Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, or Psychological is better than Paranormal

I don't know why I picked up The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin. I was aware of its existence when I took it, but knew nothing whatsoever about it. By just the cover, it looked like yet another entry in the revolving door of paranormal teen fiction. But the title itself, specifically the word "Unbecoming..." that was interesting to me.

Mara was in a coma for three days. Upon awakening, she is told that her life-long best friend, her boyfriend, and another girl, died in the accident that plunged Mara into unconsciousness. Understandably haunted by the events, the loss of her memories surrounding the accident, and the loss of her friends, Mara is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her entire world is a reminder of what she's lost, and she manages to convince her family to move away and start new lives in Florida, where she continues to struggle with reality, but with the eventual addition of a couple new confidants.

Mara's family is awesome. The characters are excellent. Their interactions are immensely believable. You love the family and the love interest even as they walk up and smile at that line that would make them a little too perfect. Even the villains are enjoyable, albeit less dimensional. Sadly, the character of Jamie, who plays the role of first new friend, and openly refers to himself as the token black Jewish bi-sexual, entirely disappears two thirds of the way in. There's an explanation for it, but it's weak.

For 300 pages, this was a compelling psychological exploration of a fragile, damaged, teen mind coping with tragedy and change. And then, suddenly, all of that subtlety was thrown out on page 309. Look. It's a heck of a lot harder to get a reader to buy into an unreliable narrator working with a sliding scale of reality than it is to simply throw in super powers - it's a heck of a bigger feat as a writer, too. Hodkin did it. I was totally on board with this damaged girl. It was brilliant. And then it all gets cheapened with paranormal solutions. I don't believe that the story needed paranormal elements. I'm ranting about this, but I feel that it's almost like this beautiful, straight psychological novel got marred by a sudden infusion of deus ex machina. There was a fantastic way out of the story without using the fantastical.

Now, don't let me confuse you, the ground work for the paranormal elements was set early on, they were definitely there, but those elements were far more compelling with a straight, non-paranormal, interpretation. "Is she nuts? Is she hallucinating? Is it the PTSD? A coping mechanism? A psychotic break? Is she a murderer?" Nah, she's just got super powers. It literally, up until page 309, could have gone either way, and in my inconsequential opinion, it went in the wrong direction chasing a fad that's already blotto.

I've clearly my knickers in a twist over this, and I do want to say that despite my plot issues, everything else stands up pretty well. It's quite well written and compelling. The dialog is lively with well-executed and clever banter. The romance has chemistry, even if it was a tad contrived (the hottest guy in school that every girl wants, with an English accent. But he's only got eyes for her, and that makes ALL the popular girls conveniently hate her.). Whatev. I can imagine a bond between them being shared through traumatic pasts (non-paranormal explanation) or through magic (paranormal explanation), which means it works.

It ends in a blatant cliffhanger.

Recommend as an interesting match to Liar by Larbalestier, Compulsion by Ayarbe, and The River by Mary Jane Beaufrand, as well as Choker by Woods. It also goes well with Lisa McMann's Wake Trilogy and Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls; two others I think would have been stronger had they chosen to follow straighter genre lines.

300 pages. I still can't get over that.