I was sorely tempted to compare Playlist for the Dead to another famous story of teen suicide and its repercussions. Let’s see: a troubled teen kills themselves, check. They leave behind a series of technological files to cryptically explain something to the living, check. The people left behind have to piece together why the suicide happened, check. But honestly, that was why I was initially drawn to this book. I had not read a story like it in a long time, and hey, I was in the mood for some teen angst and drama.
Fifteen-year-old Sam Goldsmith’s best friend Hayden has committed suicide. Then he finds that Hayden left behind something for him: a flash drive containing different songs that should tell Sam why this happened. Sam finds himself on an intense emotional journey as he comes to grips with his friend’s death and the people that drove him to the breaking point.
I’ll say right off the bat that this was a compelling story! Sam is a relatable protagonist, and his pain at losing Hayden feels real. Although, sometimes I thought he sounded a little too mature and well-spoken for a fifteen-year-old. But it’s not like it took me out of the story. After all, he was a fantasy nerd, and I related to that at least!
I will give this story credit that, unlike another famous teen suicide story, not every single character in this story is a complete asshole.
Oh, there are assholes in this story, believe me, and you’ll more than hate them. But at least Sam finds himself some genuinely good people who help him get through his grief. There are some calm moments throughout the mystery that makes everything feel a little more real.
What I find most interesting is how everyone reacts to Hayden’s suicide. Some people feel the need to avenge the wrongs, some people try to lay the blame on others, and some people just try to move on.
One disappointing thing is that, although Sam and Hayden live in a conservative Iowa town, Hayden’s suicide does not spark a religious conversation. It would be interesting for Sam to have to defend Hayden against people who believe that he’ll go to Hell for killing himself. It would have been especially interesting if Hayden’s parents—who are already pretty controlling and insecure people—were to say that. Or better yet, if they were the ones to defend their son against such harshness.
But then again, maybe that would make them too sympathetic. And it’s not like a story like this needs for all the assholes to be redeemed.
The story does a good job of explaining people’s reasons for treating Hayden as they did. It reminds you that there are real people behind all suicides, and although you don’t have to like them, they do these things because they think it’s right. In other words, grey morality is engaging!
It’s also kind of interesting how Hayden’s playlist is more for reminiscing than actually explaining his suicide. That plot device was what tempted me to compare this book to that one Jay Asher book, but it works differently. Where the tapes explained point blank why the suicide happened, the playlist is more of an illustration of a life lived, reminding Sam of who Hayden was rather than who he wished he, or anyone else around them, could be.
One other small point of contention is that some of the redemptions feel a little out of left field. Some characters are established assholes but they turn nice on a dime. It’s more strange than annoying, so it doesn’t harm the overall enjoyment of the story.
While the story of Playlist for the Dead is not that original, it is still compelling and it’s nice that the story wasn’t ALL misery, misery, misery. It felt a little closer to real life than other teen suicide stories I’ve read. It feels like a story I’ll read again in a few years and see if I pick up new details or ideas.