Best Friend 4-Ever: Paper Valentine

A Review of Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff 

Razorbill, 2013

Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

by REBECCA, August 12, 2013

Hannah’s best friend Lillian has been dead for six months, but for Hannah, she’s always around. And now Lillian is helping her investigate a string of murders that have been committed against teenaged girls in their town—murders connected by paper valentines left at the scene. As if that weren’t enough, Hannah finds herself drawn to Finny Boone, a boy who seems to shoplift more than he goes to school. Can Hannah solve the murders, or will she become the next victim?

Brenna Yovanoff’s Paper Valentine is about a serial killer, sure, but it’s at its most interesting when it’s exploring the territory of friendship and the ways that style and taste both express our personalities and exert control over them.

Lillian was the queen bee of her and Hannah’s group of friends, and she set their agenda:

“It was Lillian who decided . . . that there was room for only one really enviable group in school, and we were going to be that group. . . . The kind where when a band gets big or a movie comes out, everyone checks to see how you feel about it before they can decide if they like it, and if you come to class with neon crackle nail polish or colored eyeliner, they all have to . . . get it too, but they never forgot that you wore it first.

That was what Lillian wanted . . . we’d be the girls you could never confuse with anyone else. The girls who invented the colors and started the trends . . . The biggest requirement of Lillian’s fashion philosophy was to always wear it—whatever it was—like you meant it. Like no one in the world could inhabit that exact outfit but you.” (50-51).”

The girls make their own clothes, sewing one thing into another and adding whimsical decorations, Lillian always the arbiter of taste and Hannah her best friend. When vibrant Lillian dies from anorexia, though, Hannah is left feeling uncertain of herself. Lillian’s ghost has stuck around, though, and only Hannah can see her. Little by little, they realize that they have information about the murders that are terrifying their suburban town, and Hannah puts the pieces together.

Paper Valentine by Brenna YovanoffThe atmosphere of Paper Valentine is spot-on: spooky in a heat-dazed, summer-tranced kind of way. In the mornings, Hannah walks her little sister, Ariel,  to music camp, where she runs into Finny Boone, who’s there for summer school. Hannah’s known Finny since elementary school, but never really spoken to him—he has a reputation for being a bit of a delinquent. Once, though, Finny stuck up for Hannah and she’s never forgotten it. She finds herself drawn to him, and he turns out to be a sweetheart. Plus, it’s super convenient to have a very tall/strong boyfriend when there’s a serial killer on the loose, amiright?

Paper Valentine does pretty well in terms of its component parts. The scenes of Hannah and Lillian’s friendship, and their clique, are perfectly-pitched psychodrama; the scenes of Hannah and Finny’s burgeoning friendship and romance are touching; and the throughline of the serial killer mystery is fairly satisfying. It’s just that there are a LOT of them and, for me, the book felt like it didn’t go quite deep enough into any of them to fully inhabit them. Hannah and Lillian’s friendship isn’t actually anything you’ve not seen before; Finny is your quintessential gentle giant character; and the murder mystery element, while dramatic, felt more like backdrop than narrative backbone.

I felt like Paper Valentine itself was the ghost of a few different books combined and it couldn’t decide what should be in the foreground and what in the background: are the serial murders just a backdrop against which to tell the story of Hannah’s recovery from a trauma? Or, is Hannah’s grief the backdrop against which the murders spur her to start a new relationship? It isn’t really clear, and, as such, I wasn’t quite sure what the stakes were. I enjoyed the book—Yovanoff is a solid writer, and the world she built is evocative and interesting—but each element gets about the same amount of development, and the result is a competent book that feels like a bit of a flatline. If one or two of these elements could have fallen to the background, leaving room for more development of one or two others, it would have had the peaks and valleys I craved by the end.

Lillian is the most vivid character and she haunts Paper Valentine as she does Hannah. I like the idea (if this was intentional), but the effect is still that Hannah seems lackluster. And, as in Pretty Little Liars, I’m left wondering what’s to like about these control-freak-mean-girls. I didn’t mind that there’s never really an explanation of whether ghosts are, like, a thing in the world of this book, or if it’s just Lillian, but it’s definitely one more thing the story skates on the surface of. Overall, I enjoyed the book as it unfolded, but found myself unable to remember much about it besides the outfits when it was over.

received from: the library

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