Our Messy Secret Ghost-Seeing Selves: Looking at Brenna Yovanoff’s Paper Valentine

I keep saying “This is the best book I’ve read this year” but the truth is, I’ve finished 19 books in 2013 already and half of them have been “best books”. There’s some really stunningly fantastic writing happening, especially in YA. It blows me out of the water. I love it.

This book is one of those best books. It’s one of those books that makes me go, “Goddamn there’s some amazing YA being written.” It’s one of those books I’ll be recommending to everyone.

Trigger warning for descriptions of anorexia, weight including numbers, and eating disordered behaviors

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Pilot’s the official Poser with the Book

Brenna Yovanoff (side note, just looked at her website for the first time. She likes the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and is touring with the Breathless Reads tour. Obviously, this was a win even before I knew it was.) has written some strangely beautiful books including THE REPLACEMENT and THE SPACE BETWEEN. This was the first of her books I’ve picked up though. PAPER VALENTINE was published in early January 2013 so it’s a pretty new book. Can we take a moment to look at that beautiful cover? Okay. Thank you. I just needed that moment.

PAPER VALENTINE is the story of Hannah who is a HS sophomore during summer break in her small, sleepy suburban town where they’re experiencing an unusual heat wave, an avian bird flu type of illness (there are dead crows everywhere), and … girls keep turning up murdered. I should probably point out at this point that I am, like many people, fascinated by serial killers and serial murders. There’s something very addictive about shows like SVU and Criminal Minds. I knew going into this book that it was a serial killer (one town, multiple girls, that’s where this was going). I knew it had ghosts in it.

What I did not expect was to find a character who reminded me so painfully of my high school self. What I did not expect was to find a character who was fully developed, introspective, dynamic, and interesting and yet she was also the ghost of Hannah’s best friend who died of anorexia. What I did not expect was for me to not identify the perpetrator correctly. What I did not expect was the plausibility of this story, the way it hangs onto you, clingy like a ghost in a hot and humid summer. What I did not expect was to love the subtle, delicate romance.

That is to say, I was very pleasant surprised by this book. There’s a subtle, deep aching melancholy that runs along the entire book. Hannah’s best friend Lillian, who functions as a fully fledged character here despite the fact that she’s a ghost, died of anorexia six months earlier, something that Hannah has not yet understood. What she does understand now, after Lillian’s death, is that Hannah did not know how to fight for Lillian because Lillian was the friend in their relationship who made the decisions, who stood up for Hannah, and who was assertive and ready to take charge. Now, as a ghost (and interestingly, Yovanoff made her clearly an independent ghost as Lillian gives Hannah information that we know Hannah hasn’t had access too. Lillian is never set up as a figment of a grieving girl’s imagination. I loved that.), Lillian acts more as a guide and a sounding board. She tries to boss Hannah around still from behind the grave, but this is a book in which Hannah learns to stand up for herself and decide what she wants out of life.

Hannah wants: freedom, air-conditioning, Finny Boone (the town’s local big strong silent bad boy), and to solve the mystery of the girls’ murders.

I loved the steady and slow transformation of Hannah. She IS passive and she IS quiet for most of the first half of the book. Finny IS right when he gets annoyed with her for acting “bright and shiny” when she’s clearly NOT actually bright and shiny. But Hannah doesn’t want to be like that. She’s stuck. She’s sad and she’s stuck. Show me an introverted teenager who isn’t going to identify with Hannah. The girls’ murders and Lillian’s insistence that something dark and sinister of the human and not paranormal variety is at work here galvanizes Hannah into action. Between the murders and Hannah’s growing attraction to Finny Boone, she begins to emerge from Lillian’s long gone shadow and stand up for herself.

Also. I love Hannah and Finny. Love. I like that Hannah’s completely awkward and unsure. I like that she apologizes for their first kiss. I like that she’s a bit of a disaster and he’s a bit of a disaster and it’s okay. I like that it wasn’t like TRUE LOVE FOREVAH! It was “I like Finny and I want him to kiss me again.” Yes. Please. More of this.

Hannah as a narrator has a very limited viewpoint, which only helps to build the tension for the very late in the book climax. She doesn’t understand her world as much as she’s desperately clawing her way towards that understanding, so we don’t understand. We don’t understand why someone could be killing girls, or who could be killing girls. We don’t understand how Hannah can finally be falling in love with someone at the same time her freedom is so severely limited because of fears of her safety. It was the perfect viewpoint for this particular story.

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Reading PAPER VALENTINE last night with Kipling.

I’m putting everything else behind the cut so that if you don’t want to see quotes and why I liked these quotes, then you don’t have to. If you stop here, know that this isn’t a coming of age story as much as it is a story about coming back and coming up. I think I would call it a coming up story. Hannah comes up. She breathes. She learns she has her own two feet, her own thoughts, her own desires and wants and needs, and her own intuition.

Carry on! (None of these quotes are spoilers. I left out spoilers. They’re just great quotes.)

Instead, he bends his head and kisses me, just once, then lets me go. When Connor would kiss Angelie in the halls last spring, he did it like he was trying to suck the chocolate off the outside of a Klondike bar. It could last hours.

This is more like seeing a star fall–thrilling and soundless and then over.

“Why did you do that?” I say when he straightens, surprised at how conversational my voice sounds. I don’ know if I mean Why did you start? or Why did you stop? 

Finny’s mouth is open a little, and I wonder if we’re about to get into the reasons for things, or if this is one of those awkward moments that we never talk about and spend the rest of high school pretending didn’t happen.

Instead, he leans down and kisses me again. It’s slower this time, and he moves like he’s learning me, the way I did with his hand. His tongue brushes the curve of my bottom lip, grazing the hollow underneath, and something leaps and fidgets in my chest. It’s like a bright silver shock, running through my whole body, and I want him to never stop. But the other thing is that I think I need him to stop right now because my eyes are dry and hot, and if he doesn’t stop, I might start crying.

When I pull away, it’s with a huge, shuddering relief. I turn towards the treetops and the sun, staring up at the glossy canopy of leaves so Finny can’t see the tears in my eyes. When did June turn into July? When did I become one of those girls who makes out with delinquents? (Paper Valentine, 138)

The voice! The strength! She doesn’t say, “This is my first kiss,” but she doesn’t have to, because the only kiss she compares this to is someone else’s so we KNOW this has to be her first kiss. Hannah is very into sound and light, it plays a big role in the entire story, so it was beautiful that it continues into her relationship with Finny. He also knows that she’s not Alright. He is the only person other than Lillian (who is a ghost, remember) who recognizes that she’s not doing OK. He’s gentle with her. He’s unexpectedly gentle with her. So he’s a delinquent, but he makes her feel seen and wanted and loved in a way she has been craving possibly her entire life but definitely since Lillian died. I don’t even know how to say how much I loved this.

For the first time in maybe my whole life, I feel dangerous and magical, like a dragon or a mermaid. (Paper Valentine, 219)

If you ever wanted to see what it is like when a childish, self-sheltered girl starts to reach towards self-actualization and empowerment, it looks exactly like this.

Later, Hannah tells Lillian,

“I’m not those things you think I am, I say. “Yeah, I looked bright and shiny on the outside, maybe. But inside, I was always just the same as you. Underneath, I wanted all the chaos and the scary, messy stuff. I think I was always just this–this strange, secret girl who always wanted to kiss Finny Boone.” (Paper Valentine, 255)

But Lillian, like the fully realized character she is that I’ve never seen a ghost be outside of MG books like The Graveyard Book, considers this, and says in reply,

“No,” she says. She says it quietly, not like she’s correcting me or telling me how it is, but just respectfully disagreeing. “No, you can still be both. You have to be because otherwise we’re always just ghosts of ourselves. So the hearts and the flowers are still you. Just like even though I wanted more than anything to be left alone, to ignore everyone and live my life, there was still this huge part of me wanting to be perfect and special, wanting to make my mother happy.” (Paper Valentine, 256)

a) True. We are our messy secret selves, and we’re also the selves we project to the world
b) accurate realization for someone with anorexia. trust me
b) this is a book about accepting all of the parts of yourself without question, even the messy stupid brave reckless falling in love with the wrong person angry and selfish and sad and ghost-seeing parts of yourself.

So, of course I loved it.

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4 thoughts on “Our Messy Secret Ghost-Seeing Selves: Looking at Brenna Yovanoff’s Paper Valentine

  1. I wrote a review of this book over on my blog just this week as well – and I have to say – you really NAILED why it was such a good book here. I loved it just as equally and wanted to say so! AHH loved it so much! 🙂

  2. Thank you! I’m going to head over and check out your review too. I was surprised by how much I liked this book. I’ve read a couple of books recently that had slow starts so I appreciated that I was hooked by sentence six in PV. I couldn’t put it down, read straight through!

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