I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.
If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.
The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.
Why, you may ask?
Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.
Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.
Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.
And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.
Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***