Review: Speak

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson is a young adult novelist whose work I knew vaguely of during my own adolescence (and yes, I’m beyond delighted that I get to put that in the past tense now), but never actually read—although I might have read Fever, 1793 in middle school. Y’all know how my memory is; if I’m vague about whether or not I finished The Lord of the Rings during that time period, everybody else doesn’t stand a chance. But I missed out, apparently; upon entering my class on children’s and young adult literature, my fellow classmates were abuzz with how much they loved Speak. As the class got compressed towards the end of the semester, the class was divvied up into two to read either Speak or Bait; luckily, I got to be in the Speak group. I settled down to do my classwork and was utterly transported.

Speak follows Melinda during her first year of high school. Deep in a depression over an unspeakable event that occurred over the summer, Melinda is an outcast, hated for calling the cops at a wild high school party. Despite being befriended by the new girl, Heather, Melinda moves like a ghost through her own life, barely able to muster the willpower to care about any of her classes or even talk. Art, as taught by the free-spirited Mr. Freeman, becomes the only bright spot in Melinda’s life; and as time marches on, Melinda begins to find her own strength to heal.

Speak is one of the very few novels I’ve read, for any audience, that accurately captures high school. Yes, some of the cliques—especially the Marthas—are a bit over the top, but otherwise, Anderson flawlessly captures the confusion and tedium of high school. On top of that, the novel possesses a startling rawness that will make it feel remarkably current to American teenagers; it was so easy for me to see Melinda’s high school as my own that I was shocked to discover that Speak was written in 1999. Twelve years is a piddling amount of time, to be sure, but it’s a significant amount in contemporary young adult fiction, which tends to date like nobody’s business. It’s sparsely written and sturdy; nothing feels superfluous, which is good for a novel that’s barely two hundred pages long. But the main reason why Speak grabbed onto me and wouldn’t let go was Melinda herself.

In young adult fiction, especially the selections I’ve had to read for this class, you sometimes feel as if the protagonist has been coldly calculated to appeal to teenagers, especially if they’re contemporary females or young men. Not so with Melinda. Melinda is cynical, internal, and hard to like in her depression, but she’s so human and vulnerable that you can’t help but reach out to this character. Watching her overcome her depression and the alienation her class submits her to is transfixing. But everything is not doom and gloom; Melinda can also be darkly funny, making her more relatable and human. But I do find it a bit disingenuous to consider Speak a funny novel; it’s about a girl overcoming a horrible act of violence and the depression that follows, told through an internal monologue that makes her emotions raw and real. (I know there’s a film adaptation of this novel available, but I can’t imagine translating such an internal novel to the screen—y’all know how I feel about that.)

You may have noticed I’m not mentioned what Melinda suffers, although I knew what happened before I sat down to read this book. While Speak blew me away, I think it would be even more powerful with the reveal left unspoiled. Suffice it to say, Melinda is a victim of violence. But Anderson explores more than just her recovery process; she explores the circumstances that lead Melinda to keep it a secret. She’s not only isolated by her peers, but by her family—instead of trying to explore why Melinda will barely speak and interact with them, they attack her for her poor grades. Melinda thinks that her parents wouldn’t be together if it wasn’t for her; it might be the depression talking, but her parents are often at odds. I was particularly struck by a passage where Melinda considers her family tree and concludes that it’s a stump of a tree; she barely knows her relatives. But her healing process ultimately heals her family (to a degree). Speak is ultimately a incredibly moving novel about healing, moving on, and facing the dark, ugly things in life; I’m sorry it took me so long to read it.

Bottom line: Speak is a gripping and human novel about a girl’s recovery from an act of violence and the depression that ensues; it’s raw, sparse, and sturdy. Simply powerful.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Review: Speak

  1. Laurie Halse Anderson is fucking amazing. Kristen Stewart was Melinda in the film version and wasn’t too bad (I think her dark gloominess worked for the role). Still, the book is wonderful. . .

    I also like her other works: Catalyst, Twisted. . .but perhaps my favorite of the others is Wintergirls, which deals with anorexia so rawly, so really, that After-School-Special does not come out at ALL.

  2. This book WAS just like high school — the high school wasn’t the same sort of geeky no-sports place I went to, but it still felt so familiar. In particular, the teachers acted just like high school teachers really act — they were nice in the same ways and jerky in the same ways. Lovely.

  3. Okay, so you know that chick, the girl who plays Bella in the Twilight movies? Kristin? Or is it Kirstin? So, evidently Lifetime did a movie based off of Speak (OF COURSE THEY DID) and she played the leading role and did a fantastic job. There were a lot of long eye looks and awkward how-do-i talk-to-you moments that we get in Twilight et al. Much more meaningful and convincing here.

    • Ah, so one of those rare cases where an actor’s poor acting actually works for a particular role. I always felt that way about Keanu Reeves in Brannagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” movie.

  4. I remember adoring Speak when I was eleven, just escaped from a disastrous middle-school bullying situation. It was one of the four or so “bridge books” I used to switch from children’s books to world literature. I was struck by the spare, elegant prosework and the painful depiction of a young girl’s isolation, and I still am. Yet when I read the book again years later, I found that I no longer understood Melinda in her silence and her inner sarcasm, and that the narrative was incredibly irritating to me. My understanding of her situation was gone, as I had grown into an outspoken teenager who would inform anyone of any trauma or injustice, great or small. I had some sympathy on account of Melinda being a psychologically accurate character, but it felt like the book had lost the crux of its appeal when I was no longer a Melinda.

    Speak is probably one of those books that has to be read at a certain stage of development or in a certain mindset to truly resonate with an individual. There’s a window, maybe six months, where the book will change your life, but if you miss the window you’ll be left wondering what the fuss was about. The Catcher in the Rye and Fight Club seem to fall into this category. They record a particular state of being that, while legitimate, does not last long.

    (Bridge books: The Giver, The Wanderer, Speak, The Girls. There are probably one or two more, but the point is that I had a YA period of about five seconds. After that I got so spoiled on books for adults, with their complexity and sad endings and sex scenes, that YA never held much interest. I can count the YA books I’ve since read and liked on one hand)

    • YA is a bit of a crock—Malinda Lo’s Ash was written for the adult market but marketed as YA, for instance, so the dividing line is very arbitrary. But YA can be just full of complexity, sad endings, and sex!

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