(nb: I received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley)
Bullying is a big topic these days, with special t-shirts and ribbons, awareness programs, and plenty of good-hearted people trying to prevent it.
The sad fact is that bullying has always been a part of adolescence, going back to Cain and Abel. Two teenagers on earth, and one beat the other one to death.
In the world of Verity High School, life is hardly easy for the less-popular crowd. They do their best to fade quietly into the background. Lizzie Hart is one of the overlooked. Her best friend since she was a little girl is Angie, one of the popular kids. Where Lizzie is quiet and cerebral, Angie is flashy and bold: she has a hunky, jock boyfriend named Drake, plus she’s a cheerleader, and hangs with all the coolest kids.
Even though they don’t see each other as often as they used to, Angie and Lizzie are still best friends. They plan to go to prom together. They laugh together, celebrating the deep bond they have. BFF’s: Best Friends Forever…
Until a short way into the prom, when Angie walks into her hotel room, and finds Drake and Lizzie having sex. Angie storms out of the room crying. The story gets out, and Lizzie is shunned. Angie won’t speak to her. Those kids who do, for the most part, just call her a slut. The word “slut” appears on her locker, her backpack, even scratched into her car’s paintjob, repeatedly. We learn later from her diaries that her guilt is so profound, she’s even cut the word “slut” into her own body.
Despondent and seemingly friendless, Lizzie commits suicide by jumping from a school tower.
Outwardly indifferent, Angie becomes plagued by her memories of Lizzie. They were truly best-friends. They slept at each other’s houses at least one night a week for over a decade, and worked through the usual puberty blues.
Shortly after Lizzie’s death, the words “Suicide Slut” written in Lizzie’s distinctive, loopy penmanship start showing up all over campus: on lockers, bathroom walls, everywhere. Even odder, pages from Lizzie’s diary find their way into different people’s hands.
Angie makes it her business to find out who’s writing “Suicide Slut” all over the school, and she tries to piece Lizzie together using her diary pages. From what she collects—and the stories students share of Lizzie—Angie finds that Lizzie was one of the nicest, most-genuine people in Verity HS. So why did this happen? How could it?
Think of “The S-Word” as a steep rollercoaster. You click your way slowly to the top, and there’s an area of relative plateau. That’s how “The S-Word” starts off. In the beginning, Angie seems strangely aloof from her friend’s death—Lizzie slept with her boyfriend, so why should she care that she dies? Once Angie begins her quest to discover who’s passing out Lizzie’s diary entries and writing “Suicide Slut” all over the school…this is where the rollercoaster ride begins in earnest.
It took me awhile to connect with Angie. At first, she seemed almost flippant about her friend’s death. Once she starts grilling people and collecting the diary pages, she discovers a Lizzie she never knew. More importantly, Angie can finally admit how crushed Lizzie’s suicide left her. She can feel the loss, and mourn her best friend, releasing the poison she’s built up inside.
Author Chelsea Pitcher gives “The S-Word” a compelling climax. Angie has learned compassion. She’s learned to forgive. Her fervor to punish everybody abates one person at a time. She finds that nearly everyone is dealing with their own hells, even the most-beautiful and popular girl in school. Lizzie may not have been prom queen material, but one-on-one, nearly everyone seems to like her. When she was caught with Drake, the pack mentality took over, and that was it.
Ms. Pitcher ends the story beautifully. It would have been a let-down to have everything turn out perfect. It ends on a note of hope, that Angie will forgive herself, that Jesse will find his true love, and most of all, hope that maybe the school won’t be as quick to persecute someone in the future.