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Lessons from a Dead Girl

Review

Lessons from a Dead Girl

What if you hated someone, really hated them, even to the point of secretly wishing they were dead? What if that person actually did die? How would that make you feel? In Jo Knowles's LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, this scenario inspires the protagonist, Laine, to replay her whole long history with the dead girl, Leah Greene, to reflect on what had made her love --- and then hate --- Leah, sometimes at the very same time.

Laine has always felt awkward and shy, painfully removed from her more easy-going classmates. That's why, when beautiful, popular Leah Greene selected her as a friend in fifth grade, Laine was simultaneously flattered and confused: "Any time I start to wonder why on earth Leah Greene wants to be my best friend, I tell myself not to think about it… I feel so deliriously happy, I think my lips will crack from smiling so hard…. I'm not no one anymore."

But soon Leah's friendship evolves into secret sessions in Laine's walk-in closet, sessions where Leah forces Laine to play house, kissing and touching her all over while they pretend to be husband and wife, to “practice for when we get older." After these incidents, Leah taunts Laine, accusing her of enjoying the intimate contact too much, of being abnormal, sick and perverted. As for Laine, she's more confused then ever --- it's true that Leah's kisses are exciting, but they also feel dirty and wrong. Why does Leah do these things to Laine? Does it have something to do with the uncomfortable relationship Leah has with her father's friend Sam?

As the girls grow older, Leah becomes simultaneously more vicious and distant. Laine, desperately desiring normal relationships, is unsure how to create and support regular friendships, especially when she's always second-guessing her new friends' motivations and desires. But when Leah, who has quickly spiraled into self-destructive patterns of behavior, dies in a terrible car crash while the girls are in high school, Laine is forced to revisit and re-examine all of her relationships, past and present, to find out where things went wrong…and whether she is to blame.

In an author's note, debut novelist Jo Knowles writes that she was prompted to write LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL after reading an article about children who abuse other children. "I began to wonder what makes childhood friendships so complex, so painful at times, and yet so binding," she writes. In her first novel, Knowles does a credible job of exploring friendships, particularly those of girls, in all their complexity and depth. In particular, she uncovers the secrecies, painful betrayals and confusing contradictions that mark so many intense childhood friendships.

This exploration of a dysfunctional friendship is the most compelling aspect of LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL. Elements of suspense --- such as delaying the revelations of abuse that most readers will already have figured out long before --- are not integrated as successfully. The narrative also loses focus somewhat during Laine's high school years, as she pursues partying and complex new relationships in equal measure. But even these sections help underscore Knowles's overall lesson --- that the relationships we develop in childhood, for good or for ill, shape how we relate to others, potentially for the rest of our lives.

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Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

Lessons from a Dead Girl
by Jo Knowles

  • Publication Date: October 9, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763632791
  • ISBN-13: 9780763632793