***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: The wonderfully distinctive voice of the main character, the well-crafted sentences, and the irresistible road trip were (for me) unfortunately overshadowed by some ableist, racist passages and a you're-not-supposed-to-think-it's-creepy-but-it-kind-of-is attraction of a college junior to a sixteen-year-old.
What happens. Mary Iris Malone has been dragged from Ashland, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi by her dad and his new wife, Kathy. "Mim," as Mary is called by everyone except her flighty, free-thinking mother, is resentful and hurt about the move, particularly when the weekly letters from her mother dry up and then disappear. When Mim overhears in a meeting between the principal of her new school and her dad that her mother is "sick," she jumps to the conclusion that her mother is dying of a chronic illness, perhaps cancer. Impulsively, she steals Kathy's coffee can full of money and hops on a Greyhound bus to Cleveland, Ohio to find her mother and be with her. Given that Mim's aunt Isabel was mentally ill, and Mim's dad enforces a regimen of anti-schizophrenia medication for Mim, it's pretty easy for the reader to guess that Mim's mother's lack of communication is probably not Kathy hiding her letters. It's more likely that Mim's mom is struggling with her own issues--either an addiction or a mental illness. It wasn't clear to me whether David Arnold expected the reader to have figured this out or thought it would come as a twist, but it doesn't detract from the reading experience: the reader is content to anticipate Mim's discovery. (The only real twist for me was the fact that the "Isabel" Mim is writing to is her unborn sister, and that her aunt killed herself in their basement, where young Mim found the body.) In a road trip that turns out not to follow a straight line (in the tradition of all great road trips), Mim learns about herself and the world, how to open herself to real friendships, and how to be less impulsive and judgmental. Along the way she befriends and then loses an older woman named Arlene, is nearly sexually assaulted by a pedophile she calls Poncho Man (Joe), finds a homeless boy with Down Syndrome named Walt and rescues him from a boy named Caleb who may have schizophrenia, collects an AWOL college boy named Beck who grows (too quickly?) to love her and care about Walt, and passes a precious box to Arlene's son and his overweight lover. The narration alternates between Mim talking to us in real time and writing letters to Isabel in a notebook. As it turns out, Mim's mom is in rehab for mental illness, and Kathy is a decent stepmom. Mim, in a metaphor that would be heavy-handed were her condition not self-inflicted, is half blind--blind in one eye due to solar retinopathy because she subversively (impulsively) stared at the sun during an eclipse. She refers to herself as a cyclops occasionally, which I took to be Mr. Arnold doffing his hat at Homer's Odyssey.
Political incorrectness. I'm pretty generous with flawed, complicated characters. I love to see them grow and change. But I had some problems with this book that were never resolved. Since the rest of the world is giving Mr. Arnold the praise he justly deserves for the excellent writing, I feel okay in being the lone voice to express feelings about the many uncomfortable ways he handled Mim's thoughts about other people.
I get it that Mim is snarky. I get it that she's impulsive, and that she judges others too harshly. I get it that she's intolerant. But this is deliberately a coming-of-age novel, so we need to see more obvious changes happen to Mim's understanding of the world. The trick with literature is to make us see that these ableist, racist, intolerant thoughts are youthful flaws that she is steadily outgrowing. Instead, Mr. Arnold rushes, in the last pages, to have Mim address some aspects of her intolerance in a monologue of "what she learned." It's too little, too late. We needed to see her behavior change over the course of the novel--we needed to see gradual learning.
Did she really say that? Some readers on Goodreads are upset about Mim's war paint, and how it denigrates native peoples and their heritage. I haven't seen anyone mention the other things I noticed:
1. The British couple have bad teeth. Really? Are we still going there?
2. The hispanic mother and her daughter are "beautiful." Yep, that's what we say to cover that they're "other."
3. Mim: "You gotta hand it to the Chinese: they've really perfected chicken varietals." *headslap*
4. Mim says about her mother: "She never called me by my nickname. From her lips it sounded strange and guttural, like a foreigner mispronouncing some simple word." Foreigners sound strange and guttural when they try to speak our language?
5. Mim about Walt: "Yeah. He is kind of our pet, though." Of course Mim is joking here, I get that. It's a youthful joke, a tasteless one. And she has already expressed a dozen times what Walt really means to her, so we're meant to forgive the joke, or think of it as affectionate. But more subtly, notice how Walt is conveniently quietly absorbed with his Rubik's cube in the back seat of Uncle Phil (or asleep, or watching TV) whenever the plot needs to be about Mim and Beck, or their growing affection. Notice that Walt almost never causes genuine problems that interrupt their journey. He's not just a pet--sometimes he felt to me like a Giga pet.
6. Mim wishes she could be "dumb" instead of smart sometimes, because then she could not work and watch TV all day, eating cheesy snacks.
7. Mim's habit of judging people by their first names. She writes to Isabel: "I met my first Claire this morning....And as a general rule I'm officially warning you to stay away from the lot of them. Rotten through and through." It seems like a funny quirk, and the reader assumes that after meeting different people of the same name in the course of her travels she'll revise her opinion, but she really doesn't. At the end of the book her messages on the subject are mixed: she mentions that she wants to tell her mother that her theory on Carls was corroborated by Carl, the bus driver, but at the same time she admits that Claire may be a gray character, neither all good nor all bad.
8. The hefty cashier. Why do we need to know he's "hefty" so many times? And speaking of fat shaming, is it really okay to call Ahab's overweight boyfriend a "whale?" I understand that it's supposed to resonate ironically with Moby Dick, but this novel is not magical realism. We are meant to think Ahab's boyfriend is a real human being. The coincidence that he is pale and heavy is not permission to call him a whale.
9. The male receptionist at the hospital is good looking. No, wait! He has crooked teeth when he smiles, so Mim demotes him to "mildly attractive male receptionist."
Should we send the message that psychiatrists who prescribe meds are quacks? And the ones who don't are noble and hard working? Do we want to say that going off your meds on your own is a good idea? Does Mim make up for this deeper message by tossing out the superficial line near the end, "I know drugs are helpful for some people..."? Should we mind less because Mr. Arnold made up the medication Mim takes, so he's not really deriding any existing class of drugs?
Schizophrenia. Mim seems to think that Caleb has schizophrenia. If he does, it's not okay with me that Caleb is portrayed as "evil." I did not feel good about--let alone celebrate, as Mim did--his getting punched by Ahab to the point of unconsciousness. (Side note: this is another peeve of mine. A blow to the head that causes you to lose consciousness means it's a concussion. Concussions are serious, often highly debilitating, long-term injuries.) Mim sees some gray in Caleb's character at the end, but it's too little, too late. She still states that jail is right for him, when what he needs is psychiatric and medical care.
The age difference between Beck and Mim. Yes, Mr. Arnold is careful to have the relationship stay innocent. Nothing happens but a kiss on the forehead, and Beck's arm around Mim in bed. But that doesn't change the fact that the attraction is there. By the end, we're pretty sure Beck intends to maintain contact with Mim (he's too old for her "for now" he says pointedly), and Mim is hoping for a future together, and the reader has been steered into hoping that when Mim is of a legal age to consent, they'll have a relationship. But let's take a step back. Do you know any juniors in college? I do, and I can say unequivocally that the healthy ones are not interested in sixteen-year-old girls, no matter how intellectually precocious they are. So are we to believe that Beck is somehow emotionally stunted? If so, he needed to be drawn that way, instead of being essentially a quirky-but-perfect YA boyfriend, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.
In an interview, Mr. Arnold explained that when he began writing, the story was about a boy named Beck:
Regarding Beck…in the earliest drafts, Mim was actually a boy named Beck. And on the road, he met a girl named Mim. And that character was largely based on Zooey Deschanel.
Oof, Zooey Deschanel: the actual definition of Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And if a college girl were to fall for a sixteen-year-old boy, that might be odd, right? Plus, it would never happen--girls like older boys! So, hey, switch the genders and it works. (She said with irony.)
Accuracy. (Another peeve.) A few things were poorly researched:
1. Caleb behaves as if he has dissociative personality disorder, not schizophrenia. The "Gollum-Gollum" discussion would not have happened if he had schizophrenia. It's a disservice to the mentally-ill to portray him that way, and to have him jailed without mentioning that he needs to receive mental health care.
2. One of the Japanese passengers on the bus needed CPR on the scene, but was then in the van going to the hotel. If you need CPR at the scene of an accident, you are going to be hospitalized.
3. There's no medical or anatomical reason that an eyelid would routinely droop or close over a blind eye (unless it's a glass prosthetic).
4. Can we talk about the human epiglottis? It folds up to let air in, and it folds down during swallowing to direct food to the esophagus rather than the trachea. There's no such thing as a displaced epiglottis. Why introduce a condition like this that the reader (or Mim, for that matter) can research online in ten seconds and discover is bogus?
Important plot points not dealt with thoroughly enough:
1.The assault of Poncho Man on Mim. What does this event mean in the story? Mim learned that by not reporting his attack (so that she could selfishly pursue her own goal) she left him free to attack another. But sexual assault behind a locked door--even if it only results in a forced kiss--can be a traumatic experience, and probably shouldn't be solely a plot device, and here we have not one but two girls assaulted. Yes, Mim had lingering nausea when she saw a man wearing shoes similar to Poncho Man's, but otherwise how did this experience fit in her story, in this journey? In the end she tells us that two evil people--Poncho Man and Caleb--were both punished. But as I've mentioned, Caleb's outcome was not good in my opinion, and his crime shouldn't be compared with Poncho Man's crimes. Poncho Man also provided Mr. Arnold with a plot reason for Beck to be removed from the bus; but again, that's using sexual aggression to advance the plot, which runs into dangerous territory.
2. Isabel hanging herself in the basement. This is secretly at the heart of the story. It's the reason Mim's dad expects that she might come unhinged. I had a belated, cheated feeling at the end of the book that Mim's trip should have been, at its core, about Isabel's death. But really it wasn't. It was simply used as a twist, and a way to make Mim's dad's authoritarian opinion about mental health treatment more sympathetic. We know that Mim must have experienced profound emotional upset after discovering Isabel, but we don't get to explore it. Not only was Isabel a beloved aunt, but stumbling upon a violent death for a child is horrific.
3. Did Kathy show up fortuitously at the old Malone homestead, or were we to assume that Beck called her? Beck and Walt went to the gas station the evening before Kathy showed up, where they would have seen a flyer. Beck and Walt conveniently left Mim alone to search for Beck's phone before Kathy arrived at the house. The responsible thing for Beck to do--as the adult he is--would be to call the number on the flyer (particularly since he expressed concern that Mim might be misjudging her). But telling Kathy where she was would also be the sort of thing Mim would feel betrayed about. I would have liked to have known that Beck did it, and to have seen him explain to Mim why he did it. I would have liked Mr. Arnold to have complicated Beck's otherwise pixie-ish supporting role--his perfect boyfriend status.
A tiny thing, really not worth mentioning, but it bugged me. The author has Mim describe Kathy's walk in a snide list: "Her earrings jangle, her artificial curls bob, her too-tight jeans ride, her acrylic nails click, her bedazzled belt sparkles, her preggers boobs bounce..." How exactly would Mim hear Kathy's nails click while she's walking? That one needed cutting.
In sum. I really wanted to love this book. I think Mr. Arnold has the chops to write exceptional novels, and I look forward to reading more as his career develops. But I was disappointed by the way the main character makes sweeping generalizations about people and ableist/racist comments without learning from her mistakes until the very last pages. This book had great potential to show brilliant, diamond-in-the-rough Mim growing gradually, which would have been a more rewarding character arc to follow.