All I can say is, “Where was this book when I was a teenager?” Julie Buxbaum‘s fantastic novel Tell Me Three Things reminds readers of the painful isolation that comes along with being a teenager who’s a little bit different. Of course, most teenagers have that feeling, but I have to say, reading Jessie’s story was like reading torn out pages from my own high school journal.
Jessie Holmes—the novel’s protagonist—has just been forcefully relocated to Los Angeles. Her father married a woman he met in an online support group for grieving widows and widowers, so Jessie schlepped across the country to live with her new family in a nouveau riche McMansion, trading in deep dish pizza and 7-Eleven Slurpees for kale juice and quinoa.
Needless to say, things are going badly at her new high school, Wood Valley. Everyone wears designer clothing and has an obscene amount of coffee spending money. Basically, it has more filthy rich kids than you can shake a stick at, and Jessie is most definitely not one of them.
But what seems like a dire situation makes a 180-degree turn when an anonymous person from Wood Valley, calling himself Somebody Nobody (or, “SN”) e-mails Jessie out of the blue. He tells her all about the school’s shallowness and the lack of genuine human connection. Pretty soon, Jessie and SN are talking constantly. The only thing is, he won’t reveal his true identity.
Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to invest myself in this story after reading the book jacket. Anonymous e-mails? Hmmm… But, honey, this story pulled me in immediately! There’s this sense of gravity in YA fiction that I find deeply alluring. These novels always weave the most significant “firsts” that teenagers go through into their story lines, often reflecting—or attempting to reflect—the bursts of emotion that young people go through.
Tell Me Three Things could have easily fallen into that weird gray area where characters say things that seem generally familiar but fail to stick with the reader in any lasting way, but Buxbaum’s expert character development and natural prose sinks into the reader’s skin. I cannot tell you how many times over the course of this novel I remembered how I did or said something exactly the way Jessie would have—though she is, no doubt, smarter and wittier than I ever was.
But, I’m not even kidding, I’ve yet to come across a character who openly admits she never says the right thing when it matters. Only after replaying the conversation over and over in her head does she come up with the right things to say. Seriously, that’s the entire story of my life in a nutshell.
Tell Me Three Things also struck some deep nerves in its discussion of grief and bullying. Jessie’s mother died from cancer, and it’s sometimes difficult for Jessie to remember things about her. She does know that her mother loved Gertrude Stein, and old books, and making pancakes in the shape of Jessie’s initials. She also knows that her mother will never be around to guide her, to see her through her most difficult moments. And even though they were thick as thieves before her mother died, it seems possible that their relationship would have changed irrevocably once she got older. And even though her father says her mother would have been proud of her, Jessie can’t ever know that for sure.
As Jessie makes her way through the situations she finds herself in—with SN, Ethan, Scarlett, her dad—she must maintain the fabric of who she is without falling into the unrelenting isolation that weighs on her as things become more and more complicated. Jessie is stronger than she gives herself credit for, and, in the end, she’s always known exactly who she is.