The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Read more...
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The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Despite being raised with all the opportunities money can buy, these vulnerable kids are navigating a treacherous adolescence in which every action, every rumor, every feeling, is potentially postable, shareable, viral.
Lindsey Lee Johnson's kaleidoscopic narrative exposes at every turn the real human beings beneath the high school stereotypes. Abigail Cress is ticking off the boxes toward the Ivy League when she makes the first impulsive decision of her life: entering into an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Dave Chu, who knows himself at heart to be a typical B student, takes desperate measures to live up to his parents' crushing expectations. Emma Fleed, a gifted dancer, balances rigorous rehearsals with wild weekends. Damon Flintov returns from a stint at rehab looking to prove that he's not an irredeemable screwup. And Calista Broderick, once part of the popular crowd, chooses, for reasons of her own, to become a hippie outcast.
Into this complicated web, an idealistic young English teacher arrives from a poorer, scruffier part of California. Molly Nicoll strives to connect with her students--without understanding the middle school tragedy that played out online and has continued to reverberate in different ways for all of them.
Written with the rare talent capable of turning teenage drama into urgent, adult fiction, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with sorrow, passion, and humanity.
Praise for The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
"The characters in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Lindsey Lee Johnson's alarming, compelling and coolly funny debut novel about the goings-on in and out of a high school in Marin County, Calif., spend most of their time spectacularly failing to see beneath one another's surfaces. . . . Ms. Johnson's characters are unpredictable, contradictory and many things at once, which make them particularly satisfying. . . . Here's high school life in all its madness."--Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
"In her stunning debut, Johnson . . . explores the fallout among a group of teens--an alpha girl turned stoner, a striving B student, an Ivy League wannabe--who prove, in the end, less entitled than simply empty and searching. An eye-opener."--People (Book of the Week)
"Hard to put down. Johnson's novel possesses a propulsive quality. . . . I read this book in one, long sitting. . . . It is a particularly poignant message for today as we, as a nation, grapple with rising inequality and widespread questioning of the viability of the American dream. We ask, is it dead? But Johnson is asking a different question, a good one. She asks whether there is something fundamentally askew with this bedrock American idea. Her book seems to say, yes, there is something rotten amid the uneven splendor. Just look at the kids who should be the happiest on earth."--Chicago Tribune
"In sharp and assured prose, roving among characters, Lindsey Lee Johnson plumbs the terrifying depths of a half-dozen ultraprivileged California high school kids. . . . It's a phenomenal first book, a compassionate Less Than Zero for the digital age."--Anthony Doerr, #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-08-15
- Reviewer: Staff
Welcome to Mill Valley, “endowed with not only green mountains and gold hillsides, but also redwood forests, canyon waterfalls,” just over the bridge from San Francisco in affluent Marin County. It’s hardly the most dangerous place to grow up, but in Johnson’s excellent debut, her sharp storytelling conveys an authentic sense of the perils of adolescence observed through a group of teenagers complicit in a terrible event back when they were all in middle school: the suicide of a classmate beset by cyberbullying after sending a love note. The group, now high school juniors, is seen through the eyes of Molly Niccol, a young new English teacher from outside Fresno, a “nowhere place between beige strip mall and brown farmland.” Molly is anxious to connect with her students; she’s not so far removed from her own teen years, when she felt the same “claustrophobic rage that she could not explain to anyone... there was no clear reason why she should be in any particular moment so furious, so bored. ” Molly struggles to make sense of the kids in her class and the rumors about them she hears in the teachers’ lounge, like ambitious Abigail’s affair with a teacher, and the disappearance of Damon Flintov, one of the original middle school tormentors. Johnson allows these dramas to unfold through various shifting perspectives, including the texts and Facebook posts that run current to teenage life. She keeps the action brisk and deepens readers’ investment, culminating in high school party that goes wrong. Readers may find themselves so swept up in this enthralling novel that they finish it in a single sitting. Agent: Susan Golomb, Susan Golomb Agency. (Jan.)
The 'dangerous' world of high school
"It was a terrible time for me,” author Lindsey Lee Johnson remembers. “Everything was just falling apart.” She’s talking about 2008, when her college teaching contract wasn’t renewed because of the economic crash, her boyfriend left and she could no longer afford the home she’d just bought.
To try to put the pieces back together, Johnson moved in with her parents in Marin County, California, and began tutoring high school students at a learning center.
Her first assignment was teaching SAT math, hardly her favorite subject, and her initial encounters with students were disappointing. “At first I just thought, oh my God, the way they talk, the constant foul language,” Johnson recalls. “It was loud, and I thought, why should I even be doing this? What happened to my life?”
Fortunately, what seemed like a catastrophe ultimately ended up being one of the happiest times in Johnson’s life. As she got to know the students, she enjoyed the new job, ended up marrying a fellow tutor and got the inspiration she needed to write her debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, a page-turning high school drama that’s being compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep.
Speaking by phone from her home near Los Angeles, Johnson says she didn’t read Prep or many other books about high school until after finishing her manuscript (at which time she found Prep to be “fabulous”).
“One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I saw a need for it,” she says. “I saw a place for a literary vision of contemporary high school and teenagers that was written for adults. I didn’t see much of that in bookstores.”
The seeds of Johnson’s story were sown as she spent hours listening to hundreds of teenage students. “The experience helped me out of my own head, to stop making everything about me, and actually invest my time in other people, just listening to these kids and really developing compassion and empathy for them—and remembering what it felt like when I was that age,” she says.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth follows an ensemble cast of characters, beginning with an incident in their eighth-grade year: A boy commits suicide after a love note he writes is revealed on Facebook, prompting merciless ridicule and bullying. The tragedy causes reverberations that linger throughout these characters’ high school years. Set in Marin County, the novel chronicles a wealthy world that Johnson knows intimately, although she fictionalized the high school she once attended. She based her characters on a variety of student archetypes, including Ryan the jock, Cally the hippie, Elisabeth the beautiful girl and Damon the delinquent, but with a twist.
Growing up, Johnson felt that such categories were too limiting, noting that she was both a cheerleader and a nerd. “For each character, I thought of the archetype, and then I gave them a problem,” she notes. Overachieving Abigail, for instance, suffers from loneliness and takes a particularly destructive path with a male teacher to solve her dilemma. “I remember that feeling of being a teenage girl and going through that awkward phase,” Johnson says, “and feeling unappealing and unattractive. You know, kind of unseen.”
Although Johnson didn’t have to contend with the pressures of social media during her high school years, she vividly remembers a spiral-bound notebook that she and her friends circulated, writing notes to and about one another. “I don’t remember what we wrote in these things,” she muses, “but I’m sure it wasn’t lovely and nice. I’m sure it was a lot of gossip.”
"I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching."
She adds: “The thing is, those notebooks were private, so their ability to hurt was limited. . . . I don’t think kids today are any more cruel. It’s just that everything they do is public. And so the stakes are raised; the impacts are greater and more far-reaching.”
Johnson acknowledges that several of her characters make what she calls “questionable decisions,” and those are the personalities that intrigue her. “As a writer I’m very interested in characters who are not obviously likable and who do things that make us cringe, because I’m interested in the psychology behind it—and in trying to find empathy even for people I don’t want to empathize with. I think that’s an important job that fiction does in our world.”
She quickly adds a crucial qualifier: “The kids in the book feel 100 percent real to me, but I don’t want people to think that these are real kids that I tutored.”
Their dilemmas feel authentic, including struggles with grades, dating, sex, drinking and drugs. And when Johnson finished writing these teenagers’ stories, she added yet another layer, inserting several chapters from the point of view of a newly hired young teacher, Molly Nicoll, who becomes overly invested in her students’ struggles.
“I empathize with Molly in particular,” Johnson says. “Being a young teacher is a struggle, especially when you’re not that much older than the students. You want to help them, but you have to walk the line of how invested and involved you get.”
Happily, Johnson’s own teaching and tutoring experiences were productive for both her and her students. “I’ve always wanted to be a novelist,” she says. She wrote her first book at age 24, but says it was so terrible that she “sat down and wrote another one.” The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is her first published novel, but her “fourth or fifth manuscript.”
“There’s no reason why I should have kept going,” she says with amusement, “except that it was the only thing that I cared about.”