I’m not sure if it’s that my brother is now working for the company that services the Ohio Digital Library’s e-book app and is screwing with my account, or if the makers of OverDrive use some kind of crazy psychic algorithm for book recommendations, but for some reason I’m being presented with an assortment of crazy ass novels every time I log in to choose a new ebook or audiobook. On one occasion I logged in to see two books recommended to me, one was “What’s Going on Down There” and had some youths on the cover looking down towards their crotch areas, and the other was “The Chocolate Wars.” Given that this recommendation popped up on the first day of my period I was understandably spooked, and also a little crampy and hungry for chocolate.
“Life by Committee” popped up under the mystery/suspense category and while there are some elements of mystery inside, I don’t know that I would categorize it as either a mystery novel or a suspense novel. The premise is that Tabitha, a 16 year old, is going through a period of depression after her friends all drop her the moment she starts becoming attractive and developing an interest in boys. As she is feeling socially isolated, she turns to a website where you can vent your deepest, darkest secrets, and you are given assignments or challenges to help you act on the desires that drove you to those secrets in the first place. The website has a small number of members and they all encourage each other through their challenges. This provides the emotional and social outlet she needs as she becomes increasingly alienated from her parents and her few acquaintances at school.
Now those of us who are a little older and wiser will immediately see that right off the bat, expecting people from the internet to help you manage your life is not generally a great idea. I mean, look at Boaty McBoatface. I hear that the English government is forcing a re-name of the boat that was initially named through totally legitimate voting, and that’s a crying shame. I mean, if a country won’t even allow the results of a citizens’ vote to stand when it comes to boat naming, what other results is it ignoring? The people of England should protest and also make lots of comical signs for my amusement!
Very few YA books can keep my interest for too long because I find the main characters to be nauseatingly sweet and good. I feel like many YA authors writing female protagonists feel obligated to write Mary Sue style role model characters, and we all know that this is complete BS. I believe this trend started with Jane Austen writing about Fanny in Mansfield Park. Fanny needed to grow a pair, fam, and I don’t know why our culture insists that we have to keep making our female girl characters these austere models of purity and moral decorum. Teenage girls are awful. I was awful, you were awful, your daughters and your sisters were probably awful. It’s just how teenage girls are. This book sparked my interest immediately because the main character is so real. I read several reviews online where people said that they liked the book but hated the main character, and I have to question why. Sure, she chose to pursue a boy who had a girlfriend. Sure, she was a terrible listener to her best friend, because she was too wrapped up in her own drama. She’s sixteen. That’s what sixteen is. And if you sanctimoniously think “I wasn’t like that when I was sixteen!” you are lying to yourself. Seriously, go ask your family. If you think you weren’t an ass at sixteen, you’re probably still an ass now.
There were some things in this book that were not standard for YA novels, and that’s what sets this one out from the crowd. First, Tabitha is attractive. She’s not one of those quirky charmingly clumsy girls who can’t understand why boys like her because she thinks she’s super unfashionable and plain and blah blah false modesty. Tabitha has developed early and well, and she doesn’t apologize for it by dressing down or pretending boys don’t like her. She loses her high school friends because they’re jealous of her and the attention that she’s getting, and they’re very sneaky and catty. They slut shame her so subtly, telling her that they think she’s boy crazy and that she’s demeaning herself with the way she’s dressing. They pretend they’re so concerned for her, all that typical crap plain or slow developing girls say about the ones who grow up the fastest. Tabitha knows immediately that this is sour grapes and I like this. Sure, she struggles with wondering why people don’t like her, but she also takes their words with a grain of salt, and is realistic about what’s probably going on.
I also love Tabitha’s family. Her parents are youngish (32) and her mom is pregnant with another baby. They are a wonderful family and it’s clear that Tabitha’s angst and feelings of separation from her parents have nothing to do with her parents being inadequate or unfair or uncaring, but from her parents having their own lives outside of Tabitha’s immediate day to day actions, and from their own problems within their marriage. In so many books the parents are used as a foil for the teenage protagonist, and in this book her parents are dealing with real issues, such as a dad who is refusing to take on responsibility because he doesn’t want to grow up, and a mom who has enabled this sort of behavior for sixteen years. The storyline that plays out between the parents is almost as interesting as Tabitha’s storyline.
The way Tabitha stumbles onto the Life by Committee website is mysterious and fun, too. Tabitha is a voracious reader and loves to read used books with notes and personal musings in the margins. I googled this and it’s called “marginalia,” and I’m totally going to do it next time I read an analog book, before passing it on to someone else to share and mark up with their own notes. She mentally makes friends with the people who are commenting in the books and so when one of the books has a URL for the Life by Committee forum in the back, of course she follows the link and signs up. This appealed to the mystery lover in me. Will she find her mental soulmate/best friend on this forum? Is it fate? How is it that this appears at the time she needs it most in her life? Will Tabitha finally find some friends and some people who truly understand her?
Even the concept of the forum where Tabitha becomes a member so she can start sharing her secrets seems fairly realistic and I could see many people becoming swept up by the concept. This is how it works: your membership beings when you enter a secret on the website and are assigned a challenge, something related to the secret to help you live your best life. If you don’t complete the assignment, your secrets are publically revealed. This is an ongoing, thing, one secret per assignment, meant to help you overcome your fears and limitations and live your life without rules. How romantic is this crap? It’s like that therapy style where you overcome your phobias by immersing yourself in them. Only with more boys and fewer spiders.
Tabitha’s initial secret is that she kissed a boy who has a girlfriend. She and this dude stay up all night chatting on the internet, developing strong internet romance feelings for each other, but they generally keep their distance at school during the day. As things escalate, they begin to get bolder in real life, culminating in a kiss. Tabitha knows that she’s screwed up, because this boy has a girlfriend. She sends him an email telling him he can’t continue to pursue her unless he cuts ties with the girlfriend, but then she signs up for the website and spills her secret. Of course her first assignment is to kiss him again. She feels some moral pangs, but the members of the group encourage her to pursue the relationship. After all, not all boyfriend/girlfriend relationships end up in a marriage, and many marriages are the result of someone leaving one person for another, right? They justify this until Tabitha does it, feels a rush of power and control, and posts another secret.
The thing about being challenged to confront the things that are deeply secret to you is that sometimes those things are secret for a reason. The challenges become gradually more and more horrible, and in fact, some of them seem downright wrong. The group leader insists that there is no “wrong” or “right,” and that the goal of the group is to help them live their best lives – that doesn’t always happen from doing the “right” thing all the time. He encourages selfishness and even as the group members argue about the method, there are some who insist she has to stick with it, and that it will work out in the end. It’s a little cult-like.
As is bound to happen, things fall apart both at school and at home. Tabitha becomes even more isolated because she can’t talk about the group with anyone, and her activities are now isolating her even further from her family. She’s being pushed to pursue activities that she knows are wrong, but she’s operating under the principal of “I know I should do this but I waaaaaaant so baaaaaaaadly,” which is how I feel when I’m confronted with large amounts of dairy. Of course because this is fiction, bringing the problems in her personal life to a boil results in them rapidly cooling off and eventually everything falls into place. Tabitha finally confronts her biggest fear – that no one will like the real her – not because she’s a crazy boy chasing slut (according to her former friends and classmates) – but because she’s not a likeable person. She reveals all of her secrets in a public school assembly and, miraculously, everyone else in the class gets up and follows suit. Her biggest fear is that deep down she is unloveable, and she learns that EVERYONE does bad things from time to time, or thinks horrible thoughts. She makes peace with her arch rival, and finds a respect she didn’t believe she deserved.
This is precisely why I don’t understand how some reviewers can hate the main character so much. The whole point of the book is that everyone is a little awful, some of the time. We’re all hypocrites. We all have secrets. We all act on impulse. We need to do some of those things to learn and grow.
I really liked this book. This may actually be one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it was a total left-field recommendation from my crazy OverDrive app. There were times I identified with the sixteen year old main character and times I identified with her thirty two year old parents. I even understood the bullies. There was some great character development and the whole thing was just very real. I will certainly be reading more from Corey Ann Haydu. Well done, lady. You’ve written something that even I can’t snark about.