her be the thread throughout this novel, a Greek Chorus to tie all of these other stories together, to show how they connect to each other and how they affect each other. But at the same time, much of my frustration was aimed at Miss Nichols, whose decision making skills and naïveté were a bit hard to fathom at times. It was as if her desire to understand and sympathize with these kids was being punished, which felt pretty cynical. But at the same time, it was kind of refreshing that this wasn’t just another ‘how do I reach these kids?!’ kind of moment, and that these kids can’t be reached because they don’t want to be reached, and the world has convinced them that they don’t have to be. That said, GOSH I wanted to smack Miss Nichols upside the head a few times.
I was far more interested in the perspectives of the kids, because we did get to see how their various lives were being shaped and destroyed by parental coddling/expectations, their wealth, and their seeming ability to be completely untouchable. For me the two most interesting characters we examined were Abigail and Elisabeth, both struggling with their own problems of teenage girlhood. Abigail is an honors student striving for good grades so she can go to a good school, but she has also found herself tangled up in an illicit romance with a teacher, Mr. Ellison. But Abigail was also one of the main instigators of a horrendous bullying episode in eighth grade, whose participation and needling led to the overarching tragedy of the story, and the end of her most important friendship. It was pretty fascinating to get to see all these different angles of Abigail, and while I definitely felt terrible for her in some ways (she is, after all, being manipulated by a sexual predator), she is also absolutely terrible in other ways in how she treats others. Her multifaceted personality was realistic, and a bit more in depth than some of the other awful kids she surrounded herself with. Elisabeth, however, was a surprising character altogether. So much of what we saw of her at first was from the perspective of those around her, from a moment of compassion towards a bullied classmate (with a sad face emoji in the group chat he was being harassed on), to others, including adults, thinking of her as a beautiful girl who is a sex object to all the men and boys around her. But then we find out that her aloofness is hiding her painfully shy personality, and a troubled home life that has pushed her to dark places. Her perspective chapter was the one that hurt the most to read, but in turn she was also the student that I was rooting for the most. It was just so interesting that I as the reader went in with certain expectations about her based on what other characters said, only to find someone completely different, but only when I actually had to listen to/ read about her from her perspective. It was very well played.
So in all, this is an upsetting book, but I do think that there is quite a bit of truth to it. While it shows the dark and disturbing places that high schools, especially those with unlimited access to money and little consequences to their actions, it also shows that things do go on, and that life will keep going after it for those who just hang in there, and learn from their mistakes. And again, as someone who went to a school like this, I found it to be one of the most relatable books about teenagers that I’ve read this year.
Rating 8: An entertaining and addictive look into the dangers of privilege and how bad teenagers can be to each other, and how they can blindly hurt themselves as well.
“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” is not out yet and not available on WorldCat. It is expected to be published on January 10th, 2017. Thanks again to Random House and LibraryThing for providing this ARC!