After calling the cops at an end-of-summer party, Melinda Sordino is the social pariah of her freshman class. The girls she thought were her closest friends have turned on her and the entire school hates her. If it weren’t for the new girl in school, Heather, Melinda might not have any friends at all. The problem is that nobody at school understands what really happened the night of the party, and Melinda isn’t speaking. When even her new friend Heather gets tired of her melancholy ways, Melinda is left on her own, retreating to her special closet and holding in every emotion she’s ever felt. She struggles through her days, failing every class except art, where her teacher is gently pushing her to find her voice. Melinda’s silence is irritating her teachers and infuriating her parents, but she doesn’t know how to speak her truth. She worries that people won;t understand or that they’ll call her a liar. When the shame becomes too much and Melinda finally reveals what happened at that party, her life changes for the better.
In this novel, the style of Anderson’s written prose perfectly matches the minimal speaking of the protagonist throughout the story. Melinda is shamed into silence by her experience at the fateful party and says very little out loud, so most of the book is her inner thoughts, looking at the world around her with sarcastic wit and keen observations. I found that the prose in the book matched her reticent style. The sentences in the book are short and sparse with very little extraneous description. There is even a lack of verbosity in the other characters in the book, with everyone speaking short, concise sentences. I found that the writing style suited the story very well. Seeing that Melinda speaks so little in the book, it seems fitting that her thoughts would be similar in style. Even the dialogue is presented in a succinct way, without proper dialogue tags. Each person’s dialogue is presented by only their name (for example, “Heather: ‘You have a reputation.’”), much like reading a play. I found that this dialogue style further aided in the quick pace and condensed writing style of the novel. All of these elements combined serve to match the presentation of the main character’s reticence.
For the most part I enjoyed this novel. I think that it does an excellent job of displaying the aftermath of a traumatic event and what can happen when a girl is shamed into silence. After a bit of research I have found that Melinda’s retreat into silence is a very real consequence for those who have been sexually assaulted, and Speak is very well written to show that symptom of shame. I really enjoyed the art teacher, Mr.Freeman, but thought that more could have been done with him in the course of the novel. It hints at his involvement in Melinda’s eventual turnaround and decision to speak out, but I wanted more from their interactions. As for the other prominent teacher in the book, Mr. Neck, I felt like he could have been developed better. He comes across as a caricature of a mean and disapproving teacher, but he needs to be more well-rounded to be a true villain in the story. I also found the ending to be wrapped up a bit too quickly. (I found this to be true of the other Laurie Halse Anderson novel I read recently, Wintergirls). When we finally reach the climax of the book and Melinda speaks out, everything gets tied neatly in a bow and the book closes. I would have liked more in the way of resolution.