Stephen King loved this book, which might give you some insight into what kind of a book this is. It’s creepy and suspenseful and downright maddening at times. The book centers around several students attending high school at St. Michael’s, a declining, deteriorating institution in Pittsburgh. Peter Davidek is a well-meaning freshman with rotten parents, who tries to do what he can to fly under the radar. He quickly befriends the irrepressible, rebellious Noah Stein. They both love Lorelei Paskal, a girl with a tragic home life who will do anything to find friends at school, even if she ends up hurting the people who truly care for her.
Student life at this school is survival of the fittest to the ultimate level. If you are not attractive, wealthy, funny, or brilliant, you might as well accept your fate – constant harrasment and bullying by your peers. There is a culture of hazing at the school, accepted by the students, administrators, and even the parents. Freshmen endure a full year of hazing, which can include having to serve as waiters for their upperclassmen during lunch to getting a pie in the face at the annual picnic. It can be much more malicious, though, with pranks that become cruel, physical, and very personal. And yet the culture is entrenched, so most students just accept it. They simply wait out the year so that come fall, as sophomores, they can haze the next round of freshmen.
The story has villains galore. I was never sure who I despised most: perhaps the greedy, grasping priest, Father Mercedes; Sister Maria, the completely ineffectual principal; Peter’s parents, who, along with Lorelei’s parents, easily vie for “Worst Parents of the Year” award. And I often thoroughly disliked the vast majority of the students. It was rare to see compassion or courage among them. Noah often displays these qualities, which makes him instantly endearing to the reader. And so does Peter.
The book is aptly named – what these kids endure is brutal. It made me grateful all over again to have left high school behind. It also made me question what I might have done in a similar situation. If my high school experience had been just half as tough, I wonder how I would have reacted. Trials can bring out either the best or the worst in us. The only good thing about a situation like this is that your mettle is tested, and you quickly find out what kind of person you are. Luckily, though, life doesn’t end with high school. And as the adults in this novel demonstrated, you have (and need) the rest of your life to figure things out.