Paper Valentines is a ghost story murder mystery about grief. If I’m perfectly honest, I think there are probably one too many elements and it would have been a stronger story without the background serial killings/murder mystery. However, it’s moody and atmospheric enough that I’m willing to forgive the excess plot. I really enjoyed it is what I’m saying. One warning though, this book deals pretty intensely with anorexia, it doesn’t glorify the disease but I know that for some people the mere mention of food related disorders can trigger their own food issues.
Hannah is haunted by the ghost of her best friend, Lillian, who died six months ago due to anorexia related complications, and trying to cope with all of the changes Lillian’s death caused while a serial killer starts targeting young girls who also happen to be her sister’s age. It’s summer, there’s a heat wave, a weird bird flu, a local bad boy who is catching Hannah’s eye, but mostly there’s Lillian and the guilt and grief tumbled up around her slow suicide by starvation. Hannah is a people pleaser, and so she’s afraid to show her grief and anger, there’s a great line by the younger sister (whom I adored) “Hannah could be on fire and she’d still tell you she’s OK”. Hannah’s life was so dominated by Lillian and what Lillian wanted, that she doesn’t quite know how to be, where she fits in, or what she wants now that Lillian is gone. The major arc of the book is really about Hannah dealing with that and growing her spine enough to state exactly what she wants and needs; even if she wasn’t literally haunted by Lillian she would be haunted by her.
I love the characters in the book, they’re all well fleshed out and believably human. There’s this lovely contrast between Hannah and her mother, Hannah’s mother is one of those women who doesn’t like to mention unpleasant subjects and while Hannah mentions this in an annoyed way, you can also see how that characteristic shaped Hannah and how she reflects it. I did read some of the Goodreads reviews and honestly I’m a little annoyed at some readers who left negative reviews because Hannah isn’t a strong person, implying that this means the book is weaker for that. The idea that a woman has to be strong (i.e. badass, not strong as in well developed) to be a good character is one that gets floated about, and it annoys me because it’s not true. Hannah is a well-developed character, she doesn’t need to be some kick-ass sarcastic badass to be worthy of having her story told.
The book is heavy on the atmosphere. The heat wave and the looming presence of the killer create a kind of exhausting tension. Yovanoff has a kind of hypnotic writing style, and a deft way with words.
“I’m thinking that my best friend killed herself so slow it was almost like a magic trick, and other people let her do it.
The way Lillian says it is hungry, like she’s waiting for something to be revealed, and I wonder if maybe that’s the real difference between us—that when she pulls back the curtain and stares into the blackness behind it, it’s just one more way of testing herself. Like some game you can never win, because even if you face all the shocking realities and the horrors of the world, once you’ve seen that kind of awfulness, you can never un-see it. You have to carry it around with you forever.
There are issues with the book, the murder plot is mostly relegated to the background and I think the book would probably have been better off without it. There are also a couple of atmospheric devices that Yovanoff uses which go nowhere and don’t really add all that much to the book, the presence of the bird flu for example. Despite those flaws, I think the book is really very well done. This is the second book of Yovanoff’s that I have read and I remain impressed by her ability to craft a story.