Panic by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I found Panic to be mildly interesting with great potential but ultimately failed under the weight of its own angst. The story itself has so much possibility and Oliver has the storytelling capability of making this an incredible book. Unfortunately she commits a cardinal YA sin of not actually advancing her characters from their initial weak, immature, and irritating teen behaviors to much more mature, developed, and rational young adults. Instead they simply get a happy ending without any consequences to their truly dangerous and immature actions while having learned absolutely nothing over the course of what should be a transformative summer. Some readers have said this is similar to Hunger Games or Divergent, which it’s not in any way. Both of those are rip offs of Battle Royale and Panic is a study of desperate immature teenagers with no future because they’re too stupid to actually grow up. Totally different books.
Panic is about two teenagers, Heather and Dodge, who narrate the story about the summer after high school. They give in a small, dying town with no real possibilities or opportunities. Every year after graduation the high school seniors play a dangerous game of chicken in which players basically take turns doing stupid and often illegal stunts to prove they are fearless. The last one standing, literally, takes home a bunch of tax-free cash. Heather and Dodge play the game for their own reasons – Heather wants the money to get the hell out of town while Dodge wants to play to kill the brother of a past winner. That winner paralyzed Dodge’s sister in the finale of the game two years ago and Dodge has been waiting to repay the revenge debt ever since. Heather’s best friend and obvious love interest, Bishop, and other best friend and Dodge’s love interest, Natalie, round out the main cast.
The plot is moved forward with the game of Panic but the story is really about these two teenagers that navigate the summer with increasing desperation and immaturity. I guess they’re supposed to mature and become better, more capable people at the end but unfortunately that never happens. In fact they are all exactly same silly, borderline too stupid to live teenagers they were at the start of the book. I actually hoped for Heather’s death at one point because I thought then, FINALLY, these kids would learn a lesson and feel bad about something. Look – I get that they’re teenagers and thus selfish, immature, and stupid by definition. However they’ve all graduated high school and supposedly are 18 so they should be on the cusp of actually growing the fuck up. Enough melodrama and actual dangerous, illegal, harmful action happens that anyone with a working brain would think twice about their behavior and decide a change is in order. Unfortunately these four just sail off into the sunset with the money and win and never have to change or face the consequences of their actions. Is that a happy ending?
I found the setting very effective. A small town that feels oppressive, dead, and suffocating to the teenagers within is very common. The theme of wanting to get out, wanting to make a life, a real life beyond the seemingly endless boundaries of the town is a feeling no doubt most teenagers encounter. Those teens that aren’t that smart and have zero prospects of college or a career, like our narrators Heather and Dodge, must feel that desperation even more keenly. It’s understandable they feel as though a bunch of money and revenge would actually give them purpose. Unfortunately when they win that money, nothing happens. They don’t leave town or change, grow up and understand their actions were foolhearty, illegal and frankly wrong. They simply go swimming and are all happy, still living in the same town.
I struggled with this not just because of the ending but I found it too predictable and silly. I got frustrated when truly dangerous and wrong actions would occur and there were never any consequences. Lying, stealing, cheating, arson, breaking and entering, gun play, letting dangerous animals on the loose – none of it had any effect on these characters but to make them so scared they couldn’t talk. They certainly justified everything in their head enough to ignore all the potential consequences, which was fine because nothing happened to them anyway. Heather could literally kidnap her sister and take her away from her mother without problems because the mother was a drunk anyway. Heather could lie, steal, and take advantage of the only person willing to take her in but that was ok because the woman actually loved Heather and Heather just couldn’t trust it. So all her actions are ok. It’s not that her actions weren’t understandable but considering the game they all participated ended in serious injury to multiple people, one person’s death, and countless property damages, it’s unbelievable nothing ever happened to these kids in even a small way to make them face the truth. Instead they actually were rewarded. I couldn’t get beyond that.
There are supposedly twists and turns but you could see them coming a mile away. Nothing was actually surprising and the game could only have ended one way, ridiculous, over the top and so melodramatic I actually rolled my eyes and was shocked someone didn’t nix that ending before publication. The story had great potential but the author always took the easy way out, letting her characters skate through unharmed and unchanged. What’s the point of creating such an environment if there is no danger of the characters being harmed or having to grow up? Isn’t that the point of the entire story – the characters grow through hardship? Apparently not here.