Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Brenna Yavanoff’s Paper Valentine is an intriguing mixed-category book: part ghost story and part murder mystery. Someone is killing young girls in Hannah’s suburban town of Ludlow, and Hannah feels compelled to solve the case because the ghost of her dead friend Lillian keeps pestering her to find out who it is before they kill again.

When I first started reading, I thought that Hannah’s ghost friend would be one of the murdered girls. So I was troubled to learn that, like the ghost of Cassie in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, Lilian was the victim, not of murder, but of an eating disorder. Sadly, too, Lillian’s story feels flat compared to Anderson’s brilliant book, Yovanoff relying on many of the traditional tropes and stereotypes about anorexia, including Lilian’s perfection-demanding and appearance-demeaning mother.

Thankfully, though, this was my only complaint in an otherwise captivating story. Hannah is a compelling first-person narrator, who strikes an interesting balance between being one of the “popular” kids without coming across as shallow or stupid. Her sister Ariel is perfectly drawn as being both insightful and yet still innocent and childish, and I particularly liked their friendship and Hannah’s visible love and affection for her. The other characters are also well-portrayed, with a full mix of both good and bad qualities. This itself lends well to the plot, masking the identity of the murderer such that the reader is left without a clear suspect until Hannah herself begins to unravel the case. Additionally, although I found the present-tense narration jarring at first, it did seem to suit the story well as it progressed, giving the reader just the right amount of clues without feeling like the author was withholding information that would have let Hannah or the reader solve the murders sooner.

Of course, what interested me in the tale was the ghosts, and Lillian, despite having a disappointing backstory death, is an excellent ghost. She is bitter and mean, frustrated to be dead, and lacking in any of the warmth of a real, living friend. In fact, her coldness is literal, as she serves as a temporary AC unit to Hannah when Hannah’s home air conditioning breaks down during one of the hottest summers on record. Yavanoff is consistent in the ghosts appearance, portraying them as looking exactly as they looked at moment of death, which leads to some interesting visuals as well, Lillian trailing everywhere after fashionable Hannah in her pajamas, and the ghosts of the murdered girls distinctive from each other by their outfits and injuries. I particularly liked Hannah’s interactions with the other ghost girls, their irregular appearance in her life except when specifically called up using a Ouija board. Meanwhile Hannah’s faith in the ghosts being a real presence and not some psychotic break within herself was reassuring to read. The reader is given the impression that Hannah was a distinctly reliable narrator– that even if she was wrong about the ghosts being “real”, she is not trying to fool the reader or being deceptive about the events as she experiences them.

Yovanoff’s strength in this book is a set of characters that stay with you long after finishing the story. Without setting up any loose ends for a sequel, Yovanoff still leaves the reader pondering what is next for Hannah, and hoping, perhaps, that she may yet be haunted again.

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