Friday, January 18, 2013

"Speechless," by Hannah Harrington

The Protagonist: Chelsea Knot. Chelsea will do, and more importantly, say anything to stay in her popular best friend's good graces. So when she discovers a schoolmate is secretly gay, she rushes off the share the details with her - and accidentally informs the whole basketball team, too.
The Rub: When that gay classmate winds up in a coma, Chelsea becomes an outcast when she comes forward. Learning the hard way how powerful speech can be, she takes a vow of silence.

Secondary Cast:

Asha: A sweet-natured social outcast who befriends Chelsea after her vow of silence. Loving knitting and working at the local diner.

Sam: The best friend of Noah (the gay bashing victim), he's paired with Chelsea in art class, and the two bond over their mutual friendship with Asha.

Andy: Noah's boyfriend. Still angry at Chelsea for outing Noah, he's also angry at himself.

Noah: A classmate of Chelsea's, whom she outs after she catches him making out with Andy. Is attacked and hospitalized by two basketball players.

Kristin: Chelsea's former best friend and the most popular girl in school - she is a ruthless, conniving, and, yes, stereotypical Queen Bitch who makes Chelsea Public Enemy #1 after she rats out Kristin's boyfriend to the cops.

Lowell: A thuggish basketball player who starts bullying and harassing Chelsea for ratting out his teammates.

Angst Checklist:
  • Homophobia
  • School bullying
  • Personal responsibility
  • Bitchy Frenemies
  • The importance of speech
  • Popularity (and the lack thereof)
  • Tuna Melts

The Word: This was an interesting novel to read because although I really didn't like the writing style, um, at all, the story was interesting enough to keep me absolutely addicted to it.

Chelsea Knot is living the high life as the best friend/minion/personal Gretchen Wieners of Kristin, Grand Lake High School's vicious Queen Bee. Sure, she always has to play second fiddle and cater to Kristin's exacting moods and personal style, but the ensuing popularity is all she's ever wanted. Chelsea is incapable of keeping a secret and is one of the biggest gossipmongers at school, a trait she maintains because it entertains Kristin and keeps her in the popular girl's inner circle.

When Chelsea drunkenly walks in on a male classmate, Noah, making out with another boy during a party, she stumbles off to share the scandalous details with Kristin - and blurts out the deets in front of half the basketball team as well. That very night, two basketball players attack Noah and put him in a coma, and for the very first time, Kristin demands Chelsea keep her mouth shut.

But Chelsea is horrified at what she's done, and makes the hardest (and ultimately best) decision of her life: she goes to the cops with her story, resulting in the arrest of her school's star basketball players - one of whom is Kristin's boyfriend. She then makes the second hardest decision of her life: to take a vow of silence to atone for her formerly loose lips.

Chelsea becomes a pariah overnight - half the school despises her as the traitor rat who crippled the basketball team, the other half are eager to kick the Queen Bee's sidekick now that she's down, and her teachers have no idea what to do with a student who refuses to speak. The only people who reach out to Chelsea are the people she least expected - the quirky, unconventional social outcasts who knew Noah personally.

There were a lot of things I didn't like about this book. The voice, for one. The writing style is juvenile and simplistic in a cliched way - it doesn't come across as immature because it's the voice of a teenager, but because it sounds like an adult trying too hard to imitate the voice of a teenager. I also thought the villains' comeuppance at the end was disappointingly lame considering the huge amount of build-up the story bestows upon Chelsea's "brilliant" revenge scheme. As well, I was kind of annoyed by how little "screen time" both gay characters in the book received. The Inciting Incident of the novel is a gay bashing - but it's used to illustrate the story of a sad, straight, privileged, white girl while the actual victim is only present for ten pages or so. However, one could also make the exact same argument about Lauren Myracle's Shine, and that book rocked my socks like a laundry machine hurricane.

But what did this novel do well? Despite the clunky writing and the disappointing payoff, the character development is amazing. I loved reading about Chelsea's progression towards being an independent person. I loved how her voicelessness helped develop her self-awareness, especially regarding her friendship with Kristin and her own personal value. Chelsea starts the book as a stereotypical Popular Girl - obsessed with clothing, gossip and boys and terrible at schoolwork. Once Kristin destroys their friendship and Chelsea starts to make friends who don't require that she constantly praise and entertain them, she has time to explore things she'd always convinced herself weren't important because they didn't keep her in Kristin's good graces. Chelsea's grades improve significantly, she gets a job, and she finds a way to interact with the community without having to speak.

As a character novel, Speechless is incredibly effective and well-paced and explores some excellent themes about the power of words and a person's contribution to their community. If you can tolerate childish writing and a weak ending, you might want to give Speechless a try.

You can purchase Speechless here.


  1. Anonymous10:21 AM

    How does she semi-realistically gets a job and refuse to speak at the same time? Or make and keep new friends the same way? *head-shake* Refusing to speak is selfish act - it's just the mirror image of gossiping about others. Sadly, the writing might be juvenile and the ending weak precisely because there's no real meat on the bones of the plot as presented here. It's possible I'm missing something though, as I haven't read the book. :(

    1. Anonymous - she gets a job as a dishwasher at a diner, so speaking for that role is not necessary. She also communicates with others via her actions, gestures, and a handy portable whiteboard. She also finds that when she cannot speak, she has to LISTEN - and this actually deepens her friendships with her new friends because she has a chance to learn and observe more about them.

      And face to face communication only relies partly on speech - a HUGE amount of communication comes from tone, gestures, social context, and facial expressions.

      In the heroine's case, her decision to take a vow of silence is more to remain silent until she finds she has something worthy to say. Before her vow, she used verbal communication in a very shallow way, as a kind of popularity currency. Again - she was a gossipmonger. She loved telling dirty secrets and spreading rumours about people and fawning over her awful BFF. She never really contributed anything positive with her speech.

      Her decision process was: my speech hurt people (the gay student who got bashed, and her two friends who were jailed on her testimony, and the literally dozens of students she squealed on), so I won't speak.

      I fail to see why remaining silent is selfish - her silence doesn't hurt, offend, or even affect anyone else in the story. So I don't even understand why it's the opposite of gossipmongering. She doesn't "remain silent" in the sense of ignoring or avoiding speaking out about evil - after all, she goes to the cops about the attack and chooses to end her vow of silence by defending a fellow student against bullying. So it's not remaining silent in that sense.

      I would suggest you give the story a try. It's about how words aren't the be-all and end-all of communication.

    2. Anonymous5:49 PM

      Have ever had a worked as a dishwasher? It does require speaking, although not much. ;) I guess you could grunt and point but at some point you would annoy your co-workers. She'd also have to find an employer willing to take on someone who had decided to be mute. If you were a busy manager and had a choice, would you take someone on joansing on some emotional backstory and pointing all the time? I'd take the applicant without all that emotional baggage any day.

      "Her decision process was: my speech hurt people (the gay student who got bashed, and her two friends who were jailed on her testimony, and the literally dozens of students she squealed on), so I won't speak."

      And unfortunately this is not a mature thought process (to me anyway). Certainly one a teenager might have, but choosing silence doesn't atone for the past sin or solve any of the problems long term. The heroine simply dashes from one extreme (no filter whatsoever) to another (speaking is beneath me/too risky until I have something profoundly important to say). It's very possible to learn to listen and not gossip without a vow of silence and it might have made a much better story. :(

      "I fail to see why remaining silent is selfish - her silence doesn't hurt, offend, or even affect anyone else in the story."

      Yes, and that's my point. It's not realistic at all that her choice did not impact someone else. If your someone in your family suddenly became mute because of some horrific event wouldn't you calling every therapist you could think of? Wouldn't you be worried sick?

      At the very least, wouldn't be annoying to have a friend (I'd give it a week) who wrote on a white board, making every bit of communication about 3 times longer than it needed to be? Every single attempt at communication would totally be about Her Terrible Emotional Woes. Ugh.

      A vow of silence like that really should have had a huge impact on her personal world. The moral sounds solid but it still sounds to me like the plot and the writing style have a lot in common. :(

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