In the small town of Ludlow, America, the heat is sweltering, the birds are dying, and middle school girls are being murdered. With each body, a crude valentine—an eponymous Paper Heart—is found, amongst strewn toys and childhood mementos. Tensions are on the rise, and parents refuse to let their children out of their homes for fear of the serial killer on the loose. For 16-year-old Hannah Wagnor, it’s just another drop in the bucket of misery that is her life. Just a few months ago, Hannah’s anorexic best friend, Lillian, died—but her memory lives on. More accurately, Lillian’s ghost lives on, a gaunt shade that is an amalgam of the worst parts of Hannah’s former best friend, haunting Hannah’s every waking moment. As the long, sticky summer days go on and the bodies pile up, Hannah and her ghostly best friend get closer to figuring out who the Valentine Killer is—but the closer they get, the more that Hannah is placed in the killer’s crosshairs.
Brenna Yovanoff’s third novel, Paper Valentine, is an unsettling, strangely detailed, detached beast of a book. Its greatest strength and greatest weakness lie with its distinct narrative style—related in the first person by young, melancholy Hannah, the book is both emotionally resonant, but also tends towards hyperbole. On the one hand, Hannah is full of keen (and frank) observations about human nature, high school popularity, and death. On the other, the present tense narration, the ridiculously overwrought observations and annoying similes—i.e. gazes crossing galaxies, slabs of muscle (seriously), and smells of Axe body spray and bleach (yes, seriously, again). There is some frustration with heroine Hannah’s actions, too. Every single interaction with bad boy hottie Finny is full of Long Deep Stares and Profound Silences, and whatever. There is an honest-to-goodness serial killer on the loose, but she decides to run off with the town “bad boy” for a late night dip in the lake, leaving her 12-year-old younger sister alone, unsupervised at home. Yes. THIS is our heroine.
That said, there are certain aspects of the book that are wonderfully done. In particular, the initial tension—for example, there’s the question of Hannah’s mental state, regarding whether or not Lillian’s ghost is real. The small town oppression, coupled with the stifling heat and pervasive fear, is a palpable, real sentiment that is beautifully conveyed in Yovanoff’s writing.
Do these separate elements make a cohesive whole? I’m not sure it’s an entirely convincing argument. But it’s a memorable effort, and bound to appeal to some readers looking for a slightly spooky, jagged edge to their Valentine’s Day reading.
In Book Smugglerish, a solid 6 paper hearts out of 10.
There are definitely elements worth of praise in Paper Valentine: from the oppressively atmospheric setting and the careful portrayal of Lillian’s anorexia to Hannah’s beautifully executed character arc as she goes from insecure girl to a self-assured young woman.
On the other hand, this is a book of excesses, hinged on a very uneven story whose many (many) threads were not seamlessly woven. There is a lot going on here—Hannah’s relationship with the Ghost of Lillian, the serial killing spree and Hannah’s developing relationship with Finny are only but the start. There are also subtle hints that Hannah's mother is not entirely psychologically sound AND a look at the crapitude of the foster system, AND child abuse, AND anorexia, AND random dead birds, AND mean girls AND ghosts and not all of these threads are addressed with the care they deserve nor are they integrated into the story to make it a cohesive whole.
Moreover, this is a SFF blog, so it behooves us to consider the paranormal elements of the story. At first, it seemed that Hannah’s haunting by Lillian was more of a reflection of Hannah’s own mental state after the death of her best friend. Her considered examination of her own reactions to Lillian’s behavior prior to her death seemed only but a sign of her guilt and general mental state. But it eventually becomes clear that Hannah is definitely seeing Lillian’s ghost—to which I must ask: Why? Are ghosts a reality in this setting? Can other people see them? If not, why only Hannah?
Because those questions are not addressed at all, the only possible explanation is that Lillian is an incidental ghost—one that exists merely to drive the plot forward. And if, in principle, incidental plot elements are not a problem per se and often do work, it is extremely problematic to me that this particular incidental ghost is one of an extremely troubled anorexic girl whose tragic death seems to be there to purely serve the main characters’ arc.
It also doesn’t help that as soon as she meets Finny, her entire circle of best friends turns into a full girl-on-girl hate. And then there’s the extremely cheesy, overwrought, eye-rolling writing when referring to the romance between Hannah and Finny. Just an example:
"And then we're looking at each other, and it's a look that goes on and on, stretching across space and time. Across galaxies."
Paper Valentine is not really a terrible book. And that’s about it, really.
In Book Smugglerish, an indifferent 5 paper hearts out of 10.
Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.