Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release: March 10, 2015
Does anyone ever see us for who we really are? Jo Knowles’s revelatory novel of interlocking stories peers behind the scrim as it follows nine teens and one teacher through a seemingly ordinary day.Ten stories, one finger. One day, countless life-changing events.
Thanks to a bully in gym class, unpopular Nate suffers a broken finger—the middle one, splinted to flip off the world. It won’t be the last time a middle finger is raised on this day. Dreamer Claire envisions herself sitting in an artsy café, filling a journal, but fate has other plans. One cheerleader dates a closeted basketball star; another questions just how, as a "big girl," she fits in. A group of boys scam drivers for beer money without remorse—or so it seems. Over the course of a single day, these voices and others speak loud and clear about the complex dance that is life in a small town. They resonate in a gritty and unflinching portrayal of a day like any other, with ordinary traumas, heartbreak, and revenge. But on any given day, the line where presentation and perception meet is a tenuous one, so hard to discern. Unless, of course, one looks a little closer—and reads between the lines.
This is Read Between the Lines in a nutshell, but such a complex story cannot truly be condensed into a handful of words. In this novel, a raised middle finger is more than just a crude gesture thrown by people who cannot express themselves with words; it is a symbol for our struggles to communicate with each other and understand what others are going through. The ten stories it tells are more than merely separate tales; they intertwine expertly as lives touch in ways both small and large. The result is a breezy yet thoughtful novel about our interpersonal interactions, and I loved every page of every story.
Read Between the Lines is told in a refreshingly quick round-robin, each character receiving about 40 pages for his or her story. Readers only get to experience a small window of each character's life and only see a few key personality traits, which is a problem that may plague those who love to get to know characters intimately. However, I found the narration to be incredibly effective. Not only does it keep the plot moving quickly, but it emphasizes one of the ideas that Jo Knowles explores—that we cannot truly know someone without looking closer than a day's worth of conversation. Even though we have access to each character's intimate thoughts, since each section is told in first-person, we only have a day-long context and therefore cannot really know any of the story's cast, a contrast that fascinated me.
Equally enthralling is watching each of the stories interconnect. Read Between the Lines is full of moments that seem inconsequential to one character but soon become the base of another character's story a few chapters later. Knowles weaves multiple plots seamlessly, expanding upon previous events and tying multiple stories together with unpredictable yet logical knots. Readers will savor the sense of omniscience they get from finding out in chapter five why, exactly, that man collapsed in the middle of a packed restaurant in chapter three. But they will also be reminded that they cannot know such things in real life, sparking curiosity about the backstories of random events in their own lives and empathy for those involved.
Throughout all of this, the middle finger stands, popping up in every chapter as a reminder to stop and consider what a person may be going through before making a rude comment or gesture. Read Between the Lines offers a rare experience—the ability to view the same events from a variety of viewpoints, to see what drives antagonists and protagonists and people in between. With any luck, readers will keep Knowles's story in mind while navigating real-life interactions and remember to think twice before raising their middle fingers.