Paper Valentine started off promisingly, an intriguing cross-genre YA story that explores loss and the fine line between challenging and enabling your personal demons. Hannah Wagnor is an almost uncomfortably silent protagonist, whose mind is always going a thousand miles a minute but who lets precious little of those thoughts slip through her lips. Part of that is self preservation — she’s (actually) haunted by the ghost of her recently deceased best friend, Lillian, and she isn’t in a hurry to make that fact known — and part of it is the acute teenage insecurity about where she fits in socially and emotionally in the world when her former queen bee best friend is no longer there to shepherd her through it. While all this is going on, there is also a serial killer in her town that is attacking young girls, and naturally, everyone is on high alert.
Not overburdened with risk-taking impulsiveness, Hannah has a typical morbid curiosity about the murders but no interest in pursuing that curiosity to an unusual extent. For some reason, though, Lillian pushes her to look more closely at the case, connect the clues, and become involved. Lillian’s presence in this book is, for me, the most interesting part of it. She’s the poster girl for teenage tragedy — a lively, intelligent, popular girl who nonetheless perishes in the terminal stage of anorexia after months of wasting away. Yovanoff invites the question of whether or not Lillian is an actual ghost, or a manifestation of Hannah’s insecurities as voiced by the best friend who succumbed to hers. Either is plausible: Lillian’s voice is so obviously distinct from Hannah’s that you believe that Hannah is actually seeing her ghost, but on the other hand, it also could be Hannah’s form of grief, invoking Lillian’s voice in her head to give her license to step outside of the comfort zone that is Hannah.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, so does the romantic element between closet loner Hannah and actual loner Finny Boone. In some ways, their connection is a genuinely sweet development, in that in order to grow closer, they needed to see past prior judgments and wrongs against each other. When younger, Finny, as a misunderstood kid who was also larger than his peers, had a reputation as a bully. Likewise, Hannah’s status as a popular girl also meant she was complicit in mean-girl ridicule directed at Finny. Nonetheless, now that they’re both in high school and Hannah has started to drift from the nastier girls without the tether of Lillian holding her to them, they recognize kindred qualities in each other. While that is a nice story, I personally found the romance to be tertiary to what was a more important and interesting plot. Plenty of books are built on a murder mystery alone, and Paper Valentine has that, AND an investigation of friendship dynamics after a shocking and profound loss, AND a nuanced dialog about the forces that conspire against the confidence of teen girls to love themselves physically and trust themselves emotionally and intellectually. The romance is emblematic of Hannah’s growing confidence in doing something different from the pack, but I couldn’t help but feel like the rest of the book ground to a halt whenever it became the focus.
And so, Paper Valentine almost hit the mark for me, but not quite. The conclusion was dramatic, creepy, and satisfying, and throughout, Brenna Yovanoff’s writing had a dark and ethereal quality that really worked for the genre-bending nature of the story. Ultimately, I wish the story elements had been better balanced, but I’m intrigued nonetheless by her work and plan to check out another of her books to see if there is one that works better for me.