Heather and Dodge are two sides of the same coin, just two kids looking to rectify the problems of their unpleasant home lives in the middle of Carp, population 12,000. And when Panic starts ups again, an annual summer contest for graduating high school seniors that pushes their fears and limits to the brink, both of them realize an opportunity to get themselves out of their respective troubles. With an insane cash prize on the line and the promise of new love for each of them, Heather and Dodge enter the contest and see just how strong their friendships and minds really are.
Panic is a fun read overall, but it fell slightly flat for me. The characters are an easygoing read and the plot of unknown judges and mysterious challenges is intriguing, to say the least. Both Heather and Dodge, who share the book’s perspective, deal with some very serious issues going on at home that the novel treats very maturely. However, it felt like both the intense competition of Panic and the personal struggles of the characters could have been pushed further ever so slightly.
Perhaps books like The Hunger Games have desensitized me to violence in literature, but reading Panic and knowing that no one is supposed to die as the characters recklessly and impulsively put up with insane dare devil stunts came off as somewhat underwhelming for me, and believe me, they do some crazy acts in this book. There was absolutely nothing except the money motivating the students to enter the contest and jeopardize their lives so carelessly, and even then, Heather enters more on a whim than anything and Dodge is out for revenge; the money is a bonus to them. And while Dodge has some very understandable reasons for entering compared to his peers, I still felt like it was a bit silly that contestants and bystanders alike would die in this contest year after year with nothing forcing them to enter and yet, students still continued to play. It kind of took the suspense out of it for me. Then again, maybe that is one of Oliver’s points: money can bring out the worst in us.
Additionally, the personal lives of Heather and Dodge also fell a bit short for me. Heather’s mom turns out to be a drunken drug addict with a messy home life, while Dodge’s mom can’t keep a date to save her life and his sister sits paralyzed as the result of her own adventures playing Panic a few years back. But even while these sticky situations were supposed to be the major motivating factor behind Heather and Dodge’s whim to play Panic, they felt more like a sideshow than anything else for me and these are issues that I feel deserve the spotlight in novels. They deserve time to properly build them up and see them through to the end result, which happens to some extent for Heather by the end of the novel, but not so much for Dodge.
But I can’t say the book was entirely bad. Oliver does a nice job of weaving a few plot twists into the game and it was incredibly fun to see what kind of tricks and fear-inducing scenarios she would come up with for a small-town, rural setting. A bit predictable at times, but fun with romance and tales of ever changing friendships, Panic is a nice, quick summer read.