When I saw this book come up for my book club, I was like, ugh, I didn’t like that one, I’ll be skipping that discussion. Then I realized I had gotten Speak mixed up with Catalyst, the latter of which I read for my YA Services class in grad school and which is a companion novel to Speak and about which I remember nothing except that I didn’t like it and I never read a Laurie Halse Anderson novel again (mostly coincidentally).
Part of my confusion was that Speak is one of those novels that I’d heard enough about that I was sure I must have read it, and so when I realized I hadn’t I was happy to correct that oversight. Unfortunately, I’d also heard enough that I spent most of the book wondering when the parts I’d heard about were going to happen, which kind of ruined the reading experience for me. If you’ve also not read the book, you may want to skip this and come back later so as not to find yourself in the same situation!
Speak tells the story of Melinda, a freshman who started off her high-school career on some unspecified terrible foot. All her friends have abandoned her, kids she doesn’t even know hate her, and she’s really just hoping to coast through freshman year and maybe the rest of high school without any big confrontations.
That’s almost the entire story, really… Melinda goes to class, she gets pity-friended by the new girl, we find out what she did that got her shunned, she gets berated by her parents for having terrible grades, she tries to figure out how to make an artsy tree for art class, we find out why she did what got her shunned, she survives the year intact.
And when I was reading it, I was like… cool? I had already known what the why part was, so all the little hints that Anderson dropped made me go, “Yes, yes, thank you, let’s get to the part where we talk about that” rather than “Huh, suspicious, what’s that about?” And then when I got to the part where we talk about that, it was a few pages of melodrama and then just more Melinda goes to class boring stuff. I felt kind of cheated.
But now, having had a few weeks to reflect on the story, I can see that it is way more awesome than I gave it credit for. It would certainly have helped if I didn’t know the secret, but even knowing it I didn’t know everything and neither did Melinda, so I was actually probably a bit closer to her than I would have been going in cold. And for all that I wanted Anderson to just move the story along, well, she moved it along as fast as it would actually go over the course of one school year. I’m just old and time goes faster these days, I guess.
A friend noted that she was surprised I hadn’t read this book when I was of a high-school age (this book came out when we were probably in middle school or so), and I really wish I could go back in time and let my high-school self know that there were books that were better than Sweet Valley University and more age-appropriate than Middlesex just waiting for me to read them. I think I would have enjoyed this much more ten or fifteen years ago, but I am glad that I finally got around to it. If you have other suggestions to make up for my lost YA years, let me know!
Recommendation: For any teen who needs reassurance that high school is survivable.