In Cliett’s (More Than Friends, 2016, etc.) YA novel, a high school “nothing” becomes something that she never expected.
The initially unnamed protagonist is a high school loner who feels uninspired. She recently lost her father to suicide, which left her and her mother broke and living in a trailer park, referred to by one character as “The Land of Broken Dreams.” At school, she notes, “Kids and teachers act like I don’t exist,” which she begins to believe herself—until she meets an older high school boy on her bus nicknamed “Nietzsche.” He wears all black, reads philosophy books, and the seat beside him is always empty. Intrigued by their shared marginalization, the girl makes it her mission to learn more about him. She follows him around and spends hours poring over philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s works—an exercise that she enjoys, much to her surprise. Eventually, she finds enough courage to speak to the boy, who invites her to join his underground philosophy club. This club stokes her newfound academic passion and gives her a sense of belonging and identity; the members even give her a new nickname: “Socrates.” Not long after Socrates joins, however, the club takes a dark, serious turn: the members, a gaggle of students “outside the school’s social order,” decide to pursue an aggressive anti-bullying campaign involving a fake bomb scare. Cliett’s novel does do some important work in humanizing its young outcasts as they’re moved to extremes over the course of the story, and it effectively highlights how vulnerable teenagers can be to social structures that threaten their senses of self. However, the novel’s overall craftsmanship feels substandard; the characters, though conceptually interesting, are blandly written, and a sudden assault of plot twists at the end of the story has a slapdash feel. The swiftness with which Socrates finds a sense of resolve following a gruesome tragedy is also unrealistic.
An unevenly executed high school drama, but one that addresses important social issues.