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Untangling the complex lives of Mill Valley teens after a suicide

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” is a coming-of-age story.

Matt Sayles

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.” is a coming-of-age story.

However quickly we progress into the future, the themes of high school remain unshakable, as constant as the near-universal urge to leave those four years behind. In Lindsay Lee Johnson’s piercing debut, “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” a private high school is the common denominator linking the lives of eight privileged students and one idealistic teacher desperate to reach them.

Told through multiple perspectives, the novel offers a rich portrait of these characters’ experiences, laying bare their desires without demeaning the validity of their concerns. They worry about everything, from not being pretty in the right way to the death of a shunned classmate. The latter event is our introduction into the affluent San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley, and it continues to reverberate as the years slip by: After the misanthropic Tristan Bloch writes a tender love letter to Callie Broderick, she shares it with her best friend Abigail Cress, and the private missive makes its way onto Facebook. Tristan’s classmates engage in a vicious cyberbullying campaign; unable to cope, he ends his life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

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While no one is directly blamed, everyone’s life changes, and this push-pull propels the narrative as Johnson reveals each character’s attempt to become someone else. Despite chronicling the inner lives of teenagers, this is a book that reads like an adult novel. With lyrical prose that peels back to expose a tender but biting wit, Johnson evokes the sadness and the strange hopefulness of being young. “What Cally felt then was more than guilt or sadness. It was like the pleasure-pain that Abigail had shown her, a connection that cut you and thrilled you, a sharp, exquisite opening.” Profoundly disturbed by her role in the events leading to Tristan’s suicide, the popular Callie transforms into Calista, a free spirit who hangs out with the hippie-stoner crew. Calista’s now former friend Abigail finds solace in an inappropriate relationship. Ryan Harbinger and Nick Brickston, who led the mission to torment Tristan, discover the limits to the power that comes with effortless charm and good looks.

As the teens hurtle toward senior year, recently graduated English teacher Molly Nicoll searches for a way to save them with literature. “Molly wanted to take the girl in her arms and soothe her, tell her she should know how lovely she was, how rare. She wanted to buy her a sweater, a copy of “The Awakening,’’ and a fortifying meal. She wanted to be a person in her life with the power to do any of these things. But . . . she said nothing, and could only sit by, helpless, as the moment closed. They were back where they’d started: teacher and student, nothing more.” Molly’s unsuccessful efforts to connect and her struggles with the other older teachers parallel the sorrows of her students: High school remains high school, even for those who have left it.

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Occasionally, some of the teens’ monologues feel slightly forced, such as that of Damon Flintov, an overweight party boy who winds up in a Hardy-esque battle against society’s expectations of his failure. But Johnson manages to show Damon and his peers engaging with each other both online and off in a way that is deeply true to life. As this is a novel about contemporary teens — and considering this is how many people of all ages talk to each other now — it’s illuminating to read scraps of these conversations in the informal language the medium requires. “It’s not that I’m not thinking of u,” Abigail writes in a text message. “Believe me I am.”

Johnson proves herself a master of the coming-of-age story, weaving each teen’s penetrating self-evaluation with how they see each other and Molly’s judgment of them all. With a fearless compassion, Johnson artfully unwraps who these people truly are, as well as whom they claim to be. And that, in high school, is sometimes more important than the real you — because it’s often the only way to survive.

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH

By Lindsey Lee Johnson

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Random House, 272 pp., $27

Sharon Steel is a writer living in New York City. Read more of her work at sharoncsteel.com.
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