The Hanged Man, by Francesca Lia Block
Ellen’s got me feeling nostalgic with her old school reviews and her Christopher Pike books she first read while in high school, maybe even middle school. So this morning, I dug around to the very back of my bookshelves, and pulled out a dusty, hardcover copy of what was once my favorite book (look up there! Yes, that is my actual book). I was 17 and a bit of a chubby, friendless, nerdy kid (come on, who wasnt?!) and I remember picking up the Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block on a lark. I have to be honest here: thank god I did because this book changed my life. I remember it being thrilling and lyrical and magical in a way that YA fiction books never were in the 90s. It made me dream and gave me the impetus to break away from my dull little life in order to do something bigger than I thought possible. And I remember dutifully writing out a postcard to the author herself thanking her for writing something so profound and moving and a few months later receiving a handwritten reply that I still have all these years later. Any writer who not only reads but answers fan mail goes beyond good and into great.
Laurel lives in a magical house in Hollywood with her eccentric parents and a parrot named Zach. When her father dies unexpectedly, she and her mother are bereft and each deals with the grief of his passing in different ways. Laurel’s mother loses herself in friends and parties, eventually using cooking and baking as a release from the pain of his death. Laurel can’t seem to find any control of her life and battles with anorexia. She also loses all the desire she had to be an artist and begins spending her nights at Hollywood parties drinking and sleeping around. Eventually she meets Jack, an older man, who tries to make her come to terms with her father’s death, her anorexia, and a secret Laurel’s been hiding from the world. Through Jack’s gentle prodding, Laurel is finally able to release the pain and anger she has toward a father who was sexually abusing her and is reunited with a mother she thought she lost due to it. The end gives us hope that Laurel has begun to deal with the grief of her father’s death and is on the road to recovery from what she dealt with at his hands.
Oh you faint of heart readers, this book is not for you. Lush and lyrical The Hanged Man reads as a narrative poem making us itch to see Los Angeles for all its old world glamour while at the same time cautioning us to stay away from its decay. Because according to this book, only bad things can happen in the hills of Hollywood! The Hanged Man must feature every bad thing that could ever happen to a teenage girl: pedophilia, rape, heroin use, alcohol, anorexia, bulimia, teenage pregnancy, threesomes, public nudity, tattoos, moshing…the list is endless! Problem is, it’s written so beautifully, you wish it would all happen to you. Seriously! I distinctly remember at 17 wishing that Laurel’s cracked out life were my own and even now, after rereading at 29, I still wish that. Laurel has a head on her shoulders and regardless if she has a little anorexia, we see her deal admirably with her father’s passing. So she gets involved with a little bit of underage drinking and partying? Forgivable! Especially considering
her mother seems to have gone crazy and thinks her dad’s spirit is appearing to her in the forms of white moths following her around the house. It’s wackadoodle but I realize now that she’s dealing with her own pain and guilt in her own way. The kicker with this book is that we assume throughout the entirety that the two main characters, Laurel and her mother, are only trying to deal with the loss of a loved one. That’s true but it comes as a shocker to learn that they are in fact mourning more than the loss of dear old dad. They’re mourning the loss of innocence and coming to grips with the fact that Laurel’s mother turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse running rampant in her own home. When we discover that Laurel was in fact raped, abused, and impregnated by her father, a man she still loves after death, it is heartbreaking. To have to deal with the loss of a father is devastating enough but to then be forced to deal with the ramifications of his abuse in addition to that loss? I can’t even comprehend what Laurel must be experiencing. Francesca Lia Block writes her subject matter with such finesse and such pitch perfect tenderness that we aren’t disgusted by Laurel’s confession. We’re uplifted as we watch her battle her inner demons and finally begin living again. When she reconciles with her mother and tells her that she had to know that her father was abusing her, it’s…like this perfect moment when you finally know that Laurel is going to get better and that she will conquer the pain and loss. It’s a beautiful thing to read and makes the whole story uplifting and worthwhile. The Hanged Man is both a cautionary tale and one of redemption and I can’t stress enough how much this lived up to the memory I have of it from my teens.
Based on the following criteria:
How much did I like the heroine: 8. Laurel seems so dreamy and mystical, always reading tarot cards and wearing vintage thrift store finds. She meets Jack, the man that ultimately helps her out of her downward spiral, and even as a teen, can speak to him like an adult. I want to be her and I am an adult! I wish I were mysterious and artsy like she is and also super skinny but not at the same cost she was forced to pay. Her character is amazingly strong, not at all whiny for all her horrible experiences, and someone who is empathetic to others even with her own problems. She would have been my high school bff if Nebraska grew ’em skinny, artsy, and cool.
How much did I like the love interest: 8. Jack was awesome. Sexy, gravelly voice, supportive, great in bed…the list goes on! Plus he forced Laurel to confront her problems and deal with the repercussions of her father’s passing and what he did to her head on. But after he did what needed to be done, he disappeared! Not sure if this means Laurel will never see him again or if it means that he’s done all he needed to do as a character but regardless, that lost some points in my book. Still he seems just as dreamy as she is and likes a little kink in his bedroom play.
How believable is the plot: 10. We’ve all read VC Andrews and we know that incest and abuse are rampant among families of teenagers! This book was extremely believable. It is mainly the story of dealing with grief and loss and how secrets in any family will divide it.
How much did I like the writing style/editing/etc: 10000000. Francesca Lia Block knows how to take simple phrases and turn them into poetry. The Hanged Man reads like a song in prose. It is enthralling and lyrical, the editing superb and the styling magical. Dialogue leaves a bit to be desired but there wasn’t much so who cares?
How much did I want to keep reading: 10. I wanted to see if Laurel and Jack could have a healthy relationship at one point; if Laurel and her mother reconcile and begin to trust one another; if Laurel can do something good with her life even though she has to deal with what happened to her for the rest of her life; if her best friend will ever realize that she’s on a path that will lead to destruction; who the father of the little girl Perdita is (we all know it’s Jack)…the list could go on and on.
Final Score: 9.2/10 There you go: this book rocks. It is dreamy and otherworldy while being grounded by events that are shocking and realistic. It’s the sort of book you never want your own teens to read but kinda hope they do since it will serve as an example of how to be a strong person and not lose your identity in a crisis. Read it if you want a good cry, something beautiful to make you feel artsy again, or just a simple story about grief and forgiveness.
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