Everything You Want Me to Be is an intriguing mystery by Mindy Mejia. Del Goodman is the gruff small town sheriff of Pine Valley, a small farming town outside Rochester, Minnesota who must solve the shocking murder of Hattie Hoffman, a high school senior and the daughter of his best friend. She is found stabbed, her face mutilated beyond recognition, and lying half in and half out of a lake outside town. It is the kind of murder that would shock and frighten any community, not least a small town where that sort of thing is just not supposed to happen.
The story opens with Hattie Hoffman’s abortive attempt to run away from home and her realization that she was wasting her life by playing different parts, depending on who she was talking to, always fulfilling expectations of others, but not her own. She suddenly understands who she is, what she wants, and how to get it. Three weeks later, Sheriff Goodman is investigating her murder.
The story is narrated in alternating chapters that progress through Hattie’s final school year and the investigation, narrated by Hattie, Del, and Peter Lund, the new high school English teacher. Peter is a transplant from Minneapolis who moved to Pine Valley when his mother-in-law’s heart failure needed full-time care. Elsa does not like her son-in-law much and Mary redirects all her anger, frustration, and worry about her mother at Peter. He escapes to literature while she changes from the woman he loved into a stranger.
Mejia is from Minnesota and beautifully describes the way the wide open landscape, the gentle rolling hills with only a few clusters of trees for windbreaks and an expansive sky with an endless horizon made people fear God. As the Sheriff saw it, in the cities people didn’t see the unbroken sky and got the crazy idea they were in charge. Place has an important role in this story because Hattie and Peter are two people who are so very out of place. They don’t belong in Pine Valley and they long to leave.
Because they don’t belong, because they need to be with their kind of people, both Peter and Hattie participate in an online community that discusses plays, literature, and the arts. They only know each other by their handles, HollyG and LitGeek, and through many conversations about books, they begin to fall in love. When Hattie discovers LitGeek is her English teacher, she is thrilled. When Peter discovers HollyG is his student he is horrified. Much of the school year is spent with her pursuing him and his efforts to resist her.
To complicate matters, Hattie starts dating Tommy, a football player who adores her, but is not smart enough to realize she is just going through the motions, doing the high school thing of having a boyfriend. He’s pushing her for sex, but she does not care enough for him. He is a cover for her to pursue Peter, an arm accessory to pacify her friends and family.
Some of my favorite passages in the book are when Peter and Hattie discuss literature. Their discussion of Tim O’Brien’s masterful The Things They Carried was exceptional. It’s an example of how teachers should be teaching literature. It was easy to see why Hattie and Peter fell in love.
Everything You Want Me to Be is interesting, the story moves quickly and the characters are believable and are people you will care about. The setting is beautifully realized and very much an important part of the story. This is a story about being out of place. I was interested throughout, but I cannot love this book. In the end, when all was said and done, I really disliked the book. Yes, it is well-written. Yes, it is intriguing, with complex characters. Yes, sometimes the writing is downright poetic. But the author’s judgment, put in the Sheriff’s mouth is that Hattie is to blame. He says the murderer is no murderer…it’s Hattie’s fault.
I suppose it is a reflection of how much the author made me care about the characters that when Sheriff Goodman (Whose name I want to change to anything-but -Good-man) made that appalling judgment I was infuriated. It is a reflection of how much I had come to care that I am still angry the next day. So, yeah, the book is good in one way, which makes it even worse when it crosses that line into egregiously and wrongly blaming the victim.
No, Hattie is not to blame. The only worldview that puts the blame on her is one that mistakes love for ownership. Did Mary kill Hattie because Peter cheated with her? Did Peter kill Hattie to silence her or to keep her from leaving him for New York? Did Tommy kill her because she used him? No matter who did it, someone was claiming ownership, claiming that because they loved, that love must be reciprocated. And yes, Hattie demanded that because she loved Peter, he must love her. No one seems to believe in unrequited love or letting the one you love be free to make decisions.
Being reckless with people’s emotions, being careless, thoughtless and irresponsible are part of being a teenager. Hattie was smart, funny, and self-centered. That is not a cause for murder. The killer chose to kill. Hattie did not make the killer act, that was a choice and putting it on Hattie just reinforces the idea that people somehow belong to others, that people can make demands that ignore the agency and rights of another by claiming it is in the name of love. That’s not love.
Everything You Want Me to Be will be released on January 3rd. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.