When 15-year-old Carolyn moves from New Jersey to Alabama with her mother, she rattles the status quo of the junior class at Adams High School. A good student and natural athlete, she’s immediately welcomed by the school’s cliques. She’s even nominated to the homecoming court and begins dating a senior, Shane, whose on again/off again girlfriend Brooke becomes Carolyn’s bitter romantic rival. When a video of Carolyn and Shane making out is sent to everyone, Carolyn goes from golden girl to slut, as Brooke and her best friend Gemma try to restore their popularity. Gossip and bullying hound Carolyn, who becomes increasingly private and isolated. When Shane and Brooke—now back together—confront Carolyn in the student parking lot, injuring her, it’s the last attack she can take.
Sarah Bannan’s deft use of the first person plural gives Weightless an emotional intensity and remarkable power that will send you flying through the pages and leave you reeling.
Weightless is a disturbing book, all the more so because it feels so real. There’s an air of distance created by the author’s use of a first-person plural narration. “We” observe everything that happens that junior year, and narrate the excitement generated by the arrival of a new girl into a town in which everyone has known each other literally all their lives. By using the “we” voice, the reader gets no closer to Carolyn and the other main players than the trio of girls whose viewpoint we share. The three telling the story are strictly B-list, always on the outside looking in, at once attracted by the inner circle and desperate for their attention, and at the same time wary of the way getting noticed can come with nasty results.
When you’re new, and when you’re a girl, it’s not so good to be good at something. Better to be average, to be barely visible, to make yourself scarce.
We don’t get to know Carolyn, and perhaps that’s the point. No one in this homogeneous town knows more than what they can see of her. It’s apparent that she has a history. There are the mysterious marks on her arms and torso, indicating that she’s a cutter. But she’s beautiful and smart, perfectly dressed and with an outsider’s flair, and everyone wants to be her friend — until being her friend becomes a liability.
The pressures of high school life are apparent. A thin girl is described as “rexy”, and that’s supposed to be a good thing. Hearing another girl throw up in a bathroom stall is barely worth noticing, it’s so commonplace. “We” are hyper-critical, but no more so than anyone else. There’s a constant emphasis on the right make-up and clothes, the gain or loss of a few pounds:
She looked skinnier than before and maybe we were jealous that she could keep on losing weight, and we wondered what it would be like to be so sick or so sad or mad or whatever it was she was, to be sick enough not to want to eat. It would be nice to be free of that, we thought.
The group narrating the story, and by extension, the entire student population, sees Carolyn’s transformation from new girl to most popular to object of hatred, and no one does a thing about it.
If we had realized what was happening, we might have stood up, shouted or at least cleared our throats.
“Cleared our throats”? The futility, the fear of interfering, the awe and admiration for the popular crowd — all lead to an absolute inability for anyone to break from the herd.
Weightless is a hard, sad, and powerful book. It drove home for me how insanely difficult it must be to navigate the teen years in an age when every private moment is fair game for public distribution via social media. The use of the first-person plural narration is a brilliant tactic that perfectly encapsulates some of the crazier aspects of the quest to fit in and be one of the crowd. If we’re not noticed, then we won’t be targeted — and Carolyn’s sad story is emblematic of what can happen when “we” dare to go our own way.
A final passage, narrating a hot air balloon ride, captures the outsider world view of the entire book:
We were at a distance from it and could see only what we needed to see. From here, we thought, if a car crashed, you wouldn’t hear it, and even if you did, it would look like a toy.
The outsider status of the narrative trio becomes at some point an excuse. We can’t do anything, because we’re not really involved. Or we do something we consider small, like spreading something via social media, fooling ourselves into believing that what we do doesn’t really matter very much, since we’re not truly included. Most especially, we can’t help. We’re too intimidated by Carolyn to offer true friendship, and we’re too scared of becoming pariahs to dare offending the popular girls. Sadly, the distance “we” maintain keeps the group from seeing Carolyn’s struggle as something real, something within reach; her crashing life is something observed from afar, like seeing a toy person falling to pieces rather than an actual, vulnerable human being.
As a final sad note, the author’s acknowledgements include a reference to a real case that at least partially inspired Weightless. For more information, check out this story about the Phoebe Prince case from 2010. (Note: If you’re thinking of reading Weightless, I’d suggest hold off on reading the article, as the events are similar enough to give a good idea of what happens in the book).
Wrapping it all up: I highly recommend Weightless. I’ve seen Weightless described as a book about bullying, but I think it’s much more than that. It’s a very well-written, disturbing, and unusual look at the cost of needing to fit in, and how an entire community can be culpable for making an individual suffer for stepping outside the lines of what’s considered acceptable.
Author: Sarah Bannan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: June 30, 2015
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary YA fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley