CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 20. . . .February 3, 2017
The Most Dangerous Thing.
Victoria, BC: Orca, March, 2017.
225 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1184-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1185-0 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1186-7 (epub).
Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.
Review by Alex Matheson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
I am tired, even though Iíve been sleeping a lot. The fog makes me feel as if Iím carrying a heavy blanket on my back. I try to smile. ďNo, Iím good.Ē
The fog is top secret, especially from Mom. If anyone knew about it, theyíd pay more attention to me, and that would make me feel worse. I tried to look up my symptoms online, and they donít fit into any real category. Itís true Iím tired and not that hungry, but I can still concentrate on schoolwork. In fact, concentrating makes me feel better - I can forget the fog for a few minutes. Iím not like those people who feel the whole world is black. The fog is just the latest version of my anxiety, and Iím coping just fine.
If Mom knew about the fog, sheíd want to talk about it, even tell other people about it, and that would be unbearable. Sheíd make me see Dr. Sandhu, our family doctor, or, worse, Dr. Spenser, the therapist I used to see. Iíve managed not to see her for almost three years by telling everyone that Iím feeling great.
Sydney, or Syd, is a Jewish girl in grade 11 who lives in Vancouver with her sister Abby and her parents. She has exactly two friends and spends a lot of time with Zeyda, her grandfather. She also lives with depression and anxiety which are difficult enough to deal with without having to worry about her burgeoning feelings for her lab partner, Paul. Because the story is told in the first person, the reader has access to Sydís most intimate thoughts, even when they arenít terribly intimate, as she navigates school, desire, and trying to be an intermediary between Zeyda and her mother who is planning an untraditional Seder for Passover.
Syd is likely a character that will be relatable to readers who have experienced mental illness or who are introverts. Her mental illness, mainly anxiety and depression, is handled well and rings true. It is neither glamorized nor sensationalized. It is nuanced, and people who have struggled with mental illness will recognize the frustration and mundanity in Sydís struggle. The Most Dangerous Thing isnít the first YA book to talk about mental illness, or desire, but the intersection of the two feels novel and important. That said, I was hoping for a story where Syd would be examining and confronting her own desire, but what is presented is more like the lead-up to Syd allowing herself to feel desire. Introverted though she is, it always feels like Syd is holding back.
Unfortunately, this holding back meant I did not feel as connected to Syd as I had hoped. Readers will get to know what Syd likes and how she behaves, but she fell a little flat for me, and I felt like I did not really know her. She is an interesting character, but I just wanted a little more. Her sister Abby, however, who wants perform her own version of The Vagina Monologues at school, feels real and contemporary. The things Abby cares about, like consent and womenís bodily autonomy, feel current and often had me more interested in her than in Syd who can barely bring herself to think about a vagina let alone talk about one. The Most Dangerous Thing is likely one of the least sexual stories that purports to be about sex that you will ever read, but that, itself, will undoubtedly have its own appeal for some. That said, both of these girls are girls that exist in the real world, and both have their place in the narrative.
Diversity and representation are something I always read for, and Liebermanís work does a few things well. The book acts as a window into a modern Jewish familyís daily life. Readers will gain insight into how Sydís family navigates their relationship with their religion as various members approach it from different viewpoints. I do have some reservations about the representation of Zeyda as an old Jewish man who cares more about money than people, given common stereotypes, but the character does have dimension outside of this characterization. There are no authorís notes to indicate whether or not he may have been inspired by a real person. These reservations aside, there is a lot of good information here which does not feel overly didactic thanks to the through line of the Seder preparations and Sydís need to explain things to Paul.
Speaking of Paul, he is one of the better realized characters in the novel. Too often a character is added simply for the sake of diversity or seems to have a new identity tacked on at the last minute, but Paul is a living, breathing character with thoughts, desires, interests, and motivations. His story is that he moved to Vancouver three years ago with his sister, though his parents still live in Hong Kong (his mother visits a few times a year). The fact that Paul is from another country, or that he barely spoke English three years ago, is never exoticized, merely stated, and his story will likely feel familiar to some, especially Vancouverites. I particularly commend Lieberman for casting Paul as the main focus of Sydís desire. A quick Internet query will detail the desexualisation of Asian men in media on a massive scale, and so it is nice to see Paul not only break free of tired stereotypes but also be romantically and, perhaps, sexually desirable.
While some of the characters in the novel are well-developed (Abby, Zeyda, Paul), others left me wanting just a little more (Syd, her parents, her two friends). That said, Syd is still an interesting character with whom many people will identify. The plot is generally interesting (even if it feels like it was cut a little bit short), and it gives readers a window into Sydís life. People living with or interested in mental illness, teens who are starting to confront sexuality, those interested in modern Judaism, and people who like slice of life novels will certainly find something to enjoy here.
Alex Matheson is a childrenís and teenís librarian in Vancouver, BC.
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