I have book review déjà vu. I feel like I just read (and kind of hated) this book about a week ago. There was a point in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (the bottom of page 69, actually) where I threw the book down and thought, Not this AGAIN! NO NO NO NO! I just don’t understand the appeal of this “deep, dark secret” mental illness plot.
I was interested in this book because it was described to me as part dystopia, part high school contemporary. That sounds pretty cool, right? What’s more dystopian than a modern-day high school?
On Leonard’s eighteenth birthday, he plans to kill his former best friend and then himself. We follow him through his school day as he says goodbye to his few friends and works up the courage to carry out his plan. Sprinkled throughout the book are letters that Leonard writes to himself from his ideal future. In his imagination, the future is a post-apocalyptic world that is mostly covered by water. He lives in a lighthouse with his wife and daughter and is very happy.
The letters are my favorite part of the book. The explanation for them comes far too late, so they’re a little jarring to read, but they’re unique. They show a lot about Leonard’s character. Not many people would say that their ideal future is a world where pretty much everybody is dead. The upbeat tone of the letters also provides relief from Leonard’s self-obsessed attitude.
“I feel like I’m broken—like I don’t fit together anymore. Like there’s no more room for me in the world or something. Like I’ve overstayed my welcome here on Earth, and everyone’s trying to give me hints about that constantly. Like I should just check out.” – Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
“we can simultaneously be human and monster—that both of those possibilities are in all of us.” – Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
Leonard is hiding a secret from the reader. His former best friend, Asher, did something awful to him. I’ve seen this same plot in a lot of other “mental illness” books, and I’m not a fan. I’m just going to copy my review for one of the other books, change the character names, and paste it here. You know that a plotline is overdone when the same review works for multiple books.
On one hand, I know that this is an extremely important book. Young adult stories about trauma and illness are necessary because (unfortunately) many young readers have had trauma and/or mental illness in their lives. Everyone deserves to see themselves in a book.
On the other hand, I found this novel to be really, really predictable. Leonard has a deep, dark, traumatic secret that he’s hiding from everybody. It’s the exact same deep, dark, traumatic secret that a ton of other YA protagonists are hiding. I feel like I’ve read this book before. Many, many times. I could see his secret coming from a thousand miles away. Since I figured out his secret relatively early, I had to sit through 100+ pages of tedious angst while I waited for him to tell me what I already knew. If I hadn’t been reading this book for a class, I wouldn’t have finished it. Predictable books frustrate me.
I struggled to connect with every character in this book. A lot of them feel like stereotypes. There’s the depressed teen, the quirky old man, the absentee parents, the hero teacher. Leonard’s plan to kill Asher and commit suicide never seems all that threatening, and my brain was always several steps ahead of the plot. Maybe I need to give up on “mental illness” books because this one didn’t do much that I haven’t seen before.
I know this review sounds pretty negative. This isn’t a horrible book. I can see why it has so many positive reviews. It’s well-written and very quick to read. Up until page 69, when I figured out what Asher did to Leonard, I was intrigued by the story. It has an excellent message for teens who are struggling through high school. But, overall, this novel just isn’t unique enough for me.
“‘I can tell you get it—you're different. And I know how hard being different can be. But I also know how powerful a weapon being different can be. How the world needs such weapons. Gandhi was different. All great people are. And unique people such as you and me need to seek out other unique people who understand—so we don't get too lonely and end up where you did tonight.’” – Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
If you recognise the name on the cover of this one, it's because Matthew Quick is the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, and if you've only seen the film, it's worth noting it managed its topic far less well than its source material. Where the film sometimes got uncomfortably close to laughing at people with mental health problems, the book didn't, so discovering that Matthew Quick makes a habit of writing about characters with mental illnesses does not fill me with dread and horror.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is the story of the eponymous narrator's 18th birthday. He knows exactly how he's going to celebrate: he's going to thank the only four people in his life who've made a difference, then he's going to shoot his former best-friend Asher, then he's going to shoot himself.
It's difficult to feel sympathy for Leonard. He's very much of the privileged, Holden Caulfield, poor-little-rich-boy school of characterisation. He is intelligent (leading to a degree of obnoxiousness), and entitled, and he has the freedom (and money) to do what he wants. With his mother practically living in NYC, he can spend the day watching Bogart films with his next-door neighbour, or skip school to spend the day stalking adults as "training" for real life.
However, what saves this is Quick: a good writer who understands his character. From the off Leonard is asking to be stopped. Where Quick's best known protagonist Pat Peoples was earnest and straightforward, Leonard operates at full subtext, desperate for somebody to realise what's happening, what has happened, and prevent anything further. He's somebody who's slipped through the cracks opened by the limits of polite social discourse.
And so the book proceeds through Leonard's birthday, to the people who've meant something to him and his private desperation for one of the them to realise what's going on.
It took me a while to get into this book.
Leonard's narration tends to paragraphs of a single sentence.
I stuck with it because Leonard is supposed to be 18 and I assumed it was a deliberate stylistic choice.
It was irritating to begin with, though.
Really, really irritating.
The text is littered with footnotes. Footnotes on a Kindle are a nightmare and it was for this reason I got a copy from the library rather than buying it.
There were also these bizarre 'letters from the future' - the first from Leonard's colleague of 20 years hence who explains the world is now a flooded wasteland and they tend a lighthouse. The first of these threw me so hard out of the book I skipped it, only returning later once I'd got a firmer grip on things. Once I understood what these passages were, I thought they were great.
I love books which drive inexorably to their conclusions; I love the tension of trying to avoid a pre-determined outcome far more than a general 'what happens next?'. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is tremendous in this regard, the way it focussed on Leonard, on the damage his own actions and his own plans cause him. It doesn't excuse him or explain it away; reasons are given as much as reasons can be. He perpetuates the damage he's been dealt.
Although it sounds quite hopeless, it's not. It has a peculiar lightness to it, the relief of a decision made which is going to be carried out.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is one of those books I wasn't sure about while reading it, but as a whole it's great. The more I think about it, the more I like it and I'll likely be giving it a reread at some point in the dim and distant future (although not on Kindle, due to the footnotes).
“I feel like I’m broken—like I don’t fit together anymore. Like there’s no more room for me in the world or something. Like I’ve overstayed my welcome here on Earth, and everyone’s trying to give me hints about that constantly. Like I should just check out.”
“My life will get better? You really believe that?" I ask. “It can. If you’re willing to do the work.”“What work?”“Not letting the world destroy you. That’s a daily battle.”
Personally I'm happy to say that it isn't a daily battle for me anymore. I really hope people reach the point, but even if they aren't there, I hope people still do the work.
I just finished my first book of this year and gave it a 5 stars which is much better than the generous 2.5 I gave my first book of last year. I'm currently trying to write up a review but I am having so many feels still. I think I may go shower and then try to write this up.