“I never really understood irony when Mrs. Thale tried to teach us about it in English, but I sure get it now. Now that I get bullied for being a bully.”
Emma Putnam killed herself, and it’s all Sara Wharton’s fault, or at least that’s what everyone except Sara seems to believe. Emma was never popular at school (except with the boys), but when she tried to steal Sara’s boyfriend, Sara and her best friend Brielle hatched a plan to ensure that Emma would transfer to a new school. Unfortunately, the bullying pushed Emma over the edge, and now Sara and Brielle are going to be put on trial for stalking and criminal harassment. Her lawyers think she should make a deal, but Sara doesn’t believe she did anything wrong, and refuses to settle. As the trial date creeps closer, Sara is forced to reflect on what happened, and find a way to live with the consequences of her actions.
Tease begins in July, a couple months after Emma’s suicide. Sara is essentially under house arrest, except for attending therapy, summer school, and appointments with her lawyers. There are no legal restrictions on her, but her infamy follows her everywhere she goes in their small town. Brielle’s wealthy family is shielding her from facing the wrath of her peers and her community, leaving Sara to bear much of the scrutiny alone. The narrative moves forward from this point, but also flashes back to the school year, revealing more and more of Sara and Brielle’s vicious tactics, as they spur one another to ever more brutal pranks. This style is very effective, although it necessarily leaves Emma and her parents somewhat underdeveloped, since we only see them through Sara’s eyes.
Tease was, at times, a gut wrenchingly difficult read. Sara and Brielle were relentless bullies, slut-shaming and intimidating Emma both at school and online. For most of the novel, Sara struggles to feel any kind of remorse for her actions, seeing only how Emma’s suicide has ruined her own life. It was hard and sometimes even physically sickening to be in her head while she tried to justify her actions. If you dislike unsympathetic protagonists, this is not the book for you. But I think this book is important, because it portrays the bully as a person, rather than a one-dimensional villain. Sara doesn’t bully because she is evil; she has human motivations and weaknesses, from too much adult responsibility in her family, to a toxic relationship with Brielle. None of these factors excuse her behaviour but they are the difference between the caricature of a bully and a developed character.
Even as Sara takes some steps in the right direction towards the end of the novel, we are faced with the profound unfairness of the situation; Sara has to find a way to go on with her life, but at least she has a life to go on with. Dealing with rape, slut-shaming, cyber-bullying, and teen sex, and centering on the bully rather than the victim, Tease is inevitably going to be a controversial novel. It is ripe for discussion on a number of timely topics, and Maciel’s refusal to condemn or take sides will force readers to think deeply.
You might also like Blues for Zoey by Robert Paul Weston.