Official Summary: Four walls. One window. No way to escape. Hannah knows there’s been a mistake. She didn’t need to be institutionalized. What happened to her roommate at her summer program was an accident. As soon as the doctors and judge figure out that she isn’t a danger to herself or others, she can go home to start her senior year. In the meantime, she is going to use her persuasive skills to get the staff on her side.
Then Lucy arrives. Lucy has her own baggage. And she may be the only person who can get Hannah to confront the dangerous games and secrets that landed her in confinement in the first place.
My Thoughts: First of all, I would like to thank Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this book. In return, I give you this honest review.
I started A Danger to Herself and Others thinking it would be a five-star read. In fact, the entire first half is easily worth that much. The writing is great and Hannah Gold is a deeply flawed protagonist. I was convinced I was reading a dark story about a psychopath. After all, that’s what the summary seemed to suggest.
Unfortunately, this book is another victim of a misleading summary. Well, sort of. The summary isn’t exactly a lie, it’s just not the full truth either. Hannah is not at the center of her own thriller nor is she the cause of it. This is a story about mental health.
Obviously, that’s not a bad thing. It’s always good to have more books talk so openly about mental illness and give those who struggle with it representation. Since the entire book is told in first person from Hannah’s perspective, we get to see firsthand how her mental illness alters her thinking and perception. Her doctor, whom Hannah refers to as Lightfoot, emphasizes more than once that Hannah is not crazy nor dangerous. Her brain just works differently and she needs treatment. So, despite the title, Hannah is ultimately not demonized for her mental illness.
However, the representation is not perfect. Sheinmel takes great pains to show the ups and downs of Hannah’s emotions and symptoms. The narrative treats Hannah with respect. The problem is we never find out what her diagnosis is. Her mental illness is only ever referred to as her “diagnosis” or “disease.” We know what she’s experiencing, but her symptoms could fit multiple disorders. Sheinmel seems bizarrely adamant on not revealing Hannah’s diagnosis. It feels slightly disingenuous, as though Sheinmel wanted to represent multiple disorders for diversity points. Instead, it’s too vague to concretely call it representation for any one mental illness.
In exploring Hannah’s mental health, we also get to know her as a person. She has excellent character development. It’s a beautiful experience to watch her thinking change as she continues her recovery. It’s interesting learning how much of her personality is influenced by her disorder and how much is really her. The way she ends her arc is especially heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to readjust to life outside treatment after all she’s gone through. Even though I wanted a story about a dark protagonist, I was still incredibly moved by her story.
The other characters aren’t nearly as well developed. In fact, they don’t really develop at all. But I don’t think that comes as a detriment to the novel. Who everyone is entirely depends on Hannah’s state of mind and that worked really well for the story being told.
The relationships in this story are also very interesting, especially as we see them change based on Hannah’s recovery. Hannah’s parents have always treated her as a mini-adult, acting more as friends than guardians. Even so, their relationship is positive until Hannah is institutionalized. Dr. Charan, known throughout the novel as Lightfoot, has a bit of give and take with Hannah. Her character is the most influenced by Hannah’s changing perception. Lucy is Hannah’s roommate, a ballet dancer struggling with bulimia. She’s a romantic, always waxing poetic about her boyfriend Joaquin.
Agnes and Jonah are characters we get to know entirely in flashbacks, but are still incredibly important to the story. Agnes is Hannah’s roommate and best friend at the summer program she’s attending for college credit. She’s incredibly sweet, always there to help others. Jonah is another student in the summer program and Agnes’ boyfriend. However, he’s also Hannah’s. Hannah and Jonah had been sneaking around behind Agnes’ back before the accident that sent Hannah to treatment. He’s kind and good with banter. He’s also a cheater. But that doesn’t mean he means any less to Hannah.
The plot is really well done. It’s character-driven, which is my favorite type of plot. There are a couple twists, one I saw coming and one I didn’t. Either way, I still regard them as good twists that are well-foreshadowed. My only problem with the plot is the abrupt ending. I usually like open endings, but they still need some closure. This book provided none and gave no sign it was about to end.
Hannah doesn’t end the book in a good or even hopeful place. If Sheinmel had added even one gesture or sign that Hannah can truly pick herself up and mend her relationships (though not all the broken relationships are her doing), this ending would’ve been perfect. Instead, the book just ends and the reader isn’t sure if Hannah will ever really be okay again. Perhaps that was the intent, but if so, that’s another strike against the mental illness representation.
As I said, the writing is really well done. Sheinmel is highly adept at changing the tone and mood of a story. It begins dark and clipped, but slowly becomes lighter and more open. Her word choice is impeccable. My only complaint about the writer is how much the phrase “a danger to herself and others” is repeated. The phrase first appears on Hannah’s case file and is reiterated again and again throughout the novel. It’s okay to repeat phrases, especially to make a point. But there’s a limit and Sheinmel goes far past it. It tells the reader you don’t think they’re smart enough to grasp the point you’re trying to make or the moral of your story. We understand both perfectly without it being hammered into us ad nauseum. Don’t insult your readers— have more faith in us.
I also have a couple nitpick-y complaints, but they affect the overall believability of the story. You might not think world-building is a real aspect of contemporary novels, but it is. My first issue is that, from the time Hannah was a small child, her parents have always gotten her a separate hotel room on vacation. Sometimes it was adjoined, other times it wasn’t. Either way, literally no hotel would every allow this. Minors are not allowed to stay in a hotel room unaccompanied. Maybe the staff didn’t know, but I find it hard to believe the staff of every single hotel never noticed a child staying in a hotel room by herself (especially given Hannah’s father’s propensity for complaining to the staff of everywhere if every little thing doesn’t meet his ridiculously high standards). Believe me, they would notice and something would be done.
My other world-building complaint is also hotel-related. Hannah makes a comment about her father complaining to the concierge because they wouldn’t upgrade them from a deluxe sweet to a super-deluxe. That’s not what a concierge does. They are responsible for amenities and helping you plan activities in the area. A front desk agent is who has the power to upgrade you. If they can’t, it’s a manager. But the concierge has nothing to do with room placement. Sheinmel clearly researched mental illness, but she did not double-check her facts on hotels.
Despite its flaws, I still found the book pretty good. I really began to feel for Hannah as the story went on. She’s a great character. I just feel like the story as a whole is so-so and it makes some pretty big errors along the way. I hope these will be fixed in the final edition of the book. Because, if not, then this book is a danger to mental health perception and truth.
My Rating: 3.5/5
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