A high school descends into violence, panic and unsettled grudges in Shepherd’s debut novel.
High school senior Brenna Rutherford is the all-American girl in her small town of Mount Vernon. She and her best friend, Van Halen Vaughn, are in the middle level of their school’s caste system—they’re popular enough—and have been together their entire lives. Brenna was raised by her uncle, the chief of police, whom she affectionately calls “Zio”; her single mother perished in an auto accident and begged Zio, her only brother, to watch over her infant daughter. At the beginning of the school year, an act of vandalism shocks the school: “Beware the wrath of a patient adversary” is spray-painted across the lockers of a number of well-liked students, Brenna’s included. From there, the incidents intensify—the school library is ransacked, a teacher’s car is destroyed, and Brenna and Van find a fellow student badly beaten in a boys’ bathroom. Vowing to conduct their own investigation—against Zio’s wishes—Brenna and Van evaluate a list of student suspects and collect evidence. More attacks occur, each more violent than the last, and students begin to take sides against the offender. Can Van, Brenna and Zio figure out the attacker’s identity before they become targets? Dripping with allusions to current events, the plot is smart, gripping and scarily realistic, with a true twist ending. The violence is unsettling but wholly necessary to understand the assailant’s rage. The tone of the novel could easily have taken an all-out depressive turn, given the school-violence subject matter, but the moments of tension are broken up nicely with scenes of Brenna and Van’s friendship. Like the lead characters from the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally…, the two together are definitely greater than the sum of their parts. Their conversations, though, are a relatively weak part of the work; today’s teenagers may be smarter than elders make them out to be, but they don’t speak the way that Brenna, Van and their classmates do. Real teens’ vocabulary may not be lacking, but the speaking styles here are reminiscent of the TV show Dawson’s Creek’s colloquial acrobatics (in which Dawson Leery seemingly read the Oxford English Dictionary as a bedtime story). The end of the work doesn’t completely tie up the story, leaving room for another needed, and deserved, novel.
A thrilling, unsettling novel about the secrets of a small town.