At 15, Jenna has already had her fair share of misfortune, beginning with her father’s murder when she was just a few days old. Her mother, whose mind was permanently altered by a botched suicide attempt when Jenna was 10, now sits in a nursing home and doesn’t recognize her daughter when she visits. Jenna’s wayward sister, Emily, is rarely home and seldom sober. Meanwhile, her older brother, Simon, tries to hold everything together by working as a superintendent in the rundown apartment building where they live.
Jenna imagines that if her father hadn’t been gunned down, her family would have been carefree and happy, like those portrayed on the old sitcoms she loves. When Jenna learns that Travis Bingham, her father’s killer, has been released from prison, she decides the only way she can move forward is to confront him and demand some answers.
Author Elizabeth Wennick keeps the tension tight as secrets from the past come to light and Jenna discovers that things are not as they seem. Wennick writes with a knowing honesty about her characters and the inner-city setting, delivering a sympathetic narrator and suitably edgy dialogue.
Other aspects of the novel are less successful. Emily is kept very much in the background, and goes from hungover in her bedroom to sober and employed without much explanation. And the sudden rift between Jenna and her friends, a somewhat clichéd crew of teenage outsiders, seems a contrived plot device to force Jenna to pair up with Ashley, a popular girl who finds herself iced out of the “in” crowd.
Despite these flaws, Whatever Doesn’t Kill You works well as a contemporary, urban YA novel, and its target audience should find it a relevant and enjoyable, if somewhat heavy, read.