Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Speak (1999)

By: Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: Young Adult, Drama, Finding yourself

Melinda Sordino used to have a pretty good life. She got good grades, had a tight-knit group of friends, and was often invited to fun events. All of that changed the summer between middle school and high school, and now she enters ninth grade with no friends, a bad case of depression and a secret she can’t tell anyone. Her friends think she’s a narc, her parents think she’s grasping for attention, but no one asks her why she’s become this way. Melinda finds herself slipping into silence, and only her art can help her find her voice.

Melinda is a great character – I loved her sarcastic, cynical wit when describing things around her. Her quips are intelligent and funny, even if they come from a depressed mind. She has lost interest in school, except in the one subject that she can use as her outlet – art. I could feel her helplessness – she wants to tell her secret but doesn’t feel like anyone will believe her. Her friends won’t give her the time of day and her parents are never around – and when they are, it only seems to be to yell at her or each other.

I honestly couldn’t stand Melinda’s parents. The only time her father seemed to talk to her was to bellow about her poor grades. Occasionally he does something nice like get doughnuts on Thanksgiving or invite her to the hardware store with him, but for the most part he ignores her. Her mother isn’t much better – working long hours as a retail store manager, she doesn’t seem to have time for Melinda’s “cries for attention.” That is literally what she calls it when she sees that Melinda has self-cut, and promptly ignores her again. Excuse me, you’re not a bit concerned about why your daughter is cutting? Do neither of you see this downward spiral as something out of character for Melinda, someone who only months before was a solid student with a decent social life?  No friends, bad grades, sleeping all the time, cutting – these are signs she needs help, not to be yelled at by two half-wits who only seem to worry about how she’s making them look.
Her only friend for the first half of the book is Heather, a bubbly new girl full of school spirit and longing to belong somewhere. She tries to get Melinda involved, but mostly just uses her until she finds a better group of friends. Also, the girl has some anger management issues. However, I don’t think Melinda should have written off Ivy and Nicole so quickly. While neither of them hung around her specifically, they were never mean to her the way Rachel and other students were. I’m glad she and Ivy began to bond toward the end of the novel, and I think that Nicole would have talked to Melinda if Melinda had approached her. It is, of course, understandable why she was afraid to do so.

As far as the rest of the characters go, few stand out. David Petrakis is her nerdy lab partner who isn’t afraid to stand up to their bigoted history teacher, Mr. Neck (Melinda’s nickname for the teacher, real last name unknown.) Mr. Neck is one of those people who never should have ended up in charge of students. He’s a control freak douche bag who loves to push his weight around. Yet the school board allows him to get away with his antics (probably because he’s a coach for one of the sports teams) but harasses Mr. Freeman for using too much of the budget on art supplies. Mr. Freeman is the only teacher that seems to respect his students and encourage them to grow and find themselves. All the others – Mr. Neck and Hairwoman (English) especially – seem to try and squish the creativity right out of these kids, turning them into mindless drones like everyone else. It is Mr. Freeman who believes in Melinda and encourages her transformation as the book wears on. Her struggles with her art mirror her struggles with herself and the need to find her voice.

Melinda’s secret is revealed about halfway through the novel, but I had already seen the film, so I knew what it was. Anderson holds the suspense for a while, but I don’t think it’s hard to figure out with the hints dropped by Melinda. What happened to her is awful, and the fact that she had no one to confide in makes this novel heartbreaking in places.

My only real problem with the novel is the ending. We never find out if her parents learn what really happened to her that summer. I’m sure they did, but I would have liked to see how that happened and if they felt guilty at all for not realizing something was very wrong. We never find out if Andy is punished, and we never really find out if Melinda regains her friends and a happy social life. I would have liked to know how things ended up for her.

Overall, it was a quick, interesting read with a strong heroine and a compelling story. I just wish the ending had been expanded upon.


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