The Plot: It’s summer. It’s hot. A mosquito virus is going around. And the body of a teenage girl has been found in Muncy Nature Park.
It’s the summer before eleventh grade for Hannah Wagner. The summer after the death of her best friend, Lillian. Lillian and her death haunts Hannah, just as the death of the teenager in the park will haunt Hannah —
No, really. Lillian’s ghost is always around, haunting Hannah. At dinner, there is Lillian. Watching TV. While at work at her cousin’s photography shop.
And then another girl is killed. Together, Hannah and Lillian begin to investigate the murders.
The Good: A ghost story: the ghost of Lillian. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Lillian was not murdered; rather, she died from complications from anorexia. So this isn’t about Hannah avenging Lillian’s death, or Lillian trying to solve her own murder.
Paper Valentine is a murder mystery, yes; and it’s up to Hannah to solve it. Hannah, who has felt lost since Lillian’s death. Hannah, who has tried to fake it — to fake that everything is OK and that she is OK. Hannah starts to look into the murders of the girls, pushed both by Lillian and her own interest, spurred on by seeing the photographs of the crime scene. Paper Valentine is a terrific mystery, tightly plotted, and Hannah’s role as teen investigator is believably shown. Hannah is no Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars super sleuth; rather, she’s a teenaged girl with a lot on her mind who is also looking into the murders of local girls.
A lot on her mind . . . Yes, this is a mystery and will satisfy mystery fans. But Paper Valentine is something, else, too: it’s about girl whose heart has been broken by the death of her best friend, and not just the death, but a death by anorexia. Paper Valentine is Hannah working through her friendship with Lillian, and Lillian’s sickness, and their changing relationship, and the loss she experienced. Lillian is neither beatified nor villainized, even though at times Lillian does come across as a bit of a mean girl, a bit controlling. Really, what is more controlling than haunting your friend? Who is Hannah, without Lillian? Are her old friends still her friends, or are they a habit, a hold over, a group who has lost its glue with the loss of Lillian? And is that a bad thing?
Who is Hannah, what does she like, what doesn’t she like, now that Hannah is gone? Is she still the girl who dresses each day with unique creativity — is that really who she is? Or is it who Lillian wanted her to be? Lillian had been invested in appearances and what other people thought, something she reminds Hannah of over and over, so Hannah being attracted to “bad boy” Finny is something that Hannah-before may not have done. Yes, Finny is a bad boy . . . . or is he? Rather, he’s a classic book “bad” boy, in that “bad” is not about the actions or character of a person, but, rather, certain things about him have been coded to say “bad.” He’s of lower socioeconomic status. As a child he acted up sometimes in school, because he lacked the verbal or other skills to process what he was going through, so his failure to conform to the “quiet” role marked him as “bad.” His clothes say “bad boy.” I confess, since one of my pet peeves is determining a “bad boy” is “bad” based on things like clothes, boots, tattoos, and hair rather than actions, I adored that Paper Valentine examined this type of judgment to look deeper at who Finny is rather than his choice of hair color or shirt.
A couple of other random observations about things I liked: Hannah is part of a healthy stepfamily. She has a caring stepfather and that is just part of the story, no drama. Hannah has a good bond with her younger sister, Ariel: just the right mix of teasing and frustration and love. Hannah herself is a good girl, and has enough self-preservation to not allow Lillian’s loss to destroy her. It doesn’t stop it from affecting her, and Paper Valentine is as much about dealing with grief and loss as it is about murder. The setting of a town in a heat wave is so wonderfully detailed that even though it was a chilly November while I was reading it, I wanted lemonade and air conditioning.
One last thing. This may be a spoiler for some, so skip this paragraph if you are ultra sensitive about such things. I don’t think Paper Valentine is necessarily a ghost story. If you want to, you can read it that way: there is Lillian, and at some point Hannah sees the ghosts of the dead girl, and there is a seance or two that you can read as paranormal. But, if you want, you can also read this as a girl who is grief stricken and not ready to let go of a friend, and believe that Lillian is not “really” a ghost. The plot, the mystery, and the resolution all work with both readings.
Officially, I’m going to call this a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Why? Because I adored Hannah; I loved the mystery; and I believed I was in a sleepy small town during a heat wave.