This book is both a quiet coming-of-age novel, and a suspenseful mystery, making it somewhat difficult to review without providing spoilers. In some ways, it was a fairly typical YA novel about a high school girl - yet, there was a lot else going on.
Summary: The book opens with Gabi Mallory worrying about the loudness of her pee. She's crouched on a toilet seat during a lockdown, too scared to finish up "normal" things like her bathroom break, because the siren and loudspeaker have indicated that it's a lockdown. She's supposed to stay where she is while they locate and dismantle a bomb. Eventually, busted in on by police and rescued (and, after having a teensy accident), Gabi joins her classmates on campus. She and her sister are relieved to see each other, both having been terrified. But their fear is nothing in comparison with their mother's fear, when they get home. She, a detective's wife and tired of fearing for those she loves, wants her girls out of that school, and essentially placed on a high shelf, where nothing can touch them, not even dust. If her parents knew that the bomber - who is still at large - has been leaving her notes in her locker on playing cards, Gabi knows she'd be yanked away as soon as possible -- so she tells no one, and makes it her business to stop bullying when she sees it, intervene with the depressed, and join the school peer counseling hotline. But, is any of that really going to make a difference?
Peaks: This book will keep your attention, and the writing in some places is evocative and beautiful. The journal entries from the Stranger's Manifesto, as the bomber's diary is called, would themselves make the beginnings of a whole different novel. Someone so disturbed and yet so articulate in his pain has its own kind of beauty. The sibling relationship in this novel, and the way Gabi changes - becoming less focused on perfecting herself for college and in changing the world around her, even if it meant losing a friend, spoke to a kind of determination that rarely shows up in real life. The mysterious element in the book came partially from the identity of the dangerous Stranger, yes, but also from the multiple unknowns calling the helpline. This is one of the stronger elements of the novel, and gives us a great deal of insight into Gabi, as she learns compassion, and how to truly listen, not just on the phone, but in her life. It was satisfying to find them resolve - by the end of the novel, the reader knows almost everyone who called the peer-to-peer hotline, and feels that they earned their happily ever after. So much about this novel works emotionally.
The story has two distinct plot arcs - the fraught relationship between Gabi, her mother, and her sister, and the suspenseful side with the school bomber. I loved both sides, but wasn't as satisfied with the resolution of the relationships; Gabi's mother is brittle and difficult throughout the novel until one day... she isn't. I wanted to be shown a little more the mechanics behind this, but felt the inclusion of their mother growing as a person was important.
Valleys: My overall frustration was the protagonist's inability to identify actual danger from drama in her life, which leaves the reader perhaps unclear about what real danger is... A bomber at your school presents actual danger. Getting separated from a potential boyfriend, not actual danger. Going out of her way to conceal clues from the police, break into her father's safe and handle evidence and otherwise break repeated promises to tell him if she knew anything seemed beyond foolhardy. It seemed disingenuous that the character just didn't want to change high schools, so she was willing to die and/or be responsible for her fellow schoolmates being maimed or dying if the bomber slipped past the police. That... annoyed me a great deal.
Other things left me with questions which weren't sufficiently answered in the novel. I wondered why Gabi and her fellow schoolmates would shelter in place indoors when a bomb threat had been called and why the administration of the school would allow students to work wholly unsupervised on peer-to-peer hotlines, but these are minor considerations. I was disappointed that when Gabi confronted her boyfriend about gratuitous violence and his machismo, domineering and aggressive attitude, that though she was frightened by his behavior, she stayed away from him for punitive reasons for a day, but returned. It seemed a little odd that she never once had the thought that if she displeased him, he might hit her - she seemed only disappointed in him for not being civilized, apparently?
Also, Gabi's Latino boyfriend is the son of her white family's house cleaner. Gabi, on discovering this fact called it "complicated." That single word felt like an opportunity missed, and I wished heartily that the issues of ethnicity and class and the realities of coming to grips with this and other aspects of how she personally - not her mother - dealt with this would have been further explored.
Conclusion: Despite some unevenness in the plotting, and the fact that an observant reader will figure out the bomber before Gabi does, this is an absorbing slice-of-life contemporary coming-of-age novel with a message about bullying and school violence that has a disturbing relevance to today. Readers who enjoy ripped-from-the-headlines novels will probably eat this one with a spoon.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Albert Whitman. You can find ARE YOU STILL THERE by Sarah Lynne Scheerger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!