I've read some criticism about the trend in YA publishing of putting white girls in dresses on book covers regardless of what the story is actually about. This is one of those times that I believe the book cover matches the book absolutely perfectly.
Let me explain.
The cover of Shatter Me
is a smooth glossy sheet, shiny and reflective. It caught my eye immediately upon entering the young adult section of the book store, and it caught my eye again at my local library. There's a girl in a white dress on the cover, gorgeous and model-thin, the epitome of our society's beauty standards. Sparks shoot out behind her in the background. It's quite an attractive image, but there's not much behind it. This cover, like so many over covers of YA books, only conveys the message that it's another YA book whose main character is a girl, and the plotline involves romance. It doesn't tell us much else, and certainly not anything about the particular storyline in the book itself. In other words, it's all glitz and glamour on the surface, but no real substance.
That's exactly what Tahereh Mafi's writing is like. She uses a lot of pretty words and flowery descriptions, a lot of metaphors involving birds, sunshine, flowers, rain, drowning... it sounds like it should be beautiful. It isn't. It's complete drivel. Most of the metaphors and descriptive imagery she uses are either cliches, the most obvious of which is the recurring bird image, an overused symbol for freedom/captivity, or they do not make any sense. For example:"Hate looks like everybody else until it smiles. Until it spins around and lies with lips and teeth carved into semblance of something too passive to punch."
What does this even mean? I feel like Mafi did not so much write as simply string a bunch of random words together, hoping that if she chose words that were pretty/interesting/cool enough, people will assume it's super deep and meaningful. If she, in fact, did intend some kind of meaning in this particular sentence, then she failed at conveying it since I can make neither heads nor tails of it.
The metaphors that aren't nonsensical are so exaggerated that it makes her main character and the entire book look like an exercise in melodrama. For example: "There are 400 cotton balls caught in my windpipe."
"My mouth is sitting on my kneecaps."
"He says it with a small smile the size of Jupiter."
Sure, you can make an (albeit rather poor) argument that teenagers are overly dramatic, but when the whole book is filled with so much exaggeration, it tends to lose its effect. When everything is made into such a big deal and blown out-of-proportion, then it all becomes a wash, since there aren't any smaller things to compare it to. If everything is so big and shocking, then nothing is big and shocking, etc. All the metaphors and imagery lose their meaning. The words themselves appear lovely, but they don't seem to say much of anything. Style, but no substance.
Now, I will say that there are times when Mafi gets it right. Among all the horrific metaphors, I did occasionally come across lines that I thought were genuinely well-written, for example: "Out atmosphere has little to boast of, but after so many months in a concrete corner even the wasted oxygen of our dying Earth tastes like heaven. I can't inhale fast enough."
I do think Mafi has some potential, but it'll take a lot of editing and a lot of practice for her to get a firm hold on her writing craft. Unfortunately, I think all the hype and 5-star reviews surrounding this book will only encourage her to keep going with her current style.
But if you can get past the prose (and I'll admit here that I did eventually get used to Mafi's writing style, although I still think it is godawful), you will get to the actual storyline. I said before that no details of the plot of this book are evident on the cover, but the cover does give us a clue. The image of a beautiful girl in a beautiful dress is commonly found covering YA books with a romance storyline (often a love triangle) set against the backdrop of a paranormal or dystopian world (the details of which are often sketchily developed), and always uses the "our love is so forbidden/us against the world" cliches. These kinds of covers rarely tell us anything about the actual storyline, just that the elements I listed are involved.Shatter Me
is no different. Like its cover, the book's plot revolves around Juliette, a girl with a special power (a killing touch) who has been captured by an evil leader. The whole thing takes place in a rundown dystopian society. Very few details are given about just what exactly the world she lives in is like, aside from the most typical things like an oppressive government and environmental problems. The worldbuilding takes up maybe 10 pages maximum, and that's it. The rest of the story revolves around the girl's meeting and subsequent cliche-ridden romance with a handsome boy, who is conveniently the only one who is not hurt by her power and is also her captor's lackey, so of course, their romance is forbidden. They fall in love and then run off together in typical "you and me against the world" fashion, and eventually join a rebellious group. That's about it.
In addition to weak writing skills, it seems that Mafi also lacks imagination. Shatter Me
was a cliche forbidden love/evil dystopian society story. And the worst part is, so much of the book is taken up by awful metaphors that Mafi has not even bothered to develop her dystopian setting or flesh out her characters. This book is more like the bare skeleton of a book. It uses a large typeface with generous spacing, so despite being 338 pages long, once you take away the overwrought metaphors and pointless flowery language, the actual storyline covers maybe 150 pages. That is not a lot.
So, going back to my original point, the cover of this book matches it perfectly, because it conveys all the glossy attractiveness of the words, but there's really not much content-wise. You don't even really need to read this book. Just stare at the shiny cover and you'll get pretty much the same experience.