This story begins the day after the protagonists have graduated from high school, at which time the traditional secret game of “Panic” begins. Each participant has to pass a series of ridiculously risky challenges, with two unknown judges (acting via flyers and an anonymous email account) determining what they will be, allocating points, and knocking losers out of the game. The final remaining contestant wins a large pot of money.
In the seven years the game has been played, four players have died and one has been left paralyzed. But the prize money – this year it is $67,000 – is too tempting for these teens to resist. They are desperate to get out of of their dead-end small town of Carp, New York, and maybe be able to realize their dreams, most of which are pretty much impossible without lots of cash.
The danger involved doesn’t deter them from putting their lives on the line; unfortunately, all of the characters, most of whom come from broken homes, are very deficient in self-esteem, and looking for love in all the wrong places. The focus is primarily on four main protagonists: two females graduates – Heather and Nat, and two males – Bishop and Dodge.
Discussion: I found some aspects of the plot very unrealistic. Parents and police are pretty much absent most of the time, especially considering the deaths and life-crippling injuries associated with the game. And the “requirement” that every high school student from this impoverished community contribute $100 each year to the game, and they somehow manage to come up with the money? I wasn’t buying it.
I also did not think some of the main characters were especially well-developed. Nat, for example, apparently has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but this complication is only briefly alluded to, and then mostly forgotten. Nevertheless, it probably plays a large role in her behavior which was otherwise unexplained (and inexplicable). Why would Oliver assume most kids would understand this syndrome?
Some other issues were only touched upon and then dropped, such as Heather’s insecurity about her size, and her dependence on appeal to boys for her sense of self-worth. Bishops’ behavior also went largely unexplained, even though much of what he did seemed quite contrary to the person he was supposed to be.
The character of Dodge was better drawn than the others. His devotion to his paralyzed sister was juxtaposed with the reinforcement he got from her dependence on him, and to his resistance to her improvement because it meant he was less important to her. That complex and contradictory situation was very well done.
While the tension level of the book built nicely, the “mystery” of the plot was obvious. I was also disappointed with the cluster of events comprising the ending, which seemed even more unrealistic than the rest of the story.
Evaluation: It’s hard not to give Oliver consideration after loving some of her other work, particularly the book Before I Fall. But with Panic, I felt there were some problems with story believability and with the characterization, and there were a few examples of overly trite writing (“Nothing and none of us will ever be the same”).
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014