Title: Panic by Lauren Oliver
Published: March 4th, 2014 by HaperCollins
Source: ARC (thanks to ALA!)
Age group: Young adult
Grade rate: C
Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a dead-end town of 12,000 people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do. Heather never thought she would compete in Panic, a legendary game played by graduating seniors, where the stakes are high and the payoff is even higher. She’d never thought of herself as fearless, the kind of person who would fight to stand out. But when she finds something, and someone, to fight for, she will discover that she is braver than she ever thought. Dodge has never been afraid of Panic. His secret will fuel him, and get him all the way through the game, he’s sure of it. But what he doesn't know is that he’s not the only one with a secret. Everyone has something to play for. For Heather and Dodge, the game will bring new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them—and the knowledge that sometimes the very things we fear are those we need the most.
Lauren Oliver specialises in using human emotion as the centrepiece of her work. She did it in Delirium, where love became a disease and joy a far-off dream. And she does it again in Panic, one of this year’s most highly anticipated new releases.
With vision and finesse, Oliver has set her most epic concept yet against a stark backdrop of small-town claustrophobia. Capitalising on a tumult of teenage angst – from loneliness and despair to anger and resentment and back again – she paints a vivid if somewhat bleak picture of what life can be like in a world that’s constantly trying to tear you down.
One thing that goes without question is the fact that Lauren Oliver is simply an incredible writer. She’s one of the few I know who could pull off third person present narration, but she doesn’t just settle for one narrator, she goes with two! Panic is more than just a string of sentences thrown together into roughly YA shape. Every word is carefully chosen. It’s soaked with style. It’s written with the title in mind, and the prose hurtles forward with the force of an oncoming train – yet at the same time, there is an element of the psychological thriller about it, and there are some scenes which just sizzle with the effects of slow-burning tension and secrets.
Heather and Dodge are hiding things from themselves as well as others. Dodge, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, has a fierce determination to win and an even more fierce determination to get revenge in the only way he knows how. I liked Dodge, but didn’t love him, though I admired his strength and story. Unfortunately, Heather really let me down. It’s in keeping with the stagnant atmosphere of Carp as a town, but she seemed lost without a guy by her side and she’s not very individual.
And with such problems in the cases of the main characters, it’s no surprise that the secondary characters fall flat as well. Natalie and Bishop never seemed real to me. I appreciated that Oliver was trying to tackle tough themes and issues she’d never broached before, but it just didn’t really work out in her favour. Harsh realities become gratuitous, dragging details and there’s no vibrancy to anchor yourself to as a reader.
As a plot construct, the Panic game is remarkably simple, but in reality, it has huge risks and all too often, devastating consequences. Nobody knows who the judges are and it’s obviously played outside the realms of the law. Like the overcoming of fear in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Panic too focuses on tackling the doubts and nightmares of the teenage players. I was willing to suspend my disbelief to begin with, but when I discovered that the adults of the town were still completely oblivious to the game despite it already having cost lives (and rewarding several winners with inordinate sums of money) even my interest in it began to wane. Also, when they started keeping tigers in captivity and players refused to take responsibility for the damage they were causing to others, physically, mentally and emotionally? Not cool. Everyone kept giving excuses and I was totally exasperated with them by the end.
In short: Panic pulses with dramatic intensity and social contrast. Fans of the author will recognise her style and epic depiction of the simplest human emotions, while new readers will be awed by the tension and action which define the harsh landscape of its plot. It’s not for everyone, however, as it requires huge suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part and there are some major faults which jump out from the page now and again. I don’t think it will become an enduring favourite for me, but I hope it’s not the last Lauren Oliver book I’ll read.