Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.
The most dangerous place on earth is… middle school and high school? I’m not sure I can argue with that. Anyway, this book is divided into three sections: 8th grade, Junior year, and Senior year in high school. Set in wealthy Mill Valley (Marin County) CA, the story begins with a case of cyber bullying which could be taken straight out of the headlines. Unsurprisingly, what happens ends in tragedy. The second part picks up three years later and looks at each of those who were involved and how their lives have changed in the ensuing years. It’s told in the third person by each student as well as their new idealistic teacher, Molly Nicholl. While I don’t generally mind stories told in the third person, I think this story would have been served better by use of the first person POV. Because of the story switching between several characters, it’s informative but there’s no real emotional connection. As each kid’s backstory is revealed, we get to see a different side to them but we’re told this, rather than shown it. Adding to this is the sheer unlikability of most of them. They are for the most part representative of your stereotypical high school cliques. There are only a couple of characters that I felt any sympathy for whatsoever. It also felt like the author spent a lot of time researching the absolutely worse cases of cyber-bullying, the perils of social media, and the prevalence of alcohol and drugs and threw them all in. There’s the victim of bullying who commits suicide. The vulnerable girl preyed upon by a sexually predatory teacher. The bully, who’s abused at home. The Asian-American who’s put under incredible pressure by his perfectionist parents to excel. The list just goes on and on. To be honest, the whole thing came across as manipulative. What really got to me though are the way the teachers and parents are portrayed. They’re the worst kind of caricatures and no one comes out looking good, even Molly in the end. Despite the negatives, I will admit this was a quick read and I finished it in one sitting. Overall, though I think The Most Dangerous Place On Earth has a fantastic premise, but is filled with missed opportunities. While there are some interesting aspects, there is a lack of clarity as to what exactly Johnson was hoping to accomplish, which for me, overshadowed any positives. There are many Goodreads reviewers as well as professional publications such as Publishers Weekly and the Chicago Tribune who have given this positive reviews, so as always I encourage you to check them out if you’re on the fence about trying this. One last thing I do want to say is that several reviewers have called this a YA book. I respectfully disagree with this even though the majority of characters are teens. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under the age of sixteen, and the way it’s written, I’ll go a step further and say this is written more for an adult audience.