Review of "Harmless"

By Dana Reinhardt
Listening Library, 2007
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 3rd 2007

In the author interview at the end of this audiobook, Dana Reinhardt explains that she wanted to write a book about teenagers who get into serious trouble although they are basically good.  She says that the media tend to focus on mean girls who intentionally hurt each other, but she thinks it is more usual for young people who are going through a formative time in working out what their values are and who want to explore the world to end up making mistakes unintentionally. 

This is what happens in Harmless.  Emma, Anna, and Mariah are in the ninth grade.  Emma and Anna are best friends, and Emma makes friends with Mariah, who recently moved to the area and is already dating a boy in the senior year.  Each girl has her worries and problems.  Anna's parents work at the local college and she is a model child.  But she feels very young, and she wants more experience, but she doesn't know how.  Emma has had a boyfriend, but not recently.  She has had difficulty settling into this new location in upstate New York after the family moved from Manhattan, due to a sexual harassment charge against her father at his former university.  Emma's parents have been arguing much of the time and she isn't sure if they are going to stay together.  Mariah's mother is recently remarried and she and her prosperous husband Carl have a new daughter.  Unfortunately Carl is very strict with Mariah and always gives her a hard time.  Mariah is by far the most experienced of the girls, and she has sex with her boyfriend in the back of his car. 

One night they lie to their parents and all go round to Mariah's boyfriend's house for the night.  Emma starts drinking, Mariah goes off with her boyfriend to his room, and Anna stays on her own.  Emma spends the night on the couch with another senior, and Anna sees them.  The next morning, Emma will not talk to Anna about it.  The girls go to their different homes and get away with their lies.  But the next week, they lie to their parents again but they nearly get caught in their lies, and so they make up a story to explain why they were not were they said they would be.  They say they were attacked by a man.  The effects of their lie snowball, and soon they are retelling their story to the police, teachers, and the rest of their families.  A vagrant man is arrested and the three girls deal with their guilt in different ways.  The plot gives some quite sophisticated psychological development. 

Each of the girls tells her own story, and the overall plot unfolds chronologically as the book shifts from one narrator to another.  We see how each girl changes, and how their friendships fall apart.  Anna becomes more confident from the experience, but Emma becomes depressed and shuts down, refusing to open up to anyone.  Eventually, she starts to talk to the school counselor, and that helps.  Mariah's relationship with her boyfriend ends, and she aims to get Emma's popular brother to replace him.  Telling the story from three perspectives gives it more complexity, which is clearly what author Dana Reinhardt is aiming at.  She refuses to label any individual as simply bad: in a more simplistic telling, Mariah would be the slut and the high school senior boys would be heartless manipulators of the freshmen girls.  Reinhardt however emphasizes the moral complexity and ambiguity of life: Emma reflects that her sexual experience with the senior wasn't clearly rape, but it wasn't completely consensual either.  Nice girl Anna turns out to be the one most ready to persist in their deception even when it is clear that an innocent man will be wrongly convicted.  Mariah, like her mother, uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and while this is clearly dangerous, Reinhardt does not completely condemn it.  Even the most unsympathetic character in the book, Mariah's stepfather Carl, has her best interests at heart, and his belief that she needed more discipline her may even have been correct.  Reinhardt is keen to show that people are complicated, and that judging others is no simple matter.  At the same time, she does show that people need to take responsibility for their actions, and that taking a moral stand is important.

Harmless is one of the better recent young adult titles, with straightforward writing, a fast-moving plot, and references to all sorts of cultural phenomena that teen readers might benefit from (such as Take Back the Night marches).  The unabridged audiobook is performed by 3 actors, Lyne Houck, Donna Rawlins, and Staci Snell, as the 3 girls, and their performances are energetic and sympathetic.  While the book makes clear reference to sex, there's nothing explicit in it, and so there should be nothing here to shock young readers.  Recommended. 


Link: Author web page

© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.