Thirteen Reasons Why is a young adult novel about teenage suicide and depression. Minor spoilers follow in the “My Thoughts” section.
Clay Jensen, a high school student, found a package after returning home from school one day. In it were thirteen cassette tapes recorded on by Hannah Baker, one of Clay’s classmates who had recently committed suicide, before she died. In the first tape, Hannah explained the situation: thirteen people were part of the events that led to her suicide. After the thirteen each listened to all the tapes, they were to pass them along to the next person. If they refused to do so, Hannah had a way of making sure the information on the tapes became public.
Clay listened, growing more horrified at his classmate’s actions and Hannah’s misery with each one. The story he heard proved that the smallest action can start a ripple effect with unintended consequences. In the end, Clay was given a new perspective and learned to pay more attention to the needs of others.
I liked the back and forth between Clay’s life and Hannah’s tapes. I read this in one sitting and the narratives were partially why. The pauses from Hannah’s story made me want to get back to it that much quicker but Clay’s thoughts and actions were important enough that I wasn’t ever bored.
The adults in this book were seriously lacking (which obviously happens way too often in real life) but where were her parents? How could two of her teachers completely ignore her suicidal signs, including the one who started a class discussion on suicide? Everyone of influence in Hannah's life failed her, and it was sad to read.
I think it would've been more effective to read this book from the perspective of a character who had hurt Hannah. Clay’s genuine sorrow for Hannah was touching, but it made the climax of Hannah’s story anti-climatic because after a while I could tell Clay wasn’t a problem.
The things that Hannah had to deal with were awful and, in a couple cases, straight assault or illegal. Most of them, though, I didn't like being linked to her suicide. The offense of one of the first people on the tapes was to name her “Best Ass in Freshman Class.” Yes, I can understand that was humiliating as it was unwanted attention, but people who aren't struggling with depression don't kill themselves over these things. The reasoning for her suicide became uncomfortably close to revenge because her depression wasn't fully linked to her reaction.
In case I seemed callous writing that, I would like to mention that as a 6'0" woman I had more than my fair share of unwanted - and straight up rude - commentary on my body in my early teenage years. But in my late teens, I got over it and I learned to love everything about myself as people without depression generally do. That’s the key phrase: without depression. Hannah suffered from depression. This novel needed more focus on her mood disorder (in my opinion) as the root cause of her suicide and not her playing the blame game with the terrible kids at her school. It just seemed like a huge missed opportunity to educate readers and fully empathize with the character.
The actions that were more than just comments and were assault/criminal, though, were awful. I did feel for Hannah in those moments; they would be hard enough to handle without depression. I hope that if something like this ever happened in real life, the tapes would get leaked because some of those kids needed serious punishment.
I came away from Thirteen Reasons Why feeling like there’s so much more to be said about the subject of suicide, depression, and bullying among teenagers. I do think it’s a good starting point for a conversation on these issues and a great reminder that your words and actions can affect people in ways you may never realize. For that and the writing style, I give it a 2.5 of 5.
I would recommend this book to high school students, but for me personally it just wasn’t a favorite. There are better book options out there on these sensitive subjects that really get into the mind of a teenager. Laurie Halse Anderson’s books come to mind; I've read several and was truly moved by each one. I recommend Speak and Wintergirls especially.