Dear Reader

Dear Reader

by Mary O'Connell


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“Imaginative, exhilarating, genre-bending, and one of the best YA novels of the year.” —BookRiot

“An audacious tale. Like much classic literature and like growing up, reading this immersive novel is all about the experience.The Horn Book

An IndieNext Pick!

Gilmore Girls meets Wuthering Heights in Mary O'Connell's Dear Reader, a whip-smart, poignant, modern-day take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel.

For seventeen-year-old Flannery Fields, the only respite from the plaid-skirted mean girls at Sacred Heart High School is her beloved teacher Miss Sweeney’s AP English class. But when Miss Sweeney doesn't show up to teach Flannery's favorite book, Wuthering Heights, leaving behind her purse, Flannery knows something is wrong.

The police are called, and Flannery gives them everything—except Miss Sweeney's copy of Wuthering Heights. This she holds onto. And good thing she does, because when she opens it, it has somehow transformed into Miss Sweeney's real-time diary. It seems Miss Sweeney is in New York City—and she's in trouble.

So Flannery does something very unFlannery-like: she skips school and sets out for Manhattan, with the book as her guide. But as soon as she arrives, she meets a boy named Heath. Heath is British, on a gap year, incredibly smart—yet he's never heard of Albert Einstein or Anne Frank. In fact, Flannery can't help thinking that he seems to have stepped from the pages of Brontë's novel. Could it be that Flannery is spending this topsy-turvy day with her ultimate fictional romantic hero, Heathcliff, reborn in the twenty-first century?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250077097
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 807,707
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 8.08(h) x 0.83(d)
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

MARY O'CONNELL is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and the author of the short story collection, Living With Saints, and the YA novel, The Sharp Time. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in several literary magazines, and she is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She lives with her husband and her three children in Lawrence, Kansas.

Read an Excerpt


Miss Sweeney disappeared on the first day of March, an icy Thursday morning of gloves and boots and veneers of diamondy frost on the windows of Sacred Heart High School. Her classroom was not bathed in the stark yellow glow of school-issued lightbulbs; the only light came from the windows, and it was morning-soft gray and gave the classroom a surprising bedroom coziness. When Flannery Fields walked into the room, she took the start of this Thursday as a gift. Yesterday she had been mocked for her enthusiasm about Wuthering Heights, but she remained eager to defend her favorite novel. Still, what could trump a free hour? Did anyone want to flip the light switch and start a new school day?

There were already a few girls sitting at their desks, playing games on their phones or listening to music or texting or spacing out entirely. Somebody greeted the dim, teacher-free room with an exuberant "Sweet!" and somebody else snickered before complete quiet descended. It was as if all the girls had taken an implicit vow of silence; they didn't want to draw the attention of a random teacher roaming the halls during her planning period. Flannery put in her earbuds but didn't turn on her music. She cocooned herself in the filtered silence and wondered when Miss Sweeney would show up.

But soon, the peaceful scene was shattered by the Calculus teacher's voice droning up through the heat vents. Flannery dug her book from her backpack, figuring she'd better study for her third hour test. But she heard a few giggling snorts from the girls who sat behind her, a friendly reminder that only a geek of Flannery's towering stature would be studying when one was basically free to do anything at all. And so Flannery gave in to the strange languor of the morning and played Boggle on her phone until it vibrated: It was Megan Swenson-Saenz texting her from the next desk. This is awkward. Also great. Where do u think she is?

Flannery looked out the window at the teacher's parking lot, thinking that she might see Miss Sweeney frantically getting out of her car and running into Sacred Heart High.

Maybe she's sleeping in? She texted a smiley face emoji and a series of z's after that, as if Miss Sweeney were not merely sleeping in, but had morphed into a dozy, cheerful cartoon character. Most teachers arrived at school by 7:30, but occasionally Miss Sweeney raced in from the teacher's parking lot at five till eight with her green eyes looking smaller and sleepier without their usual plum liner and fringe of mascara, and her long light brown hair not flat-ironed smooth, but wavy and wet at the tips.

It didn't occur to Flannery that anything was truly wrong, her intuition felled, perhaps, by drowsy inertia. But 8:00 became 8:15, and then 8:20, and Flannery started to worry: Miss Sweeney's behavior in class yesterday had been beyond erratic. But maybe she was just sick? Miss Sweeney had been out for a few days in February — strep throat — and had returned to the substitute teacher's stained coffee cup on her desk.

"Really?" she'd said, holding the coffee cup away from her body, her arm locked straight. She looped her finger and thumb gingerly around the handle, as if holding a tarantula by the leg. A cough drop clacked against Miss Sweeney's teeth when she sighed. "Really and truly?" The mug was painted tart apple green with black lettering: KISS ME I'M IRISH. Flannery wasn't sure if Miss Sweeney was referring to the general piggishness of the substitute — a pleasant old man in taped glasses and a linty black sweater vest who wanted to go off-syllabus (and off-planet) and discuss random scenes from The Martian Chronicles — or if her AP English teacher was offended by the corndog leprechaun sentiment.

At 8:30 Megan Swenson-Saenz pulled her headphones off and walked to the front of the classroom. She stood in front of Miss Sweeney's desk and waved her hands over her head, largely, ironically, as if she were landing planes, until everyone stared at her.

"Does anyone know where Miss Sweeney lives? Should I drive to her house?" She spoke with the officious confidence of a student council president, which she was, and had to endure exaggerated sighs from the popular girls. But Flannery could sense a growing worry, the mood in the room changing atmospherically.

Changing atmospherically. Flannery was pretty sure that if she wrote that phrase in an essay, Miss Sweeney would circle it in red pen and write in the margin: How does a mood change atmospherically? Does a mood coyly sprinkle a few raindrops before said mood swings and burns you with a noonday sun?

She could be a little snarky like that; she was a detailed, precise grader. On days Miss Sweeney handed back their essays, most girls glowered and muttered until the bell rang and they were free to flip through their pages and openly complain in the hall: "What's with her hatred of extraneous adjectives? Why does she get so bent out of shape by clichés? She probably gets her panties in such a twist because Miss Sweeney herself is a cliché — the teacher who thinks she's so special, SO different from the other teachers. And how pathetic is her obsessive love for meaning, sense, and clarity?"

Meaning, sense, and clarity were the guiding principles upon which Miss Sweeney judged student writing. Because Flannery's first impulse was to make her sentences obliquely profound and/or jazzy, she was certainly not immune to Miss Sweeney's sharp red pen. But Flannery loved getting her essays back from Miss Sweeney. Not that her comments didn't sometimes sting; they did. But Flannery appreciated the time and effort Miss Sweeney put into grading. (Last year's Lit teacher had just crossed out a few typos or at most wrote a quick, perfunctory "nice simile" or "cool adjective" comment on her students' essays. She had four children in elementary school and drank coffee from a squat, rocket-shaped mug that said FUEL.) And Miss Sweeney had written Flannery an encouraging note on the first essay she'd turned in, back in September. F: I hope you are not discouraged by my many suggestions. I am only trying to help you take a closer look at your writing. You are talented: observant and empathetic. I do think you could be a writer. Flannery kept the paper buried in her socks and underwear drawer. When she was having a bad day, she would dig it out and read that last sentence over and over.

Now Megan wagged her finger at the clock. "Seriously, Miss Sweeney should so be here by now. If now was thirty minutes ago."

The meanest of the mean girls rang in, lightening things up: "Sweeney's probably gone completely Sylvia Plath on us and now we'll get stuck with another moronic sub for the rest of the year." The nervous laughter of her half dozen acolytes even sounded like the bleating of sheep: Behh heh heh. Beh heh heh.

Flannery didn't have time to mull over their vapid cruelty because there was the thudding of slow footfalls in the hall, not the skittering click-click of high-heeled boots that would belong to Miss Sweeney, had she been running to her classroom, her adrenaline jackrabbiting ever since that heart-stopping moment she'd opened her eyes and looked at the alarm clock. Flannery imagined Miss Sweeney jolting out of bed and screeching: It's after eight? Students are walking into my classroom and I am still IN MY BED?

Doom arrived, tartan-bright and petite and smelling of lily of the valley: Mrs. Piccone, the freshman English teacher. She stepped into the classroom like a polite, curious neighbor, but her smile slackened as she stood there in the soft light in her pinned kilt and red turtleneck. It had been three years since Flannery had heard Mrs. Piccone recite the Robert Burns poem "To a Mouse" but the memory remained cringingly fresh. Mrs. Piccone was from Atlanta, but her soft Southern accent had disappeared into a sudden and aggressive Scottish burr, and she'd wrung her hands and made eye contact with each girl in the class, one by one — each and every wee mousie! — as she tortured out the lines. Normally Flannery would empathize with anyone who had given an impromptu and brave — if poorly considered — reading, but poetry lovin' Mrs. Piccone sucked up to the smirking popular girls, which anyone could see was futile.

Now Mrs. Piccone squinted hard at Miss Sweeney's desk, at the pale green tissue billowing up out of a Kleenex box patterned with gold and green falling leaves. Everyone waited for Mrs. Piccone to speak, but her eyes stayed locked on the Kleenex box, as if she were mining for autumnal metaphor, for symbolic meaning. But Flannery had seen the fall-themed tissues in the red-stickered sale aisle at Target: Miss Sweeney's box of Kleenex was really just a box of Kleenex.

Mrs. Piccone finally turned to the class and said: "What, pray tell, is goin' on in here?"

Silence. No one wanted Miss Sweeney to get in any trouble. Plus, nobody knew what was going on. And so Mrs. Piccone crossed her arms over her chest and smiled triumphantly, as if she'd just stumbled onto a secret bunker of party girls swirling around the room in sparkly disco dresses, not a class of morning-dazed girls sitting quietly at their desks. She hustled off to the office and returned with the principal, who walked into the room flushed, his commanding forehead glazed with sweat. His eyes were the eerie iced blue of martyred Scandinavians and he was skinny and nearly seven feet tall. To compensate for his serial killer ambience, he was always aggressively cheery.

He cleared his throat dramatically. "Morning, ladies!" The principal flung out his lanky arms, a weird air-embrace for the class. He occasionally appeared in local commercials for car dealers or real estate firms, and in fact had directed the Sacred Heart fall musical, an all-girl (of course) version of Oklahoma! But, fearing blowback from the conservative Sacred Heart parents, he'd taken a little artistic license with the key romantic scene. Instead of kissing, Will (Emily Wolfe) and Annie (Alysa Lockheart) had exchanged exuberant smiles and the heartiest, hand-stinging high-five.

"Cold one today, right?" He fake-shivered and gave himself a little hug. "I rolled out of bed this morning and told my wife: Time to salt the sidewalks, honey."

Flannery dearly wished he hadn't used wife and bed in the same sentence, let alone a phrase overripe with euphemism. From the back of the class, some valiant girl whisper-sang: Chick-a-bow-wow!

The principal (who was never called Mr. Miller; he was solely referred to as the principal as he was both a prince and a pal!) ignored the not-quite-suppressed laughter and asked if Miss Sweeney had been in the classroom that morning. The head-shaking chorus of no, no, no, no, no made his shoulders slump. He clucked out a series of annoyed tongue sounds — deh deh deh — and fussed with his broadly striped necktie before he rallied with a pleasant: "So ... you haven't seen her?"

So you haven't seen her?

The principal's verbal style certainly lacked meaning, sense, and clarity, but so did everything else that had happened that morning. He floundered on with small talk: The magazine sales fund-raiser had been a laudable success, and he was looking forward to Friday's volleyball tournament! He just loved volleyball! He loved seeing everybody having a blast on the court! Flannery blanched at his next sentence, knowing that his words would linger forever, knowing that even when she was a ninety-year-old draped in a pink afghan, clutching prayer cards and trying to discern the terrifying mystery of the afterlife, she would still remember the principal saying: "Holy Toledo, ladies, I love to see those balls really get spiked."

Still, Flannery felt sorry for him, because everything he said was so stupid and so hilarious, but mostly because his gaze kept straying to the windows, as if willing Miss Sweeney to appear. But everyone was a little off their game by that point and not a single girl snickered or texted a hastily composed sonnet entitled "The Prince and the Pal of the Double Entendre: Ode to His Spiked Balls."

The bell rang, and the principal looked as startled as if he'd heard the fire alarm, and that was the end of the Awkward Fest. He took a deep breath, and as if absolutely determined to try to impose normalcy, offered up his trademark cheese-ball grin. "Move on to second hour, ladies! Orchestra and band! I want to hear some beautiful music ringing through the hallways." But a hairline fracture of annoyance cracked his buoyant voice — a teacher not showing up for school was not going to make his day any easier: "You can turn in any homework tomorrow when Miss Sweeney returns."

Flannery had zippo musical talent and took a second hour study hall, so she loitered, loading her backpack with precision. She wound her ear-bud cords into a neat bundle, like thin licorice, and pulled the pens and pencils from the dark cavity of her backpack and rearranged them in the outer zippered pouch. She wanted to be the last person left in the room, and when she was, Flannery took a careful look around. Everything appeared unchanged. The framed black-and-white photographs of Miss Sweeney's favorite writers lined the walls: Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes and Emily and Charlotte Brontë and J. D. Salinger and Flannery O'Connor and Anne Frank stared down at her, along with Jesus, who convalesced on a small metal crucifix by the door. (Miss Sweeney was a big fan of the Christ figure in literature, but Flannery couldn't quite decipher how she felt about Jesus Himself: savior or mere quotable and compelling biblical character?)

From the hall came the excited speculation about her whereabouts — Sweeney had slept in! — and the chattering energy of Miss Sweeney's absence crashed onto Flannery like a wave. Even as she thought that, the critical portion of her gray brain mass simultaneously noted how Miss Sweeney would not care for the wave description. And so Miss Sweeney's imagined words scrolled through Flannery's brain in vivid red ink: Flannery, can you think of a less pedestrian description for your sudden despair? Perhaps something non-oceanic? Okay, Flannery? As if she were contrasting Flannery's embarrassing literary name with her embarrassingly non-lofty efforts. But the wave crashed anyway, the creamy gray-green water roared like a lion. Flannery knew that Miss Sweeney had not overslept, that she was not enjoying some midweek carpe diem, eating scrambled eggs and cinnamon toast with a foxy new boyfriend. Flannery knew something was really wrong, and she had the accompanying queasy feeling that it was a wrong that might not be easily fixed.

She picked up her backpack and paused, staring at the green board; she hoped for some kind of Hogwarts Magic, for Miss Sweeney's whereabouts to be written on the board by an invisible hand skilled in calligraphy, for an exact location to be spelled out in an ominous, jagged font. Flannery cut behind Miss Sweeney's desk, which felt like a social violation, traipsing through the kitchen area of a restaurant or using the upstairs bathroom of a house when the party was happening in the basement. She rested her hand on the back of Miss Sweeney's chair for a quick moment and then, as if unbidden, her hand reached to open the top desk drawer. But before she touched the metal handle, she noticed a quarter-inch strap of red leather sticking out of the bottom drawer: Flannery jerked back as if it were a swaying coral snake and then looked at the door before she casually pulled open the drawer as if in search of Scotch tape or a manila folder.

Flannery offered up an aggrieved sigh to the empty room — I am so, so BUSY — acting as if rooting through a teacher's desk was just one of a multitude of thankless, monotonous tasks she had to perform before day turned to night and she could pull on her comfiest sweatpants and watch Downton Abbey with a big old glass of chardonnay. In short, Flannery acted like one of the teachers. She had studied their tedious delights (along with their whimsical, flattering selfies) via their Facebook updates, until the archdiocese had ruled that students and teachers could not correspond via social networks. Flannery did not particularly miss the sad subtext of adults curating their online lives, and anyway, the one teacher she was interested in had never friended a student. At Sacred Heart High, Miss Sweeney was a stoic Beyoncé in the frothy Kardashian Sea.

Flannery took Miss Sweeney's purse out of the drawer, slung it over her own shoulder, and walked briskly into the hallway as if pursuing important errands. The loudspeaker crackled, and the principal's amplified breathing — a fine bouquet of hay fever and mucous — filled the hallway. She flinched but did not hear: Flannery Fields, do not steal Miss Sweeney's purse.

With the cheery cadence of a sports announcer the principal said: "Attention please. Students in Miss Sweeney's second hour English Lit class, pleeeeeeaaase report to the gym."


Excerpted from "Dear Reader"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mary O'Connell.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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