Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review - Speak

Speak (Platinum Edition (Tandem Library)) Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak is another book that I dove into knowing virtually nothing about it from the start. I knew it was in the "adolescent lit" category and that the narrator spent some time doing some artwork trying to express herself. I was not at all ready for the deeply emotional and heart wrenching story of the novel. This isn't by any means a piece of adolescent "fluff" like the flood of teen books flooding the market in recent years. Rather it is an intense exploration of a teenager struggling with alienation, self-worth, honesty and change. It's about the struggle she goes through in trying to find her voice in the midst of emotional turmoil. With very few exceptions, the main character, Melinda, has gone mute. She speaks only when silence is absolutely unavoidable and even then, her words don't speak her true thoughts. As the title implies, she spends the novel trying to find a way to speak her mind, to find her voice. This book masterfully explores the communication barriers between adolescents and their peers and the adults in their lives.

Writing Style

The first person narrative is fluid and natural. The paragraphs are short. To a large extent, this feels like a journal written by the narrator Melinda. To pull the reader closer to the action, the book is written in the present tense, so we're encountering everything directly alongside Melinda. Melinda is struggling with her voice and with trying to figure out how to communicate her troubles and with whom. As the reader, we are the only one she truly communicates with. But even with us, she holds back. She keeps us at arms length so we don't penetrate her wall and expose her pain and vulnerability. The voice is uniquely teenage and is a good portrayal of the thoughts of a teenage girl ostracized by her friends as she begins her Freshman year.

Two other stylistic things I want to mention. First, I really liked the way the author divided the book up into the four "Marking Periods" of the school year. It was unique and provided for nice markers to break things up. Including Melinda's 'grades' was an intriguing touch that added cool depth. Another stylistic element I enjoyed was that found in the dialogue of the book. Most of the time, Melinda doesn't speak even in lengthy chunks of dialogue. Rather than add tags like "I said nothing" or "I stared silently" or other trite annotations, the author instead lays the dialogue out in a screenplay type format with each speaker's name followed by their line. When Melinda remains silent, the direction simply says "Me: " with no trailing dialogue, indicating silence with stage presence.


Our main character narrator, Melinda, is troubled. The first sentence of the book tells us she's starting high school. The second sentence tells us she is miserable. The next paragraph lets us know that she has lost all of her friends (one of her old "friends" mouths "I Hate You" to her by the third page). Within the first few pages, she is harassed by teachers and fellow students and miserably clods her way through the halls, searching for an escape. On the second page of the book, she describes the various cliques and groups around the school and then explains that she doesn't fit with any of them. "I am Outcast." she explains. I don't want to spoil too much about the various causes of trouble in her life, though as you read along you will likely figure out most of the problems before they're explicitly described. The portrayal of Melinda is vivid and real. She pulls off of the page effectively. The biggest struggle as a reader is wanting to be able to help her, but not being able to.

The other characters fall into three main groups.
  • Those who are outwardly hateful and/or aggressive to Melinda
  • Those who are relatively indifferent to Melinda
  • Those who are genuine toward Melinda

Most of her previous friends fit into the first category (hateful/aggressive) though a couple seem to fall into the 'indifferent' category. One of her teachers, Mr. Neck, fits in the first category...not just towards Melinda but towards most of the students although it is particularly felt by Melinda. Most of the other teachers and administrators are in the indifferent category. One "friend" that Melinda makes in the book, Heather, wanders between categories, at first seeming genuine towards her but then later needing to break away from the "depressing freak" and make her own new acceptable friends.

Sadly, Melinda's parents generally fall into the "indifferent" category. Most of the time they are inattentive and unavailable. Melinda wants desperately to communicate with them but even the most opportune chances pass her by. Her behavior at home and at school often causes her parents to slip into the first category of behavior where they are angry and emotionally scathing towards her. In a couple of instances, they comment on her needing "professional help", but they never strive to truly help her themselves or to find a way for her to get the help she needs.

Those who are genuine to Melinda include the art teacher Mr. Freeman, her biology lab partner David Petrakis, and an older friend of hers Ivy who slowly comes around and helps befriend her, though Melinda still struggles to acknowledge the friendship from any of these characters.

With Melinda as a narrator, we are held at a distance from some of her thoughts. Similarly, we are held at a distance from most of the characters. We only get at them through Melinda and because of the walls around her, that means we don't get more than skin deep most of the time. Still, the narrative does a good job of portraying depth and feel to these otherwise potentially 2-d characters.


Again, I don't want to spoil the crux of the plot, but I do want to comment that the author took on a very difficult theme and she carried it off very well. Melinda's struggles are very believable. Her movements feel natural rather than contrived as we travel through her high school environment and her life overall. The storytelling and the plot points felt real rather than tools of an author trying to tug at a reader's emotions. The other provides enough clues as to the overall problems that you are able to deduce the situation before it is described, but even then, the situation is shocking when revealed in its entirety. Even when she reveals the problem, Anderson does so tactfully and appropriately instead of looking to shock and awe the audience.

As I read on and found myself nearing the end of the book, my main struggle with the plot was not seeing a good way to get out of it. I wanted Melinda to succeed in finding her voice and overcoming her demons. By the time I was into the third and then the fourth "marking period", I had resigned myself to a "sad" ending where she resigns herself to her troubles and just tries to stagger through. Or if she does find her voice, I didn't see sufficient time to adequately see any benefit in her life as a result. Much to my pleasure, Anderson weaves the story into an intriguing and yet terrifying climax. It definitely wasn't what I was expecting, but I can say I was far from disappointed.


This book was an easy read and a hard read at the same time. The author did an excellent job of pulling me into the mind of a high school "outcast" and all the emotional baggage that goes with it. In addition to an excellent portrayal of high school and the dramas that go with it, she also managed to effectively give our narrator struggles and trials that really pulled on my emotions and made everything all the more real. And she did so without making any of it feel cheap or contrived. The honesty is absolutely real, which can make it frightening. The author included a note on "censorship" in the back of my edition. I suspect there are parents and teachers who would not want their kids reading this book. To them, I would ask if they actually read the book. There is nothing objectionable in it...no language, no graphic references, nothing. On the contrary, this book serves as a great eye-opener to teenagers that they are not alone in their struggles and their feelings of alienation and separation. And to those going through even deeper struggles like Melinda in the book, this novel can provide hope that they can overcome. I would definitely recommend this book to teenagers, to parents, and to anybody who has survived high school.

4 stars

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