Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: My Beautiful Failure by Janet Ruth Young

Title: My Beautiful Failure
Author: Janet Ruth Young
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release date: November 13th 2012
Pages: 320
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
The haunting account of a teen boy who volunteers at a suicide hotline---and falls for a troubled caller.
Billy is a sophomore in high school, and twice a week, he volunteers at Listeners, a suicide hotline. Jenney is an “incoming,” a caller, a girl on the brink.
As her life spirals out of control, Jenney’s calls become more desperate, more frequent. Billy, struggling with a deteriorating relationship with his depressed father, is the only one who understands. Through her pain, he sees hope. Through her tears, he feels her heart. And through her despair, he finds love. But is that enough?
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I was really excited for My Beautiful Failure: the idea sounded unique and intriguing. A love story between a suicide hotline volunteer and a caller sounded problematic, yes, but I assumed that those problems would be addressed in the novel. Sadly, though, that isn't the case: I had a lot of issues with the way Billy handles the situation, and the way that the story never really addresses how problematic this whole thing is. The rest of the story didn't work for me, either, making My Beautiful Failure a very disappointing read for me.

Let's start with the Billy-and-Jenney relationship. A romantic involvement between someone who volunteers at a suicide and one of the callers is problematic for obvious reasons, like the uneven power dynamics and the confidentiality and anonymity of the program - just, so many problems. And I guess it's a valid question to ask why I would read this book in the first place if I was so opposed to this relationship, but I had assumed that the novel would address these issues. Billy's superiors do, at first, mention that the volunteers should pretend not to remember the caller if they call multiple times, and that they should never talk about themselves. But once Billy is by himself, he completely ignores these rules and starts talking to Jenney in ways that are most definitely not appropriate in his position. He unloads his own personal problems on Jenny, which is selfish and wrong on so many levels. If Jenney had been the one to come on to Billy and Billy had tried but just couldn't resist or deny his feelings for Jenney, I feel like his decisions would have been more forgivable, but Billy is always the one to initiate any sort of further relationship between them, so I couldn't justify his actions at all. The ending sort of implies that what Billy did was wrong, but the reasons for this are never really discussed, and Billy never admits to having made mistakes, which I found very problematic.

Even asides from his relationship with Jenney, the way Billy acts at the hotline program really bothered me. The reason he wants to volunteer is because he wants to "save" people, and he is disappointed when he starts to feel like he's not saving anyone because most of his callers aren't actually suicidal and just need someone to talk. He keeps saying he hopes he will get a "Likely" - someone likely to kill themselves - soon, which bothered me so, so much. How can wanting to feel like a savior and a hero be worth wanting someone to attempt to kill themselves!? Just, no. The way he keeps just chatting with Jenney (talking about his own problems just as much as hers) while ignoring other people's calls - calls that might be actual cries for help - kept frustrating me, especially because it's never addressed as an issue.

Since I obviously had issues with the suicide-hotline storyline, I had hoped we would get to know Billy and Jenney outside of this context as well. I had assumed that My Beautiful Failure would be written from both points-of-view, but we only get to see Billy's side of the story, and only hear about Jenney from what she tells him on the phone. This would be fine, if Billy's story had been good, but sadly, it didn't work for me either. I don't feel like we ever really get to know Billy as a person: the only thing aside from his role at the hotline that we get to read about is his relationship with his father. This storyline had a lot of potential in the beginning but sadly fell flat. It is discussed that his father might have bipolar disorder and in the beginning, Billy is trying to help him, but then, the storyline just... stops, and we find out nothing more about what happens to his father. Since his father is what inspired Billy to volunteer in the first place, having no resolution to that storyline made the whole story kind of pointless, for me.

Despite the original and intriguing plot idea, My Beautiful Failure did not work for me. The central storyline and the main character's actions are very problematic, and the only other storyline is simply abandoned towards the end of the novel. The portrayal of mental illness, depression, and therapist/patient relations are very problematic. I know a lot of other readers really enjoyed My Beautiful Failure, but these problematic messages make it impossible for me to recommend the novel.


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