Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Gatekeepers

I had to go into the vault for this one to show you how much I love Jen Lancaster:
WAY back in 2011, my friend Amy and I drove to Milwaukee for the sole purpose of attending the book signing for Jen's book If You Were Here. You see me complete with my baby pink polo and pearls. We were the last people to get our books signed, but it was worth it. It also needs to be noted that Milwaukee isn't just a quick drive up the road- it involved me driving 2.5 hours to Amy and her driving us another 5.5 hours from there. It was such an exhausting trip, but I had a great time.

I mention this so you know that I am a Jen Lancaster all the way back to her Bitter is the New Black days, so when I found out that she was dipping her toe into teen fiction, you had to know I would be all over that.

The Gatekeepers - Jen Lancaster

Anyone passing through North Shore, IL, would think this was the most picture-perfect place ever, with all the lakefront mansions and manicured hedges and iron gates. No one talks about the fact that the brilliant, talented kids in this town have a terrible history of throwing themselves in front of commuter trains, and that there's rampant opioid abuse that often leads to heroin usage.

Meet Simone, the bohemian transfer student from London, who is thrust into the strange new reality of the American high school; Mallory, the hyper-competitive queen bee; and Stephen, the first generation genius who struggles with crippling self-doubt. Each one is shocked when lovable football player Braden takes his own life and the tragedy becomes a suicide cluster. With so many students facing their own demons, can they find a way to save each other—as well as themselves?

Inspired by the true events that happened in the author’s home town. 

I have to comment on the length of this book, coming in around 450 pages, it's a bit excessive. Easily a quarter of this book could have come out... if not more, even. I had a really hard time getting into it because the high point in the plot really doesn't even come until the middle the of the book, the entire first half is spent establishing the cast of characters and getting a feel for each of their voices. Secondly, there are a LOT of characters to keep track of. They each have their own issues, their own  connection to the larger issue of academic pressure, and then their own connections to the students who ended their lives, ultimately because of academic pressure. We learn early on of two earlier suicides, one after another, but we don't really find out the why for those until much later in the book; in fact, you put it together yourself once the third student dies and you're seeing the pattern with the deaths and the struggles with the students we're following in the story. Those are my primary complaints.

OK, I have to admit, if you didn't know who the author was and were a long time reader of Jen Lancaster, you'd know it was her immediately because of all of the John Hughes mentions and references, which doesn't feel relevant to today's youth- how many teenagers do you know even know who John Hughes was and what movies he made? None. On top of that, the book is actually a really heavy read so the intended humorous quips throughout the book leave a sour taste. You can't make a book about teen suicide fun or funny, you just can't.

All of that aside, the draw of the book is obviously the struggles of today's youth to achieve, be better, do better, push themselves, excel, all of that. On top of that, many students are suffering, privately, with other issues while at the same time trying to talk each other off the ledge so to speak. I feel like if we didn't spend so much time developing the characters and more time delving into the students who ended their lives, this book could have had more of an impact.  I didn't care so much about the majority of the characters, I wanted to know more about the ones who died. I guess that's maybe true of everyone who ends their life, we always want to know why. What didn't we know? What could we have done? How can we prevent the next one?

As a parent, this was a fascinating read because we look at the pressure we put on our kids even from a young age. Be good, don't do that, stop being so loud, play nicer, try harder, listen to all of the things we say without a second thought all day long. We'er all guilty. It's definitely a generational thing and it's really too bad because a lot of kids no longer get to be kids. We push expectations on them, we give them access to social media and technology, and then we wonder why they are failing? We aren't helping them, we're ultimately hurting them.

Overall? I'm giving this book 3/5 stars. I didn't hate it, I was genuinely interested and invested in these characters, I wanted to know how they would turn out. The deaths that come in the book are sudden and you truly don't always see it coming, so they hit you hard just as they would if these were real life people you see everyday.

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