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The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Review

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel opens into the eighth-grade world of Cally Broderick. Popular and smart, but with a chip on her shoulder, Cally tries to balance her in-school popularity with her extracurricular worries over her mother’s declining health. She has her first boyfriend, Ryan, who can be kind of a jerk but at least is handsome. However, when she receives an unexpected love note from a surprising source --- Tristan, the least popular kid in school --- and shows it to Ryan to get his advice, things quickly spiral out of control. Cally, for one, is never quite the same again.

At this point, Johnson subverts expectations and shifts away from Cally (who later calls herself by her full name, Calista), broadening her focus to look at the lives of Cally’s classmates during junior and then senior year in high school. Uniting their experiences are those of Miss Nicoll (Molly), a first-year English teacher who is not all that much older than her students. Her “outsider” perceptions of their lives are interspersed with very intimate portraits of their “inner” lives.

"Johnson offers a nuanced and at times heartwrenching look at high school’s promises and (more often) perils."

Johnson’s portraits of these young people --- all of them privileged residents of Mill Valley, a quiet, wealthy community in Marin County, outside San Francisco --- are sensitively drawn and largely avoid stereotypes. Sure, there’s the girl who lapses into a sexual relationship with her male teacher, but he’s not painted as a typical predator, nor her as a typical victim. There’s the perfectly adequate son of Asian immigrants, whose fear of failure drives him to an ethically questionable decision. There’s probably the smartest guy in school, whose lack of interest in typical status markers leads him to apply his intelligence to some fairly dubious pursuits. And there’s the most beautiful girl in school, whose physical attractiveness masks her emotional fragility, as well as the fact that she has no friends.

Throughout, Molly wrestles with the impulse to get personally invested, or even involved, in her students’ lives, especially when a near-tragedy strikes. Her older, more experienced colleagues warn against getting too attached. But are they just cynical and burned out, or have they already made mistakes that Molly may be fated to repeat?

Lindsey Lee Johnson, who has tutored and taught writing to teenagers in Marin County, clearly knows and understands their world, and portrays their lives with empathy and even fondness, while at the same time pointing out their privilege and occasional petty dramas. She takes their lives seriously, far more so than do their often-absent parents, and makes readers care about them as well. Certainly not every vignette is completely successful --- one student’s abrupt change of tack near the novel’s end seems particularly out of character --- but overall, Johnson offers a nuanced and at times heartwrenching look at high school’s promises and (more often) perils.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 11, 2017

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
by Lindsey Lee Johnson

  • Publication Date: January 10, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812997271
  • ISBN-13: 9780812997279