I really must learn to not judge a book by its cover. I looked at this beautiful cover and thought, steampunk horror story, ala Masque of the Red Death. Paper Valentine is in fact an unusual blend of ghost story, murder mystery, issues novel and romance. Although I had some issues with the characters and the murder mystery plot, Brenna Yovanoff has a great writing style and I was fascinated with how she handled anorexia.
The city of Ludlow is in the grip of a serial killer who murders teenage girls and leaves them surrounded by an assortment of children’s toys and old valentines. Meanwhile, Hannah is being haunted by her best friend Lillian, who starved herself to death six months ago. Her group of friends is lost without Lillian at the centre, and Hannah isn’t sure how much she enjoys them anymore, anyway. She is curious about Finny Boone- handsome and tortured local delinquent- but Lillian’s ghost is holding her back from pursuing him. But when Hannah starts seeing the ghosts of the murdered girls, she realizes she needs to focus on the living before she ends up among the dead.
I found the relationship between the girls the most interesting part of this unusual book. I was fascinated with the group dynamics and how Lillian’s death seems to set them free, except for Hannah, who relied on Lillian’s support and leadership, or so she thinks. Even in death, Lillian is a bully, but we get glimpses of the sad, desperate, and ultimately tragic figure she once was. Yovanoff does not glamourize anorexia, but humanizes it. Slowly the author reveals how such a promising and popular young woman could succumb to death. Lillian’s regret is the most haunting part of the novel.
Finny was a bit stereotypical for me (lumbering misunderstood bad boy who is kind to children and animals), but Yovanoff is skilled at creating tension and heat between him and Hannah. I loved the energy and innocence of Hannah’s younger sister Ariel, and her family situation in general was loving though strained as Hannah deals with her own depression. I found the murder mystery element tertiary to the other two storylines (Hannah and Finny and Hannah and Lillian) and at times I wondered if it was even necessary. It does add a nice ominous tone to the overall atmosphere and those who like mystery may appreciate a break from the heavier emotional drama of the book. Fans of Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson), Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls (Mary Downing Hahn), and contemporary YA in general will enjoy this unique novel.
Paper Valentine is available now in Canada from Razorbill.