Justin McFarr's Reviews > The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: first-novels, read-2017, signed-books

High school is a place littered with land mines, set to detonate under the student body at any time: during a test where the taker is woefully unprepared, in the cafeteria when face-to-face with the bully du jour, in the aftermath of an ill-timed social misstep, or in the midst of a hundred other awkward, mortifying moments scattered throughout a regular school day. In Lindsey Lee Johnson’s gorgeous debut novel, the world of public education in the rarefied Mill Valley is laid bare and no one escapes unscathed. Students, teachers, and parents all collide as they try to make sense of their emotions, their place in the world, and the inevitable end of high school life.

Told in chapters devoted to individual students, interspersed with chapters focusing on the first-year English teacher Molly Nicoll, the novel starts in their eighth-grade year where a sensitive and love-struck boy leaps to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge. The aftermath of this event, spurred by a love note shared via the public forums of school gossip and Facebook, informs the rest of the novel and the kids who emerge affected (some of them much more than others) by the suicide. By the end of senior year, and the novel, all of the kids have gone through transformations – from child-like observers of their evolving lives to willing and unwilling participants of their sudden leaps into adulthood.

Johnson’s writing style is a marvel. While she manages to infuse each and every character (likeable and spiteful) with deep reservoirs of feeling and complexity, it is her narrative voice that propels the reader forward and through the tangled weeds of their lives. Whether tracking the idealist Molly Nicoll through her unreasonable expectations and desire for personal connections with her students, or exploring Calista Broderick’s desperation to escape her guilt and forge a new identity for herself, Johnson’s prose is confident and piercing. Every sentence carries with it the emotion and confusion that surround these characters, but in clear, beautiful language and phrasing that is a joy to read.

In a scene where Molly is forced to endure a faculty dinner that demonstrates the gulf between her Fresno roots and the Marin County-ness of her peers, Johnson writes, “How dull it was, how safe it all felt. No one here would break a glass, or hurl a napkin … Even the odors behaved themselves…” The turns of phrase are wonderful, as are the specific descriptions of those awkward moments, those formal norms that every teenager is forced to endure, as when, “Elizabeth tilted on the five-inch heels and her limbs angled everywhere and the corners of her mouth trembled when she tried to hold the smile.”

In the author’s hands, high school is indeed a “most dangerous place” (the taunts that lead to suicide, the manipulative actions and words of teachers, the parent-free house parties that bubble over into chaos), yet it’s also a safe harbor, a familiar space that feeds the intellect and friendship and joys of a group of young people who will soon be sent out into the raging, unpredictable waters of adulthood. It is a strange and powerful world to inhabit, and the novel allows us to live in it, through all of these characters who display aggression, compassion, confusion, enlightenment and regret in ways that pull for our empathy and understanding. An engaging, fantastic debut by a writer already in full command of her literary gifts.
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Reading Progress

September 3, 2016 – Shelved (Other Hardcover Edition)
September 3, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read (Other Hardcover Edition)
Started Reading
March 5, 2017 – Shelved
March 5, 2017 – Shelved as: first-novels
March 5, 2017 – Shelved as: read-2017
March 5, 2017 – Finished Reading
November 29, 2017 – Shelved as: signed-books

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