Rereading Paper Valentine, I saw a lot of Printz-worthy elements.
In fact, there’s a serious contender here.
Except for one small problem: it’s two stories jammed into one book, and only one of those two is contender material.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first.
Yovanoff’s prose is strong. The word that comes to mind is “muscular”, but in a sinuous, snaky way. It’s solid. It’s a little sneaky — sometimes it does unexpected, impressive things. It often packs some punch; she’s very very good at masterful chapter endings, for instance, that hit on the emotional core of the book.
It’s a first person narrative, and Yovanoff relies a lot on telling: Hannah doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination along the way, but this works unexpectedly well.
Some of that is because it’s easy to root for Hannah; she’s engaging and complicated — the sweetness and light surface over some genuine pain, her loyalty to Lillian, the fact that she’s a good person but she never seems to really recognize that — all of this adds up to a teen voice that is mostly genuine and makes sense as the teller of this tale.
Also, the way Hannah tells the story becomes a kind of showing — what she says, and when; how she dances around some of the facts with Lillian for so long, circling the things that hurt and trying to come to terms with them: telling, but telling in a way that rings true and reveals.
Which is not to say it’s perfect; take, for instance, Hannah’s wardrobe.
I have some well-developed bias against using a clothing description as shorthand for character development. Too much clothing description can date and locate a book — tell me the character is wearing jeans and a tee short and I can supply the rest. When there are too many details, it’s disingenuous, especially in a first person narrative.
But Yovanoff takes the adage — clothes make the man — and uses it to really reflect Hannah and her friends. Lillian self-consciously created their style. It’s Heathers (although I don’t know that any YA readers will make that connection): they rule by being the best at being themselves. That doesn’t just happen. And add to that the many indications (shown through the telling of ancillary details) that Hannah likes crafting and creating; that in this always happy sparkly existence she finds some solace in the often painstaking making, that she uses her bright cheerful clothing as part of her shield and disguise — well. That’s telling with intent and using wardrobe as a powerful vehicle for narrative.
But then occasionally instead of the description being seamlessly woven in in ways that feel natural to Hannah’s voice — with the details sprinkled over several pages, or self-consciously described (as with her “tough look” after the first murder) — the details are splatted in. In the scene with (spoiler alert) the first kiss, Hannah pushes her bangs back into her “beaded headband.” I don’t in any way believe Hannah in that moment of all moments is thinking about the beads in her headband.
These slips don’t happen all that often, but that only makes it more noticeable when they do; Hannah’s voice carries the novel so when it falters it shakes the whole edifice. And because the plot is, frankly, busy, shaking the structure calls attention to other areas that might be less perfectly executed.
But that’s getting ahead of myself, because there are at least two other elements that deserve high praise, both of which comprise the story that makes this a book to look at.
Read Paper Valentine as a portrait of friendship and loss, as a study of Hannah’s grief and it’s incredibly moving. Hannah loved Lillian, and she spent a lot of time and effort trying to save Lillian — never getting mad, never asking why, just tearing her own food up in hopes that Lillian would nibble at it. The anger she can’t entirely own, and the way she has put Lillian on a pedestal even as she knows that sometimes Lillian was a bitch: this is friendship and grief, and when the relationship between Hannah and Lillian remains front and center Paper Valentine is tender and thoughtful and sad.
The fact that it’s a ghost story works really well, especially because there’s the slight possibility that Lillian is imaginary, born of Hannah’s pain. Even if you take Lillian’s ghost at face value, the portrait of friendship is fantastic and — like Hannah’s character — believably complex.
The same can be said for the relationship with Finny. When Hannah remembers back to Finny scrubbing her face in the snow and confronts the ugliness of her own behavior, it’s a powerful symbol of how she is growing up and away and past Lillian and their true but often destructive relationship. And Finny gives her something that is just her own, as Hannah says, which is both a lovely description of first romance and furthers the theme of loss and letting go.
I want to recognize the book I’ve just described and hold it up as excellent writing.
This is also a paranormal murder mystery, and in the final act that takes over to the detriment of all the other, Printz-worthy aspects. The book rushes, the other ghosts appear, and it’s all very fast and frantic and high adrenaline. It’s not bad, but the pacing and tone shift so abruptly that the novel as a whole suffers.
This is a good book. It’s one that sometimes shades into brilliant. But it’s two separate pieces that don’t always play well together. I’m not sorry I read this (twice!), but it’s not going to go the distance.