Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
“You can’t touch me,” I whisper.
I’m lying, is what I don’t tell him.
He can touch me, is what I’ll never tell him.
But things happen when people touch me.
No one knows why Juliette’s touch is fatal, but The Reestablishment has plans for her. Plans to use her as a weapon.
But Juliette has plans of her own.
After a lifetime without freedom, she’s finally discovering a strength to fight back for the very first time—and to find a future with the one boy she thought she’d lost forever.
You should be offended by this book.
Not because it’s kinda smutty (thought it is). Not because of its feeble, politically-correct world-building. Not because its main character is a weaker female role-model than Bella Swan (ok, you should probably be offended by that, too).
You should be offended by this book because Harper, a major publishing house, thought it was good enough for you, Dear Reader. And that might sound sarcastic or whatever, but I’m serious. This book fails at every element that makes a good, or even decent, novel. And the fact that Harper published it as it is demonstrates exactly how low an opinion they hold of its readers – that they are so lit-deaf they won’t even notice how ineffective and terrible the writing actually is; that they are so gratified by shallow, artificial, smutty “romance”, they won’t realize that the characters are generic, indistinct, and don’t really do anything, or act remotely like human beings. Yes, Tahereh Mafi wrote this book. She is responsible for the existence of these words. But it is the job of the author to write the best book they can, and it is the job of the agent/editor/publisher to say, “This just isn’t good enough. Put this one in a drawer and keep working.”
But here it is. SHATTER ME by Tahereh Mafi: published, packaged, super-hyped, and, as it turns out, really, really bad.
(This is why self-publishing is thriving. Readers are losing faith in the gate-keeping abilities of traditional publishing houses and with good reason.)
As it turns out, the author sort of tries to warn you that this book will be bad. She gives you two hints: the dedication and the epigraph. Mafi dedicates the book to her parents and to “my husband, because when I said I wanted to touch the moon you took my hand, held me close, and taught me how to fly.” This is your hint that the writing in the book will be maudlin and bad. And the epigraph is probably the most over-used bit of poetry ever: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –“ etc etc (poor Robert Frost.) This is your warning that the content of the book won’t be original or innovative or even very interesting. (As a side note, the quotation is poorly chosen because Juliette, the main character, never really makes a firm decision in this book. There is never a point where the author made me believe that, faced with a choice, Juliette could actually go either way. This means no stakes, no tension, no character development or arc.)
Let me say that, if anything, I was biased in favor of this book before I began reading it. Mafi is a popular blogger, and this book has been much touted by Nathan Bransford, ex-literary agent extraordinaire. I have had this on my to-read shelf since April, and I put it on hold at the library long before it was even released. It seemed like ARC reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Its rating on Goodreads is still 4.20. I did not expect or want it to be truly the worst book I have ever read. But it is, and here’s why.
Fairly early on, we discover that the new totalitarian regime (called The Reestablishment) in Mafi’s dystopian world wants to eradicate all existing languages and replace them with one new universal language, in order to promote unity or some shite. This is actually an interesting, if completely implausible, idea – one of the many actually interesting ideas that Mafi’s story hints at but the author does not, or cannot, truly explore. (Naturally, after a character flatly informs us of this, it’s never mentioned again – one of the many casualties of Mafi’s poor world-building). Anyway, my point is that if Mafi’s writing is the future of language, then I fully support its destruction.
There are three specific problems with Mafi’s writing (I mean, overall it’s just bad, right?). (1) It is hyperbolic to the point of being unbelievable. (2) It is ineffective and frequently communicates the opposite of what I think she wanted to say. And (3), much of the time it makes no damn sense at all.
I didn’t have to read very far before I was reminded of the boy who cried wolf. After he fakes it so many times, no one believes the boy anymore, even when there really is a wolf. His cries fall on deaf ears. Likewise, Mafi abuses and ignores language until there’s no reason for the reader to believe her anymore. Her words lose all meaning. Her sentiments are so exaggerated that eventually the reader’s only recourse is to discount everything she says. Frequently, she claims something dramatic only to contradict it a page later. Some examples:
“I inhale so fast my lungs collapse.” (That’s an interesting trick.)
“I’m swallowing nothing but the strangled gasps choking my body.” (This could also be under (3). It made me think, “What else would she be swallowing?” Which, of course, leads to That’s What She Said jokes.)
Pg. 48 – blah blah blah “all feeling and emotion gone forever”
Pg. 49 – “I hate him” (Sure sounds like emotion to me.)
“I’m being nailed in the stomach by every exquisite embellishment.”
“…actively swallowing the hysteria tickling every broken moment in my mind”
“I’ve realized I’ll probably never exhale in his presence.” THE NEXT LINE: “Every breath in my body escapes me.”
Pg. 144 – “I wish I had no eyes”
Pg. 145 – “I’m suddenly desperate to see his eyes. I suddenly need to see his eyes.”
“Suddenly my head is a piece of pavement and I’m being trampled to death.”
Pretty much every description – particularly when it concerns anything Juliette is feeling – is completely melodramatic. There are many reasons why this bothers me, but I’ll mention the two important ones. First, it completely deadens the effect of the language. It cheapens words, which, frankly, disgusts me. Compare this to a great, minimalist writer (Raymond Carver, perhaps) who frequently takes the breath out of me with his words. I mean, to whom does food mean more – the glutton or someone starving? Mafi’s writing is gluttonous. I can only hear Juliette say something like “My spine snapped in half with the [emotional] pain” so many times before I just roll my eyes and think, “There goes this hysterical girl again, blowing every aspect of her stupid life out of proportion.”
This ties in with the second main reason this bothers me: Juliette is an obscene stereotype and a horrible role model. She seems to be in a constant state of hysteria, with no control over her emotional or physical feelings. And truthfully, I am less concerned about this being a terrible portrayal of a female stereotype and more about the fact that the book sort of glamorizes it when this is not an acceptable way to live. It is not good to allow yourself to be ruled by your feelings. We are human and possess the faculty of reason. This separates us from the animals and allows us to build civilizations and write laws and write books. But for impressionable readers, Mafi offers Juliette, who is more like a small rodent than a human being, or maybe like a four-year-old prone to lying and tantrums and caprice.
To end this section, I have to mention that the writing in this book reminds me of that SNL short “Jizz in my Pants” because that is the impression we get of Juliette and her lack of self-control. A breeze rolls in, and HER HEART EXPLODES IN LIGHTNING AND THUNDER.
Her writing is ineffective and frequently communicates the opposite of what I think Mafi intends. These are just a few of the many, many examples:
“I blink 1,000 times in the blackness.” – See, literally the first thing we learn about Juliette is that captivity has driven her to almost-compulsive and exact counting. Numbers are definite, and she clings to them and mentions them throughout the book. But Mafi throws this line in early on, at a moment when it is not possible for Juliette to literally blink 1,000 times. It is typical of Mafi in that it is a gross exaggeration, but it should not be typical of Juliette as a character, whose number calculations must be exact to serve their purpose as characterization.
“He’s covered in bruises. My legs feel broken. I don’t know how to help him.” – Here, she describes her love interest, who has been tortured by the villain, as “covered in bruises.” Mafi is obviously trying to paint Juliette as being compassionate and moved by Adam’s injuries. But Juliette’s next line is “My legs feel broken.” Note that this is purely a description of her emotional feelings; she has not been physically harmed. This is something that she does all the time when people are hurt. The problem is that it trivializes the other person’s real wounds. He is actually, physically covered in bruises but OMG MY LEGS FEEL BROKEN BECAUSE I FEEL SO SAD. We’re told several times, by different characters and in gag-inducing scenes, that Juliette is special because of her goodness and selflessness, but all the actual characterization points to the opposite: that Juliette is obscenely self-absorbed. Presumably, Mafi wants us to care about Adam and understand how much Juliette cares about him, but her actual writing here accomplishes the opposite.
“My body is in a blender. I’m made of mush.” ¬– So, I don’t know about you, but when I think of the pleasurable, tingly feeling a girl would get when she’s in the gorgeous arms of the boy she loves, it would not be the feeling of BEING IN A BLENDER. That is truly a gruesome and violent image and totally contrary to the mood of the scene or, I expect, the romantic picture the author wants us to get when we read it.
“I want to kiss every beautiful beat of his heart.” – Again, just think about that image. Gross. And it’s such a schmaltzy, maudlin sentiment. When I read this, I immediately thought of a line from Patrick Marber’s play “Closer” (also a movie, now). One character says something like, “I love her with all my heart.” And the other guy shouts at him, “Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.” Now, there’s an effective and honest image, entirely appropriate to the tone of the scene.
“I’m flushed through my feet, filled with unspoken everything.” – One word: TOILET.
“He chokes on a moan that turns into a kiss.” Why are her sexy scenes always so gross? I guess this is why I literally felt nauseated during all of the smut. Choking isn’t romantic.
“I can hear our heartbeats in the silence between us.” – In this case, the general lack of clarity in the writing means that I couldn’t tell whether this was literal (one of her powers is super hearing) or if it’s figurative (another stupid exaggeration). If I trusted Mafi to be consistent, then I would say the latter because there’s another scene where a different character demonstrates much better hearing than Juliette. But there’s no way of really knowing, since Juliette discovers new powers in the course of the book.
“[The villain] tastes like peppermint, smells like gardenias.” – You know how in The Hunger Games, President Snow smells like sickly-sweet roses and that enhances his villainy? Well, this doesn’t work at all like that. If anything, this description completely emasculates the villain (not that he was ever very menacing – Mafi does not write convincing male characters). Plus, peppermint and gardenias? Really?
“My heart is a stick of butter, melting recklessly on a hot day.” – Nevermind that this is just horrible writing. What kind of emotion is this supposed to describe? Instead of innovation, Mafi frequently relies on the oldest clichés and then adds ridiculous modifiers to try and disguise them. Here, the cliché is “that melts my heart.” The problem with Mafi’s mangling of it is that it renders it incoherent. In this case, it’s the cuteness of a little boy that melts her heart, but adding the adverb “recklessly” changes the tone. The metaphor doesn’t make sense in itself, and it doesn’t make sense as a metaphor for whatever she’s supposed to be feeling.
Another of the clichés that Mafi uses and abuses is “my jaw dropped.” I probably wouldn’t have even noticed except for the fact that Juliette’s jaw drops. all. the. effing. time. (See, there isn’t much plot in this book, so the characters are forced to do the same things over and over.) And so, in order to try to distract the reader from noticing that Juliette’s jaw drops pretty much every time anyone says anything to her, Mafi employs increasingly stupid descriptions. Pg. 115 – “My jaw falls off.” Pg. 302 – “My mouth is sitting on my kneecaps.” Pg. 310 – “My jaw is dangling from my shoelace.” Pg. 312 – “I have to make a conscious effort to keep my jaw from unhinging.” Imagine if I had been keeping track of these throughout the whole book instead of a just few pages!
Third problem: her writing often makes no damn sense.
“So much everything all the things dead.” – That’s not a typo. In the beginning of the book, there is some question whether Juliette is actually crazy or not, and the writing aids that ambiguity. But then, I hit writing like this and stopped wondering if she was crazy, realizing that she’s actually just dumb.
“He laughs something that sounds like an amused breath.”
“Every night there are sounds I don’t hear.” – Tell us some more things that don’t happen, please. OH WAIT, basically this whole book is about stuff NOT HAPPENING.
“Summer is like a slow-cooker bringing everything in the world to a boil one degree at a time. It promises a million happy adjectives only to pour stench and sewage into your nose for dinner.”
“Hate looks just like everybody else until it smiles. Until it spins around and lies with lips and teeth carved into the semblance of something too passive to punch.” – This is an example of Mafi trying so hard to be a Writer and only succeeding in sounding like an idiot. And it makes me angry because she must think I’m also an idiot and will not notice that this is just total crap.
“Someone is cutting off my neck.” – Is English her second language?
“I inhale the cold contents with trembling hands.” – I guess eating through her palms is another superpower?
“His lips are 2 pieces of frustration forged together.”
“I want to bury my tears in a bucket of regret.”
“…And an unfamiliar texture brushes my skin. It’s rough and foreign but familiar.” – …Huh?
“Time is a broken hourglass bleeding seconds through sand.”
“Blood is bleeding all over my mind.”
“I curl my fingers around the possibility of Adam in my hand.” (That’s what she said!)
“I saw enough to see what I couldn’t see in the darkness.”
“His body presses closer and I realize I’m paying attention to nothing but the dandelions blowing wishes in my lungs.”
“He’s more wrong than an upside-down rainbow.” – So bad. This might be my favorite line.
“Realization is a new piece in his puzzled mind.”
“I’ve acquired a full time job choking on the weakness of my limp body.”
“Sometimes it’s safer being cut by a butcher knife than being scratched by a random scrap of metal.”
“His eyes are a midnight moment filled with memories.”
“He drops kisses down my throat like ecstasy.” – Please, just kill me.
“My stomach is a flimsy crepe, my heart a raging woodpecker, my blood a river of anxiety.” – Nevermind that in this dystopian world, it is unlikely Juliette would ever have encountered a crepe or a woodpecker to even have such frames of reference.
“I’m amazed he didn’t freeze to death. He doesn’t seem to notice me until he does.” – Huh? He doesn’t notice you until he freezes to death? He doesn’t notice you until he notices you?
“His lips are spelling secrets and my ears are spilling ink, staining my skin with his stories.” – You know, I don’t think Mafi has ever encountered a real human being before. I’d suggest she’s a robot, but a robot wouldn’t produce such execrable writing.
“The sun is revolving around the moon when he responds.”
“My heart soars and plummets at the same time.” – Which means it just sorta hangs out in the same place, right?
“You’re processing shock…” – Um, isn’t the point of being in shock the fact that you can’t process anything? How does one process shock?
“He smiles a bit sheepishly. ‘Sometimes I electrocute people by accident.’” – I’m sure this is due to Mafi’s ignorance of what the word “electrocute” actually means. Otherwise, the good guys are tolerating a happy little serial killer in their midst. I admit, this one made me laugh a lot.
“I’m wondering why there are so many freight trains in my heart, why his chest is a broken harmonica.” – WTF? Also, I doubt freight trains would be a go-to metaphor for this girl in this dystopian world.
Also, things that can be found in Juliette’s throat: a reptile, a snake, 400 cotton balls, a bullet, and “impossibility”.
In summation, this book is painfully overwritten and offensive in its badness. It’s not a matter of taste. It’s a fact. This is not good writing. It is not decent writing. It’s not even competent writing because it obscures the story and the characters instead of illuminating them. And to add insult to injury, it seems so damn pleased with itself. You don’t write a sentence like, “I melt until I’m a handful of hot butter dripping down his body,” and actually believe it’s worth keeping, unless the greatness of your own writing just tickles you pink.
You know, it’s hard to specify the main problem with Shatter Me because the book is truly nothing but problems. No lie: I took 10+ pages of notes while I was reading this. It was the only thing that kept me from tearing the book apart with my bare hands and burning the pieces (but don’t think I’m not still tempted…even though it’s a library book). So I’ll just mention the problems recorded in my notes. (There may be slight spoilers ahead but not really. Since there’s no real plot, there’s nothing to spoil.)
1. My third note is “Will this book say interesting things about the human need for physical contact?” At that point, I was still hoping for a good, insightful book because the barebones premise is a great one: Girl can’t touch anyone without killing them. There is so much potential there! Unfortunately, Mafi does everything she can to demean and dilute that idea, using it in the most facile, banal way possible. Instead of exploring what it means to be human and how people use touch to communicate beyond words, Mafi exploits the premise in order to write a lot of smut and pretend it’s profound.
Suppose Adam wasn’t immune to Juliette’s “curse”. Suppose Juliette meets the love of her life, and she cannot touch him without causing him excruciating pain and possibly killing him. Their love can never be consummated. Isn’t that much more compelling? I think so. (It’s certainly much less indulgent. Of course, indulgence seems to be this book’s only guiding principle.) More importantly, it would provide these undernourished characters with a real conflict (instead of the artificial conflicts Mafi conjures), something to overcome or work out, which would provide them with an arc. And I think it would humanize them; as it is, they don’t behave or relate like real people.
2. Early on, Juliette waxes poetic about the sun being a jerk and how she finds the moon much more sympathetic. Besides being cliché, this didn’t make sense for the character. Here is this girl who lives in solitary confinement because she’ll kill anyone she touches. Doesn’t this mean she has more in common with the sun than the moon? But no, Mafi goes for the old standby Moon-as-lonely-figure and sacrifices both interesting characterization and an original idea.
3. Mafi’s apparent lack of research really bugs me and makes everything that has to do with the soldiers ring false. Has Mafi never seen a tank? She describes it like it’s the newest Chevy Volt (it’s electric and has doors on the side etc). And there’s this great line where they talk about a character wrecking a $500,000 tank, and they act like it’s an obscene amount of money. Does Mafi have any concept of how much this stuff actually costs? It takes like 5 seconds to Google it! Also, Adam carries “a compact pocketknife. A butterfly knife.” This guy is supposed to be a soldier. I have a butterfly knife, and I can tell you it’s not particularly compact. And I find it hard to believe it’s the knife a soldier would carry around all the time (in a secret pocket down his pants, no less). Finally – and this one drove me nuts – she repeatedly mentions a gun’s “hilt”. Um, Mafi, swords have hilts. Guns don’t. I don’t even know what part of the gun you think you’re talking about.
4. Her whole childhood is nonsensical. Why didn’t her parents home school her? Why wasn’t she always clothed in long-sleeves, long pants, and GLOVES? Juliette is a mental deficient. When a kid grows up with a serious medical condition, it is drilled into them early what they must and must not do. But at 14, Juliette acts like she’s completely oblivious to everything. In order to set up Important Plot Points, Mafi ignores logic and plausibility and reasonable human action. Weak. So weak.
5. This one could be spoilery. So, Warner, the closest thing to a villain in the book, wants to experience Juliette’s “ability” firsthand and so asks her to touch him. She refuses for no coherent reason (again, Mafi abandons plausibility to protect what little plot exists). Instead of relenting and touching Mr. Villain (who is, like everyone in the book, gorgeous), Juliette allows him to force her to torture first a decent soldier and then A BABY (the latter in one of the most ridiculous scenes in the book). All she had to do was agree to touch Warner, and neither of these innocents would have suffered. So who is really the villainous psychopath here? I’d say it’s Mafi, who destroys the idea of Juliette’s supposed goodness in order to protect a minor, underwhelming plot “twist.” In addition, all of Juliette’s pathetic objections to being used to hurt other people are rendered meaningless. It’s sick, right? Juliette is the protagonist, the hero, and Mafi has her torture a good man and a toddler instead of the villain.
6. Because Mafi has nothing for the characters to actually do and no concept of how human conversation progresses, the characters have the same conversations over and over to take up space. The first is between Adam and Juliette and basically runs like this:
“Why do you love me?”
“I’ve always loved you!”
“But why? I’m a MONSTER.”
“Because you’re good and perfect and lovely!”
“What? No! I’ve KILLED people!”
“I loved you the first time I saw you!”
They have this conversation pretty much every time they meet.
The second conversation is between Kenji and Juliette and also happens every time they see each other. Kenji hits on her, claiming he’s got a spectacular face when not beaten up and that she’s pretty cute for a psycho, and then Juliette says she’s not interested. They banter the same sentiments back and forth. This exact exchange happens no fewer than four times. Like I said, there’s zero character development.
7. Mafi jumps heads, meaning she gives Juliette knowledge that, as the first-person narrator, she can’t possibly have, usually about how other characters are feeling or what they’re thinking. The worst cases of this involve Juliette describing how wonderful other characters think she is. Blech.
8. Something is always occurring to Juliette, even though she has “realized” the same thing several times before. I mean, something is always occurring to her, even if she’s just realized it. (I’m sorry. Did I just repeat the exact same thought? Mafi must be rubbing off on me!)
9. James supposedly lives on “unregulated” land. Of course, what this means is never precisely explained (that would require actual coherent world-building), but, at the very least, it must mean that The Reestablishment can’t be controlling the food that James eats. I mean, come on.
10. Frequently, the events that do occur are kind of ridiculous, so Mafi has the characters talk about them in order to give horribly stilted exposition. If you have the book on hand, see pages 275-276.
11. When Juliette finally goes after someone with the intent to hurt them, Mafi does a “fade out,” and we only hear about it afterward, from another character. It’s possibly Juliette’s most legitimate outpouring of emotion and fervor, and Mafi takes the easiest, cheapest way out. Throughout the book, the reader is perpetually bombarded with Juliette’s overwrought feelings, and then, at the moment when they would actually be interested in them, Mafi cheats.
12. Mafi makes a huge deal of Juliette’s notebook in the beginning of the book. Indeed, it’s the only thing that supports the whole striking-out-words gimmick because, presumably, this is all actually being written down. But about halfway through, it’s totally dropped, and you never hear about it again.
13. A PURPLE SUPERHERO SUIT. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Dear Reader, are you convinced? Because I’m exhausted. Writing this review has been a way of purging all the frustration I felt while reading this stupid book. It’s taken a couple days, and the finished product has more words than I managed for NaNoWriMo this year.
But you know what? It’s important to me because we readers deserve better than this. If publishers expect us to purchase books, then they shouldn’t cheat us. And that’s what it comes down to: Shatter Me is just a dirty, dirty cheat.