Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff is not just a ghost story. Sure, Hannah’s best friend, Lillian, died six months ago and is now spending her days haunting Hannah. Yes, there are some murdered dead girls who eventually make some creepy, bloody appearances. But Paper Valentine manages to rise above its ghostly premise and is so much more. It’s a book about not making snap judgments and eating disorders and speaking up for oneself. It’s a book about family and friendships. And it’s a mystery featuring a creepy serial killer who has a thing for paper hearts.
Lillian slowly wasted away because of her battle with anorexia. Hannah was very aware of the diseased girl’s condition, although both girls seemed incapable of doing anything to stop the gradual decay of Lillian’s body. Yovanoff could have handled this issue many ways. Although not as heart wrenching as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, the author does a passable job of explaining how helpless Lillian felt, how her need to be in control over her body overwhelmed her. At the same time, Hannah’s own feelings are remarkably realistic, ranging from anger at the disease itself to Lillian for crying out for attention in such a horrible way, to Lillian’s mother for not paying enough attention and especially to herself for not speaking up.
As for Hannah, she’s a quiet girl, often unwilling to stand up for herself, not wanting to cause waves. Everything is “fine”; everything is “okay.” She works hard to put on a normal façade for her parents and friends, often going along with anything regardless of her own desires. Hannah’s younger sister, Ariel, and Finny Boone, a teenage delinquent who Hannah can’t stop thinking about, seem to be the only ones who truly notice: “If Hannah was on fire, she would still say she’s okay,” Ariel observes. With Ariel and Finny’s support, Hannah slowly crawls out of hershell, taking a stand for what she wants. (Seriously, though, what kind of name is Finny?)
Woven through Hannah’s emotional journey is the primary conflict: One by one young teenage girls have begun to die, bludgeoned to death and then staged amidst broken and old toys, topped with a homemade valentine heart. Hannah “plays” at investigation, spurred on by the appearance of the ghosts of the dead girls.Hannah isn’t a plucky young Veronica Mars, however, staking out possible suspects and following clues in an effort to show up the police. Rather, she obsessively pores over newspaper clippings, trying to figure out why they died. Lillian is a huge instigator in this research, for the ghost is also fascinated by the morbid deaths. When the killer is found, it’s by random happenstance, and even then Hannah doesn’t 100 percent solve the murders until the final reveal. The killer is a surprise, but the true identity doesn’t have any real impact. This is fine,though, because he’s not important. Paper Valentine is perhaps one of the few ghost stories in which the ghosts of the murdered play second fiddle to a spirit who didn’t die under suspicious circumstances, and the mystery is not as important as Hannah and Lillian’s healing and acceptance of Lillian’s death.
Hannah is relatable without being too perfect and avoids the “one flaw” description that so many female protagonists seem to have in young adult lit nowadays. (You know the type – like Bella Swan…she’s smart, nice, pretty, but she’s so gosh darn clumsy! FLAW!) Ariel is the cutest sister ever, and Finny is a sweet love interest who also avoids the “mysterious guy with the perfect looks” cliché.
Paper Valentine isn’t a tearjerker (and easily could have been, considering the subject matter), but it is thought-provoking, well-written and engaging, and I have already checked out Yovanoff’s other novels in the hopes that they are at least as good as Paper Valentine.