*I don’t think this review is spoilery given what readers know from the publisher copy and the title. But you might disagree so read with caution.*
Jan, Erika, and Melanie Russell have never been especially close as sisters.
Eldest Jan is less present as she begins her first year at Brown where she struggles with lingering doubts that her life as an overachieving high school student will leave her stranded as a mediocre college freshman.
Effortlessly beautiful Erika with her science know-how and low social cognition has always been the beloved oddity in the family. Everyone worries about Erika being able to take care of herself in a world that is far less kind than she would imagine.
Youngest Melanie, at fifteen, is still figuring out where she fits with her high-achieving parents and sisters. Perpetually angry and frustrated by everything Erika does, Melanie is eager to leverage her own social savvy against the constraints of her youth to have some actual fun at the coolest concerts and parties she can find.
When Melanie is sexually assaulted at a party, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. In the wake of the date rape, Erika is sure the crime should be reported while Melanie is desperate to get back to normal. In the weeks after the rape, questions of consent and intention swirl about both Melanie and Gerald at their private school as both of them–and even Erika and Jan–wonder how to move forward in The Word For Yes (2016) by Claire Needell.
The Word For Yes is Needell’s first novel.
The narration alternates chapter viewpoints to follow each sister and even Gerald–the boy who assaults Melanie–throughout the novel in close third person. However, because The Word For Yes is so short, these chapters often feel abrupt and cursory as the novel moves from subplot to subplot.
It’s hard to think of The Word For Yes as anything but an issue book since the entire driving force of the story is Melanie’s rape and its aftermath. As such, certain comparisons are inevitable. While this book joins recent publications like Aaron Hartzler’s What We Saw and Consent by Nancy Ohlin in the important conversation about rape and sexual assault, it fails to add anything new to that discussion. It also falls short compared to classics like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.
The Word For Yes also touches upon issues of bullying, adjusting to college, and changing family dynamics. Sadly this book ultimately lacks the depth to offer anything but a quick read that takes on too much. Plot threads for each sister–including what is meant to be a powerful confrontation scene for Melanie–come off as decidedly anti-climactic and even clinical with so little time being spent on individual aspects of the story.
While The Word For Yes should be applauded for attempts to thoughtfully discuss issues surrounding rape, as well as some level of diversity, this novel is ultimately too slight to be anything but a forgettable issue-driven story.
Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler, Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, Althea and Oliver by Christina Moracho, Consent by Nancy Ohlin, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith
*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*