“Why did you play?” he asked.
Revenge, Dodge thought, and Because I have nothing else. But out loud he said, “Money. Why else?”
The name of the game is Panic, the name of the book should be Desperation, because this book is a psychological study of despair, anger, revenge. It's about the claustrophobia of growing up poor, the seething fury of revenge, the fear of a future you cannot contemplate. It is about love and loss, friendships and broken hearts; it is a literal rite of passage in a small town.
I have read Lauren Oliver's books before, regardless of the book or whatever problems I have with them, one thing remains consistent: the characters in her books are intensely realistic and believable. The teens featured in this book are no exception.
I don't know why the hell this book was shelved under "sci-fi" or "dystopia." It is neither. What it is is a contemporary romance dealing with a lot of emotional issues. It is about growing up. It is about facing your fears, whether they be physical or emotional.
Summary: Panic is a game invented by the necessity of boredom in the little town of Carp.
Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a poor town of twelve thousand people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.
It is a dead-end town, the type of town that you want to escape the moment you graduate from high school. Every year, a "tax," $1 a day, is collected from the town's students. At the end of the year, those who choose to participate in Panic gets a chance to win the jackpot.
For many, it is a winning ticket out of town, into the possibilities of riches and glory of Hollywood.
For Heather, it is a spur-of-the-moment decision, stemming from the temporary insanity of heartbreak, and the emptiness of the future after graduation.
Matt was gone. School was over. Not that she’d ever liked school, but still. It got her out of the house; it was something to do. Now everything was over and done. It occurred to her that this was her life: vast and empty, like a coin dropping down a bottomless well.
Dodge is driven by anger, revenge. He seeks an eye for an eye, or rather...
Dodge scrolled down and reread the email he had sent a week earlier.
"The bets are in. The game is on.
I’ll make you a trade:
A sister’s legs for a brother’s life."
The game lasts the entire summer. There will only be one winner. Every challenge will eliminate a player. They will risk their life, they will go beyond the edges of fear. They will know how much they are willing to sacrifice in the name of love, family, friendship, all to win the prize.
Friendships will be made. Betrayals will occur. Before the end of the summer, someone will die.
The Setting: A stiflingly small town, with a very definite social class division, from middle class to solidly bottom of the ladder. The characters stretch from the poorest of the poor, living in Meth Row (the manufacture of methampetamine is a thriving underbelly), to the Fresh Pine Mobile Park, to rows of identical houses with white picket fances. The atmosphere of the small town and the claustrophobia it induces is very well depicted.
The Plot: I've seen reviews that thinks this book is a modern-day Hunger Games. It is not. The pacing is not the same, the plot is not the same. I've said before that it is a psychological study, and that is the majority of what it is. The pace is slow initially. The game gets going, but it doesn't get the reader and the participants psychologically involved until around 50% into the book. Before that, the plot itself is more introspective, as we learn about the characters and their respective interests and personality.
The Characters: Without a doubt, the best thing about the book. The characters were so well drawn. There are 2 main characters, 2 supporting ones, and they all are very well distinct and portrayed.
Heather: One of the main narrators, a broken-hearted girl who participates in the game out of sheer heartbreak. You know how after a bad breakup, you feel the tendency to do something intensely stupid, out of your character? Heather is the personification of that. Her boyfriend, Matt, broke up with her to be with another girl, and like a typical teenaged girl in love, she cannot contemplate a future without him.
Heather is a weak character to start, and we see her grow up as the book progresses. We see her emotional breakdown, her overdramatization of her situation, as she contemplates who she is without her boyfriend.
For a second, she thought of telling him the truth: that when Matt had dumped her, she had understood for the first time that she was a complete and total nobody.
There is a boy in her life, her lifelong friend, Bishop, who she has mostly seen only as a friend, until now.
Heather realized that he really wasn’t a boy anymore. Somehow, when she wasn’t looking, he had become a guy—tall and strong, with a stubborn chin and a girlfriend and opinions she didn’t share. She felt an ache in her stomach, a sense of loss and a sense of wanting.
Heather's story is one of growing up in a broken home, her mother is hardly a mother, her little sister a beloved 11-year old girl growing up too fast. Heather herself sees her future as hopeless. Throughout the summer, we see her mature, grow stronger, take on more responsibility. Heather makes mistakes, she grows through them.
Dodge: The outcast from the wrong side of the tracks. Also from a broken family, he has a dad he has never known, a mother with a string of boyfriends, and a beloved older sister whose body has been broken by the fault of the school bully. Unlike Heather, Dodge has a very definite mission for Panic: he wants to win, and he wants to get revenge.
“What about you, Dodge?” Heather said. “Why did you agree to play?”
For a second, she thought he smiled. “Revenge.”
Nat started to laugh. “Revenge?” she repeated.
Heather realized she hadn’t misheard.
I found his character to be sympathetic, but not an altogether believable male voice at times. Dodge has a lot of romanticism inside his head for a character who is so hardened by nature, and some of his thoughts---however male and however laughable---is really, really silly, no matter how reflective they may be of the workings of a teenaged boy's mind.
Her hair was fixed low, in a side ponytail, and she was wearing a ruffled yellow jumper-type thing, with the shirt and shorts attached, that would have looked stupid on anyone else. But on her it looked amazing, like she was some kind of life-size, exotic Popsicle. He couldn’t help but think that whenever she had to use the bathroom she’d have to get totally undressed.
I loved Dodge's fury, his drive for vengeance. His almost maddening pursuit for justice endears me to him, and I understand his anger. Dodge has internal demons to slay, and I loved how his story came to pass.
The other characters in the book are Nat and Bishop, Heather's best friends. The portrayal of friendship is wonderful in this book. It depicts the minor jealousies and difficulties between friends who have been there for each other their entire lives. It is a realiztic portrayal of friendship; friendship is never, ever perfect, and this book shows that so well. It shows that you can never know the truth about someone, despite knowing them your entire life.
She thought of the way that Nat always liked things even, straight down the middle. How sometimes she showered more than once a day. The taps and tongue clicks. Stuff she’d mostly ignored, because she was so used to it. Another blind spot between people.
The Romance: A little heavy-handed, but it is to be expected in a contemporary novel, and I didn't mind it at all. Teenaged hormones are in the air in a small town such as this, and the romance is realistic, the growth of friendship into love, instead of insta-love or attraction. Love is not always easy, and it needs to be brutally honest. Sometimes, it takes the person you love to tell you what's in front of your nose before you realize it.
“You want everything to be shitty. You have a sister who loves you. Friends who love you. I love you, Heather.” He said it fast, in a mumble, and she could not even be happy, because he kept going. “You’ve outlasted almost everyone in Panic. But all you see is the crap. So you don’t have to believe in anything. So you’ll have an excuse to fail.”
Overall: a slow-paced, but tension-filled psychological portrayal of a small town and the people within it.
Quotes were taken from an Advance Review Copy subject to change in the final edition.