Panic by Lauren Oliver
Genre: Young adult thriller
Release date: March 4 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: An odd mix of an exciting thriller and a sobering “issue” story, an intriguing page-turner of a plot, which ultimately made me feel too old for this book.
He grabbed the handle and pulled, but nothing happened. Tried again. Nothing. For a second, he thought maybe he was still asleep—in one of his nightmares, where he tried and tried to run but couldn’t, or swung at some assailant’s face and didn’t even make a mark. On his third try, the handle popped off in his hand. And for the first time in the whole game, he felt it: panic, building in his chest, crawling into his throat.
Panic was an odd book for me. It started out with a very firm four stars, but somewhere along the way it fell off the tracks and turned into a puzzling pile of pieces that just didn’t mesh well. There is no doubt that Oliver has the necessary skills to write in whatever genre she wants, and I loved the way she sets the tone of the story with her spare descriptions that immediately make you feel like you’re right there with the characters. I definitely felt a sense of panic during certain parts of the story, and Oliver came up with some very creative and fear-inducing challenges for her Panic players. But often the danger was undercut by the author playing safe and offering everyone an easy way out. After a couple of these “easy fixes,” I began to doubt that the characters were ever really in any danger at all. Teenagers will love this book, which makes me think that, once again, I am just too old for young adult fiction!
In case you don’t know what the book’s about, here’s a quick recap. In the small economically challenged town of Carp, the graduating seniors have come up with a game to ease the boredom of their lives. Any senior can enter the game of Panic, as long as they have the money to throw into the pot, and a heap of bravery to go with it. The game consists of a number of challenges that get harder and harder, and players are eliminated as the game progresses. Only one person can win the pot, the last player standing, so to speak, and that person gets all the money.
This summer the pot is a huge $67,000, and Heather, Dodge and Nat are all anxious to win it. Each one knows that kind of money could change their lives forever. But when things get really dangerous, will the cops get involved and threaten to shut Panic down before someone can win? The chapters alternate between Heather and her friend Dodge and give us two completely different glimpses into the mechanics of the game.
Let’s talk about the challenges. No, I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that would definitely spoil the book for you. Half the fun is gasping each time the players face a new one. But I will tell you the first one, which isn’t really a spoiler. In order to join the game, each contestant must jump off a cliff into a lake. Now as far as stunts go, this one is fairly tame. Believe me when I tell you they get riskier and riskier. Unfortunately, instead of being swept up in the danger and suspense of what they were attempting to do, my reaction was to curse the characters for being stupid enough to participate in Panic.
One of the unexpected parts of this story was an emotional subplot about Heather’s unhappy home life. When a woman named Anne gives her a job on her farm, tending to her animals and doing chores around the house, Heather’s life becomes suddenly more hopeful. But things at home aren’t any easier with her alcoholic and neglectful mother. One day, her mother goes too far and locks Heather’s younger sister Lily out of the house while she “entertains” a man inside. When Heather realizes what has happened, she steals her mother’s car and runs away with Lily. I did love the way the author shows how hard life can be in a small town where jobs are hard to come by and many people are just looking for a way out.
I guess the most puzzling thing about Panic is that although it’s realistic contemporary fiction, many plot points just didn’t make sense to me. First of all, the game is *supposed* to be a secret from all the adults in town. How this is possible is anyone’s guess. And even though the cops show up and break up the fun during one challenge, the kids keep right on playing. The judges of Panic are teens, who send text messages letting the players know when the next challenge is and also leave cryptic clues about the nature of the stunts (which Heather and her friends always seem to figure out—obviously they are smarter than I am, because my reaction to these clues was “whaaat?”)
Although I did like Heather and her desire to change her life for the better, some of the other characters didn’t work that well for me. Dodge is only in the game for revenge, and although I understood the reasons why he’s so angry, his plan to get back at the boy who injured his sister in a previous game of Panic just seemed ridiculous. Heather’s bestie Nat is also playing Panic, but I honestly couldn’t stand her. She clearly didn’t belong anywhere near the game, and she spent the entire book whining about one thing or another.
And Heather calls her sister Lily, “Billy.” I still don’t understand why she did that.
Panic clearly wasn’t my ideal story, but for some readers it will be. If you’re willing to suspend—and I mean really suspend—your disbelief and just go with the emotional wave of teen angst and outrageous choices that these characters make, you’ll probably have a blast reading this book. Buried under the crazy stunts is a message of hope: that once you admit to yourself that you’re scared, only then will you learn how to be brave.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
You can find Panic here: