A no-holds-barred look at the intense world that has created a series of real-life suicide clusters in one upscale California town, Heidi Kling’s Paint My Body Red is as much a deeply thought-out critique of the circumstances contributing to these tragedies, as it as an ultimately uplifting story about hope and renewal.
They think I’m next. That I’ll be the seventh kid to step in front of a train and end my life. With the rash of suicides at my school, Mom’s shipped me off to my dad’s Wyoming ranch for “my own safety.” They think I’m just another depressed teenager whose blood will end up on the tracks. They don’t know my secrets…or what I’ve done.
I wasn’t expecting Dad to be so sick, for the ranch I loved to be falling to bits, or for Jake—the cute boy I knew years ago—to have grown into a full-fledged, hot-as-hell cowboy. Suddenly, I don’t want to run anymore, but the secrets from home have found me…even here. And this time, it’s up to me to face them—and myself—if I want to live…
I must admit, I felt particularly moved by Paint My Body Red, having grown up in the part of California where part of this story (its flashbacks) takes place. I didn’t attend either of the schools where these very real suicide clusters have been happening, and I graduated shortly before the first ones really started. But I lived in that area and in that culture of expected — demanded — excellence, and know full well the circumstances that are leading these teens down a dangerous and deadly spiral of metal health issues. It’s a very real, very scary problem — and what is perhaps most frightening is how many adults are either oblivious to the issue, or in denial about it.
That’s largely what inspired Kling to write this book — and I’m so glad she did. I can only hope it helps open up and contribute to a meaningful dialogue about the pressures today’s teens face: to ace every test; to excel academically, socially, and professionally; to get into an Ivy League school; to have the high-powered career; to meet certain expectations; to be perfect.
It’s all too much for anyone to deal with — but especially a teenager. Remember what it was like being a teenager? The hormones, the changes, the uncertainty about your future. Those sorts of questions and transitions are hard enough without all the added pressure of parents and society.
Paint My Body Red strips away any pretense and tackles these issues head-on. But make no mistake; this book is beautifully written and intricately plotted. As in life, the book is about more than just one thing. The character is also coping with the aftermath of a failed relationship and her father’s failing health. She’s about to go off to college, and is uncertain about her future and what she wants from it. Many of her friends (and frenemies) have killed themselves in the last year, and she wonders both is she (at least partly) to blame, and could she be next?
Kling has commented that editors told her this book had “too much” to be contained within a single novel. That these issues covered multiple books. But Kling — rightly so — insisted it was one book. Because even though these many multi-faceted issues make for a complicated story, it offers the most honest reflection of real life. It’s messy. It’s complicated. And we can’t limit our lives to just one issue. We have to deal with a lot of crap, often all at once — and that is where Kling’s talent truly shines. Deftly maneuvering her story to show all of life’s messes and complications and its beauty in one, stunning novel.
Paint My Body Red is available now.