Burn for Burn
by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian
In middle school, I was an angry kid.
There were a lot of reasons for this: hormones, undoubtedly, the utter inability to grasp the obvious fact that I was queer, and unknowingly being the only introvert in a house of extroverts, despite once melodramatically collapsing into my brother’s walk-in closet after being overstimulated at school. (Nobody would shut up to watch The Prince of Egypt! I was trying to focus!) I don’t call ‘em the Wombat Years for nothing. But I always had a sneaking suspicion that my outsized emotions, especially my anger, was being dismissed because I was a girl. When my brother accidentally deleted several hours’ worth of writing, he didn’t apologize to my screamingly red face—he dismissed what I had been writing. Boys at school laughed at my attempts to assert myself until I beat one of them over the head with a bag full of my dirty gym clothes. Even my mother once tricked me into taking an herbal anti-anxiety supplement when she thought I was getting too worked up.
In short, any expression of my anger was dismissed, enraging me further. I could have used a lot of primal screaming sessions.
So I perk up whenever I come across a young adult novel about angry young women. Role models are important. Let’s be real, if I’d watched Xena: Warrior Princess as a kiddo, I would have twigged onto the whole liking girls thing a lot earlier. Having depictions of angry women that aren’t dismissed as harpies, shrews or, my personal unfavorite, hysterical, is important when you’re still sorting out who you are. Anger can be a positive part of who you are; the quicker you learn that, the quicker you can be a whole human being.
Of late, two young adult novels on this theme have caught my eye. There’s Jill Wolfson’s Furious, featuring three teenage girls who learn that they are the modern Furies. And then there’s today’s title, Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Burn for Burn. The three teenage girls in this novel—juvenile delinquent Kat, filthy rich but disillusioned Lillia, and quiet, weird Mary—are pulling a less deadly version of Strangers on a Train. Together, they’ll take revenge on the three people who have ruined their lives—ex-best friend Reenie, sister-shagging friend Alex, and bully Reeve—and hide suspicion by not doing it directly.
Female revenge stories are already their own subgenre—it’s merely transplanting them into high school that’s newish. 2006’s John Tucker Must Die leaps to mind, as does Carrie, but I’ll get into the Carrie comparisons in a moment. But Han and Vivian add an interesting twist by setting it on Jar Island, a tiny island off the coast of the Northeastern United States, which explains a lot about the teens’ freedom, social organization, and narratively useful occasional lack of cell phone reception. And there’s a smidgen of diversity with Korean-American Lillia, whose ethnicity is brought up but never with a huge neon sign. (One of the signs that her popular friend group is full of terrible people? A joke about how all Asians are geniuses who will get into any school they want.)
Largely, the writing reminds me of the handful of Gossip Girl novels I ran through in a week in high school—highly engaging, highly addictive, but a little too effervescent to stick. The writing didn’t stick with me; but the characterizations have.
Despite the late revelation that Alex is actually a good guy, Reenie and Reeve are pretty stereotypical high school baddies, leavened with the novel’s awareness of class. Reenie mocks Kat for being poor even though Reenie has to work after school; Reeve needs a football scholarship to get off the island. It’s the three girls, especially Kat and Lillia, who are fascinating. Kat and Reenie used to be best friends, before Lillia moved to the island. They were a trio until Reenie and Kat got into a fight that never cooled off, despite Lillia’s efforts. Kat’s rage at Reenie is not simply because she’s the popular girl. It’s because Reenie craps on her all day to bolster her own self-esteem, all while cuddling up to Lillia to exploit her family’s wealth. Watching Lillia and Kat try to renegotiate their relationship, which they assumed destroyed, is fascinating. Often, in female revenge stories, the ladies do create a lasting bond with each other, but watching two girls repair a relationship is really interesting. Especially because Lillia and Kat are so different now.
Mary’s story is interesting as well, but the novel implies, here and there, that her story is going in the Carrie direction. It comes fairly late in the novel, but I think it’ll make for interesting material in the sequel. I amy or may not read the sequel, since I’m very disappointed that Burn for Burn just ends with no resolution—I had to get a sense of resolution from the chapter previews for Fire With Fire. I know plotting out series is hard, but there’s no excuse for that.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.