This is a post in two parts, wherein I examine both the brilliance (without giving away spoilers) that is Nova Ren Suma’s book 17 & Gone, and the treacherous time that is being seventeen going on eighteen.
That’s me, seventeen years old. I’d just chopped my hair short for the first time ever a week before my birthday. My skin was going through a fresh scrubbed, sun-kissed phase. Soon I would go on my first real date, with my first real boy, and we’d kiss for the first time on a swing set. Soon all of my hopes would be dashed, eroded by choices too hard to make for a seventeen year old girl. Soon, the bubbly, confident girl I’d always pretended to be would start to fade, into someone volatile and confused, ever-shrinking, ever-wandering. I’d get in fights I couldn’t win. I’d fail tests I should have aced. I’d wreck cars and friendships and store signs. I’d stand by while everything around me crashed and burned, leaving in the wreckage the shell of who I’d been before. And it all began after I turned seventeen.
17 & Gone is the story of Lauren, a seventeen year old girl who is having visions of missing girls. The common thread between the girls is that they are all seventeen, and all suddenly gone without a trace. Lauren launches headlong into investigations, seeking answers for both their stories, and her own. Why are they speaking to her? Will Lauren be the next seventeen year old girl to vanish? Is there anything she can do for herself or the others?
This book is layered with depth, and intrigue, and finely crafted plotting, but what makes 17 & Gone so utterly engrossing is the trepidation the reader carries with them through the pages. The need to put the book down, but keep it close. I actually, very nearly, had to put this one in the freezer to diffuse some of my anxiety.
It is hard to write about 17 & Gone because so much of the story must be experienced first hand. I would never take that away from you, but for the purposes of this post, I will share something that has nothing to do with the twists and turns in the plot. Speaking, here, about her mother, Lauren says:
I nodded and let her keep touching me, even though every finger on my scalp and every brush against my neck felt wrong all of a sudden, weird. It wasn’t so much her. Again, it was me. All me. My skin was tightening against intrusions. My body was pulling in on itself like a knot tied over a knot tied over a knot that would never come out.
This is seventeen. Much of my late teens were filled with this raw, hidden pain. Pain I couldn’t quite make sense of, or put words to, or recognize for what it truly was. But more, what Lauren’s words remind me of is feeling desperately and hopelessly misunderstood, because suddenly the girl I had been wasn’t fitting with the girl I was becoming. I wasn’t a woman, not by a long shot, but suddenly I was doing womanly things and being asked to just accept them. My future was growing complex.
At sixteen, I remember driving around with my brother and one of my friends, cranking Jimmy Eat World up in my beat up Jeep Cherokee, and talking about Harry Potter while we ate Frosties. Sixteen was the last time things were simple. Sixteen was filled with certainty. It had been about school and books. It had been me and music and giant drinks from Sonic.
Seventeen changed everything. Suddenly I was about to graduate, and I was supposed to pick a school and take the SAT’s, and plan a future. At seventeen, I was eyed. Boys looked at me more like meat and less like furniture. My cheekbones were sharper, my eyes caught on the curve of a guys muscle under his sleeve, and not the idea of his charm. Seventeen meant I had to act, not observe.
For Lauren, seventeen meant danger. It meant you could be stolen, and no one would care, because isn’t that just what happens if you’re not careful? 17 & Gone illustrates a universal truth about the perilous downward slope of the seventeenth year. The knowledge that you leave behind the girl you were, but you may never make it to the woman you should become. For Lauren, the fear manifests in waking nightmares of the lost girls before her. For me, the fear followed me into every decision I made.
Somehow I managed to survive seventeen, though I can’t tell you if Lauren does — you’ll have to read the book to find out! — and become the woman I was warring with back then. As a teenager, I don’t think I would have believed you if you’d told me I would. I think, like Lauren, I would have been sure my fate lay with the other vanished girls, trapped at seventeen, never getting to move on or see if they could hack it. That’s why 17 & Gone is such a valuable read, for a girl struggling to stay upright on the slope towards eighteen, or a woman who still remembers tripping along that same path.
Many things about my seventeenth year were magical, and everything I had ever wanted or more. Seventeen forms us, and in some ways, it is impossible to avoid the dangers that await on the other side of it. But you won’t be seventeen forever, I know I wasn’t, no matter what that ends up meaning for you now.
Buy 17 & Gone where books are sold, and follow Nova on Twitter by clicking here. If you live in the DFW area, Nova will also be at the Irving Public Library on July 11th for an author panel. Don’t miss it!