Published by Random House on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.
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.
I’ll confess up front that I went into Lindsey Lee Johnson’s striking debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth blindly. I was intrigued by its title and have had such great luck with debut authors lately that I eagerly snatched this one up when I received an email from Netgalley suggesting it as a book that might interest me and saw that it was another debut. I started reading and was immediately captivated and maybe even a little horrified to find that from this book’s standpoint, the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ is, in fact, high school.
The opening chapters pack an emotional punch. The story begins with a look at a group of eighth graders in an affluent school district in San Francisco. We see a socially awkward boy named Tristan Bloch, who has been having trouble fitting in and is basically friendless, decide to write a love letter to one of the most popular girls in his class, Cally Broderick. This single act sets off a heartbreaking and life changing series of events. Cally decides, for whatever reason, to give this note to her boyfriend Ryan, who then decides to post the note on Facebook for all of their classmates to see and then friends Tristan on Facebook with the sole purpose of humiliating him. Other friends follow suit and they then relentlessly cyberbully Tristan until he tragically ends his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest of the story follows the core group of kids who were ultimately responsible for Tristan’s death.
Johnson presents her story from multiple points of view. She weaves together a series of vignettes where we hear from each of those students, beginning in eighth grade and then returning to each of them as juniors and seniors in high school. We watch them all attempt to navigate the various pitfalls of high school and to a certain extent, adolescence in general – peer pressure, pressure from parents, alcohol, drugs, and of course, lessons not learned regarding using social media to humiliate people, even after what happened to Tristan. Interspersed between those chapters we also hear from a first year (and still very idealistic) English teacher Molly Nicoll who has all of these kids in her English classes, sees all of them struggling to stay afloat, and tries to do everything she can to connect with them.
What I Liked:
I think what I liked the most about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is how eye-opening it was. As a parent, reading this story made me all the more aware of the fact that no matter how I raise my child and how active I am in his life, there are always still going to be so many other influences out there shaping him into who he is going to be, in some cases working directly in opposition to the kind of person I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be. It also has me rethinking my views on the internet and social media. In the past, I’ve always been primarily focused on protecting my child from online predators. This book has really made me rethink that stance since apparently cyberbullying fellow students is also a thing now. Sometimes the people you know can be even more dangerous than people you don’t know.
I also thought Johnson did a remarkable job of making a story told from about half a dozen points of view so easy to follow. Each of the voices was so distinctive and so authentic – from the class troublemaker to the diehard party girl, all the way to the high school English teacher. If I was reading from the point of view of an adolescent male, it truly felt like I was reading the thoughts of an adolescent male, and if I was reading from the point of view of a young English teacher, it felt like I was inside that teacher’s mind reading her thoughts. None of the voices came across as generic or forced.
Another strength of the novel is that Johnson is actually able to portray these teens in a way that I still felt a tremendous amount of empathy for them even after what they did to Tristan. That’s not to say that I necessarily found any of them all that likeable, but I did feel for them as they struggled to make it through high school and live up to everyone’s expectation. Whether it’s the pressure to be as successful as their parents expect them to be or the pressure to live up to a certain reputation, or perhaps even live down gossip that is flowing around the internet about them, the pressure is always present in some form or another. In some cases, the pressures at home are just as bad, if not worse, than the pressures at school. I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m keeping this general, but the way Johnson portrays high school and the dangers of peer pressure, it’s basically a battlefield and you’re lucky if your child makes it out in one piece. It’s a very powerful read in that sense.
I also thought the portrayal of teachers was pretty realistic. I don’t know the exact statistics but I know the burnout rate for new teachers is super high and some of the things Molly Nicoll experiences are surely contributing factors to those statistics. The desire to connect with her students leads her to cross lines that she probably shouldn’t be crossing because she’s so desperate to reach them. We need good teachers who can make a different in their students’ lives, but one of the older, more experienced teachers points out to Molly, she’s never going to make it long term if she keeps doing things the way she’s doing them. High school will chew her up and spit her out just like it does the students.
What I Didn’t Like:
As much as I enjoyed the read, there were still a couple of problem areas for me. One is that I like to be able to connect with characters and relate to them as I’m reading. Because there were so many different points of view, it was harder to do that in this book. I never really felt like I got close enough to any of them to do that. Stylistically though, I’m thinking maybe that was intentional. I think maybe getting too attached to any of the characters would possibly make the reader lose focus on the overall bigger picture. Ultimately I think it was the right choice for the book; it just didn’t play into my own personal preference for that connection to the characters.
A second issue I had was that I would have liked to see a more diverse student population. I know all of the issues highlighted in this book are chronic issues throughout our school systems, both the wealthy and the poor districts, so I would have liked to see more of a cross-section of our overall student population instead of so many rich, privileged kids. I think having a more diverse population represented would highlight that these problems are widespread, not just localized to the wealthy and privileged of our society. Again, that’s just a personal preference for me and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book overall.
Who Would I Recommend this Book to?
Because of its emphasis on the dangers of bullying and especially cyberbullying, I would recommend this book to parents of middle and high school students, as well as to the students in those same age ranges. Students need to understand the power of their own words, especially the negative words, and parents need to start hammering that into their kids’ heads at an early age. The wrong words to the wrong person can set into motion life-altering and often tragic events. In the case of this story, Tristan Bloch chose to end his life, but he could have just as easily come back to school the next day with a gun…
Rating: 3.5 stars
Thanks so much to Netgalley, Random House, and Lindsey Lee Johnson for the opportunity to review this book on my blog.