A novel illustrates the consequences of online bullying.
The Monday after 13-year-old Phoebe Murrow comes home stumbling drunk, Isabel Winthrop, a high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney and the girl’s mother, wonders whether she did the right thing by calling the police about Sandy Littleton, the parent who hosted Saturday’s party. Isabel’s husband, Ron Murrow, “found their daughter’s wobbly walk vaguely amusing” and thinks Isabel overreacted. When Phoebe calls Monday evening, crying hysterically, Isabel races home, terrified about her daughter’s “tendency to cut herself when under extreme emotional distress.” At this point, somewhat frustratingly, the author rewinds two months to Phoebe’s first day as a freshman at Georgetown Academy. Phoebe and Isabel are eager to leave “the ugly duckling years of middle school behind,” including the teen’s “self-injury” response to intense bullying. But while Isabel navigates the “clubby culture of DC private school moms” at a cocktail party, she learns that Phoebe got caught with Sandy’s daughter Jessie smoking pot, then catches Sandy flirting with Ron. Isabel’s humiliation results in double punishment for Phoebe: grounded for a month, and no more contact with “bad influence” Jessie. Desperately depressed, Phoebe resumes cutting in secret. When handsome Shane Barnett “friends” Phoebe on Facebook, she’s thrilled; she doesn’t know he will become the catalyst for tragedy. By alternating perspectives among Isabel, Phoebe, Ron, and Sandy, Feely (Saving Norma Jean, 2016) unearths motivations for each character’s contribution—intentional or accidental—to Phoebe’s distress. Even so, an excess of exposition (“Now, as she took another bite of the lemon custard, she thought about events that had transpired more than half a lifetime ago”) and didactic passages about psychology prevent readers from fully engaging with the characters. When the plot catches up to that fateful Monday, Feely cleverly switches perspectives, presenting fresh insights into events. The riveting final third of the book is satisfyingly realistic as characters grapple with the consequences of their actions. But the final resolution arrives too quickly and seems jarring.
A harrowing but uneven domestic drama that explores the web of interpersonal motivations and reactions surrounding a traumatic event.