Sometimes I think we should forget stars or numerical ratings, and just rank books based on how many sittings it takes to read. Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth was a one-sitting novel. I sat down to read during the hottest midday hours, and then suddenly it was dark outside, and also I was hungry.
This novel takes teenage pain seriously, in the foundering of relationships and the ending of friendships, in social acceptance and personal identity. The story of high school students in a wealthy town really highlights the random elements that lead to wide-ranging consequences. The teen who’s hospitalized after a car wreck didn’t do anything more reckless than that classmates who survived unscathed. I don’t think the guy drying out in expensive rehab really had any more of a drinking problem than his peers. Although the students almost all come from this wealthy and privileged community, their ski trips and lacrosse games can only go so far to protect these teens from each other and themselves.
This novel has the same careful observation of social details that I loved in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. For me, though, it was even more moving because I’m a lot closer to the first-year English teacher than to the teenage students, and that same careful eye looks at the would-be novelist, the wide-eyed first year, and jaded adult cliques of the staff room. By the end of the novel, the teacher who’s sleeping with (at least) one of his students goes totally unchecked, while the one who sends frantic Facebook messages to her students in the wake of a tragedy spends the next year being closely monitored by an more experienced teacher (one of the unenthused lifers found in every staff room) to ensure than no such inappropriate attachments form.