Holy cow. We all know that there are a lot of YA books out there that deal with teen suicide, and for good reason. Amanda Maciel has done something a little bit different with her debut novel, Tease. In fact, she has done something daring: she's written a teen suicide book told from the point of view of one of the bullies, not the victim. What kicks it up a notch is the fact that Sara, our narrator, is not all that sorry about what she did. Whoa. The fact that Maciel also manages to make Sara seem occasionally sympathetic? Double whoa.
In other words, there were times that this book made me feel uncomfortable. Deeply uncomfortable. Since I don't believe that a novel about the bullying and resulting suicide of a sixteen year old girl should be comfortable, I say brava to Ms. Maciel.
The story, told in a call-and-response style, is all told from Sara's first person, present tense POV. I tend to dislike first person narratives, and I actively loathe present tense ones, and while it constantly chafed me while reading Tease, I do acknowledge that they serve the story fairly well. The chapters alternate regularly between January-March (when her bullying of Emma escalates) and July-November (when Sara is dealing with the legal aftermath of Emma's suicide), and each timeline progresses chronologically. The dialogue reads very true-to-life, with lots of "She was all, like, whatevs" and "beyotch" and "OMG" or "what a lame effing party"on every page. I salute the author for capturing realistic teenspeak, but it drove me nuts. I will never complain again about reading too-clever-to-be-believed teen dialogue from the likes of John Green again.
It's hard to pin down the real Emma, as we see her exclusively through Sara's eyes, but what we can conclude is that she's a transfer student who is very pretty. Sara is almost as hard to pin down, as she hides as much from the reader as she does from herself, but it's clear that she's troubled, generally unhappy, and completely in thrall to her alleged best friend, Brielle. I say alleged best friend because Brielle is a real piece of work, nasty and popular and beautiful and rich (of course), and they're together all the time, but it's apparent to the reader that there's not actually much love lost between them, even if it's not apparent to Sara just yet.
What's most maddening about Sara is her insistence that Emma's suicide is not her fault, and her resentment towards the dead girl is palpable. What's more, for most of the novel, Sara seems to believe that she herself is the wronged party: Emma stole her boyfriend, Emma couldn't handle Sara's retaliation, Emma was too weak to understand high school is hard for everybody, and now everybody is blaming Sara for Emma's suicide.
It's a bold stance for the author to take, and as far as I know, an unprecedented one, but in the end it does seem to pay off. Every other book I've read that deals with teen suicide seems a bit too "pat" in comparison to this one. What it does make clear is that bullying is both pervasive and corrosive, and that there's no happy ending for anybody involved, on either side.
NB: This book will be published in May 2014 by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. It also happens to be loosely based on an actual instance of bullying and suicide in 2010 in the small town where my bookshop is located, and the whole time I was reading it, I kept imagining what the parents of the girl who killed herself must think after reading this book. It was one of the many reasons I was deeply uncomfortable during the course of this book.