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.


Kelly Jensen said...

"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. "

THAT is precisely why I've been avoiding this book. The set up sounds so fantastic but this just screams plot killer.

Jackie Parker said...

And "plot killer" is exactly what happened here. I almost feel as though the publisher accepted the novel on the condition that it get turned into a paranormal, 'cause it's what's HOT. Which is completely unfair to say, but all the same.

Kelly Jensen said...

I'm taking this to email, btw.

Colleen said...

Oh man - I hate when a book chases a trend and the thing is it is usually so obvious that it fails anyway.

I am also not a fan of the hot boy falling for the protagonist in the most monumentally predictable way. I think one of the reasons I liked "Anna Dressed in Blood" is that the expected romance did not happen - and you got why it didn't. (The kids became friends instead.)

I need to give you that book - I'm reviewing it right now. Wicked scary ghost killing that actually lives up to the title. Plus the cover girl is not headless.

Jackie Parker said...

Oh, I totally have my eye on Anna Dressed in Blood! I SO want to read it! I'm running out of time for SFF before Cybils starts, though.

Audrey (Bibliosaurus Text) said...

Wow, you just confirmed suspicions I had about this book. It's been getting so hyped, but I wasn't sure if it would really hold up. I've pre-ordered it, so I'll read for myself, but you said it when you mentioned the supernatural solutions. So sick of that sort of thing. It reminds me a little of how I felt most of the way through Ultraviolet.

Michelle said...

I really liked the paranormal bits. I thought it was a really interesting mix of different elements. I'm a paranormal/magical junkie though.

/hides since I seem to be in the minority here

Jackie Parker said...

Michelle, I don't think the issue is actually with the paranormal bits themselves, as much as it is with the fact that they are tacked onto the first 300 pages. Had they been in a different novel, it would have been probably above the cut for the average paranormals out today. I just think that the direction she could have gone with the psychological thriller line would have been a stronger overall novel.

Audrey, definitely read it yourself. I really do want to stress that this wasn't a bad book, and that many will find it entirely enjoyable. I will definitely recommend it to many of my teens.

Lily Meade said...

I like paranormal when I'm expecting it. It's books like these, the ones that read as an entirely different genre right until the supernatural reveal, that disappoint me. The worst part is that I'm usually in love with the book before that point.

Connie said...

I finished reading this two days ago and was struggling how to put my feelings of the book into words. You nailed how I felt completely.

I thought the paranormal aspect cheapen the book completely. Everything else kept me reading until the point supernatural powers was brought up.

Thank you for this review.