Review: Burn for Burn by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian

Burn for Burn by Jenny Han & Siobhan Vivian. Simon & Schuster, 2012. Currently available.

Genre: YA contemporary realistic fiction.

13406425Face Value: The girls on this cover have whole bodies, which is a great thing. As an Instagram lover, I’m also digging the funky filter applied to the photo. But when I look closer, I am extremely bothered by the fact that the blonde timid girl is the central character in the photograph. The brunette and the Asian girl are teetering on the edge of the cover. I found Kat and Lillia to be more essential to the story, in that they were the girls who decided to move forward with the plan that is central to the plot, so I feel that they deserve more cover space than Mary. Buuuuuuut I guess putting the blonde character front and center is a marketing choice.

Does it break the slate? The jury is still out on this one. The young women in this story take action to exact revenge upon those who have hurt them. They reject passivity in favor of making social change. But the ways in which they enact their revenge rely on the same dirty tactics of their oppressors – so is that truly Slatebreaking? I’m going to wait for the next two books (it’s the first in a trilogy!) before I draw any final conclusions.

Who would we give it to? This is excellent realistic contemporary fiction, and would be a great book for anyone who loves that genre or needs a palate cleanser from the constant stream of dystopia/paranormal fiction filling the shelves. As someone who sometimes ponders ways in which I could have better handled the people who bothered me in high school, I found this book both cathartic and a bit disturbing. If I had read this when I was in high school, I suspect I may have gotten some bold ideas about how to prank those who disrespected me…but I never would have had the guts to carry it out. I can see the value in sharing this book with anyone who feels bullied, ignored, or wronged, because they can connect with the three girls at the heart of the story.

Review: I vividly remember the moment when I realized just how horrible adolescent girls can be to one another. It was 2004, and I was sitting in a seat in my local movie theatre while the credits were rolling at the end of Mean Girls. I had gone to the movie with a friend who was also kind of my nemesis (see Chuck Klosterman’s essay for further explanation of what I mean by “nemesis”*), and I was stunned. I loved the movie, but I realized that some of the things that had been broadly satirized in that movie were things that I had actually done to other people – or things that others had done to me. And it was so mean. I also think that may have been a key moment in my evolution as a feminist.

Since that moment, I have wondered to what extent I can or should retaliate when people are rude or cruel to me. I haven’t had much cause to think about that lately, thank goodness, but Burn for Burn has provoked me to ponder that topic once again. This novel intertwines the stories of three adolescent girls who seek revenge. When they realize that their combined forces can be more effective than individual efforts, they launch a campaign of retribution on the people who have hurt them most.

It’s almost scary seeing these girls go from quietly hurting to active revenge-seekers. Scary…and a little impressive. It felt so wrong to cheer on these girls who were doing horrible things to people, but the authors did such good work writing the characters in a way that we wanted to side with the girls and despise the people who hurt them. As the acts of revenge escalated, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the dangerous, hurtful, and sometimes illegal tactics that they employed to “bring justice” to the social system in their school. Yet I admired them for being so bold in their actions, because I know that I could never do anything like that. It’s a testament to the authors’ characterizations that I could be so engaged yet so repulsed by the things these girls did. I wanted to dislike them, but I couldn’t stop reading. It evoked in me a reaction similar to the one I experienced while reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: “I want to hate you but somehow I can’t.”

There is a paranormal element to this book that I found unnerving. I’m not usually a fan of paranormal fiction, so when Mary’s unusual skills became evident, I was wary. She’s a character with some kind of supernatural talents in a very realistic contemporary high school setting. Although I am skeptical, Vivian and Han have intrigued me enough with their writing that I want to find out more about what happens to Mary and how she developed these unusual skills.

As the first book of a trilogy, the story is not fully concluded when the book ends. There are many loose ends, and the consequences of the acts of revenge are not yet clear. Although cliffhanger endings sometimes irk me, I found that this ending kept my thinking – and if there’s anything that makes me appreciate a book more, it is when a book provokes further thought. I have been thinking about when, if ever, it is appropriate to take revenge.

Terrible, terrible things have been happening in the world around us lately. Some of these things have happened because people who feel wronged do not know where to go for help or how to appropriately express their dissatisfaction with a situation. I don’t think I can ever agree with someone using underhanded, bullying tactics to “make someone pay” for their actions. Although I find that I fundamentally disagree with the decisions the girls have made, I am eager to see how Vivian and Han work out the consequences, and the girls’ subsequent reactions, in the next book.

Reviewed from library copy.

*I cannot believe that I just linked to Esquire from Slatebreakers. What kind of a feminist am I? However, that particular essay best explains what I mean by my use of the term nemesis. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. I don’t have a nemesis anymore, nor do I desire to have one.

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