I’ll be the first to admit to having a hard, hard time reading Amy Reed’s sophomore release, Clean. If you’ll remember, I was quite a fan of her debut novel, Beautiful, and I knew ahead of time that Clean was going to tackle the idea of drug addition within the setting of a treatment facility. It wasn’t going to be an easy nor a fun read, but I didn’t quite expect to have such a challenge reading it.
The thing is, that’s sort of the entire point of the story, and it’s why I think this is one of the strongest written books I’ve read in a while.
Clean is told through five voices: Kelly, the main voice, is a girl who is angry. She’s on suicide watch and has no privacy in this facility whatsoever; we know she’s got something going on in her family, but she doesn’t put it all out there. It’s a slow reveal.
The story opens with Kelly getting a new roommate, Olivia, a girl who forever operates on the fringes of the small, tight group of friends with whom Kelly associates with inside the facility. Olivia is obsessed with dissociating herself from her addiction and from other people, and she finds her solace in constantly engaging in school work (even though it’s forbidden outside study hours). Then there’s Eva: a girl with a bit of privilege and a girl who has struggled with feeling like she doesn’t belong in her own family.
Then there’s the boys: Christopher is paranoid. We’re dropped into this immediately, as he is constantly worried everyone is judging him in this facility. And finally, Jason. Jason’s out to prove something, whether to himself or to an imaginary following, and he’ll do something that rattles both himself and Kelly. Something that’ll prove how power(less) he really is.
Clean, as you might imagine, is not a plot-driven story; instead, it’s an intensely character-driven novel that packs a punch in each page. All five of the characters are well defined, but not immediately.
When I dove into the book, I had a hard time keeping the five voices straight. They all sounded almost the same to me, like five spokes on the same wheel. But this is done purposefully. As readers, we come to the story with certain preconceived notions of drug addicts, and Reed plays into this quite well at the exposition. The guys all sounded the same, and all of the girls sounded exactly the same. They’re all angry and paranoid and completely irritated that they’ve arrived in this facility. They’re skeptical of the idea they have problems, but perhaps they’re more skeptical that anything will ever change for them. It’s almost stereotypical because of how much it plays into the reader’s expectations.
But this is why it’s so brilliantly set up.
After being introduced to these characters through their short vignettes, we begin to unravel who these individuals are through their group therapy sessions, through their intensely personal essays of addiction, and through the individual stories they tell. Their voices become crystal clear, defined, and unique. We begin to understand why each of these people fell into a life of drugs and booze, and we begin to truly sympathize with the crummy situations that put them there. More brilliant, though, is how relatable these characters are: none of them has had all that tragic a life. None of them came from a background of drugs and booze and abuse. They’ve come from backgrounds that teens live every day, which is perhaps why this book was so downright scary to read. Kelly, for example, took drugs up as a way to keep herself amused, as a way to feel something. Her sisters, twins, were both born with birth defects that caused her parents to divert attention she may have gotten to them and their needs; but more than that, she has never had the chance to connect with her sisters in the way she so desperately wished to. Drugs were her conduit to feeling.
And Olivia, who comes to be the sort of outcast of the group, turns out to be the real heart breaker in the story. I think of all the characters, I was most engaged in her story because she was such a tough nut to crack, and yet, I knew there was something stirring inside her that would shift the entire dynamic of this group. To say the ending of the book was fitting and moving would be an understatement.
This book could easily be described as The Breakfast Club set in rehab, and it is. Even the set up of the book follows the execution of the movie, and it’s done so in a manner that anyone who has seen the movie can appreciate on one level and those who haven’t seen the movie can still completely understand what’s going on.
Reed’s writing, much like her writing in Beautiful, is unflinching and raw. It’s not easy to read, and knowing that these teens have hit such a rock bottom that they’re together in a residential rehab facility makes it understandable why this book is going to be uncomfortable. More than once, as soon as I got into the story, I had to back myself out. I had to distance myself from these characters because the pain at times was almost too much to take. But this exactly why this book is so important: it gives insight into the diverse stories that make up a habit that’s so easy to categorize as something that only “losers” and “low lifes” can fall into. These teens are real, and their struggles are those that emerge not only in life as we know it, but also in the pages of the young adult books that we read. I think, though, this need to distance from the text is a good thing and a necessary thing. The impact this book has is one that needs to be absorbed, rather than breezed through. Clean might be one of the strongest written books I’ve read in a long, long time, and it’s one that made me shed a tear — not from the story, necessarily, but from the powerful writing itself. This is an author to keep an eye on.
Pass Clean off to those who loved Reed’s first book, Beautiful, as well as fans of Ellen Hopkins, Courtney Summers, and other authors who don’t shy away from writing honest stories about tough subjects. Obviously, this isn’t a book for your younger readers, nor is it a go-to for all contemporary fans. I’d easily hand this one off to adults, too, both for the story aspect and for the ability Reed has in defining how addiction spans background, class, and more.
eGalley received from publisher, but then I preordered my own copy. I ended up buying this one as an ebook, but I’d be extremely curious to know whether some of the formatting is better fit for print. If anyone wants to weigh in, I’d love to hear. Clean comes out July 19.