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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
Kiersten White

17 & Gone

17 & Gone - Nova Ren Suma
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Seventeen-year-old girl becomes obsessed with other missing girls, almost loses herself in the process, and definitely loses some Goodreads readers who couldn't push through to the end. 
Yes, please, more books with great prose. In the last half of 17 & GONE I started dog-earing pages where Lauren made comments that moved beyond her usual bright, observant, poetic language into slightly kooky, too-internal, and eventually disturbing thoughts, and there are dozens of dog ears as a result. The subtlety of that change as her control unravels is beautifully done. This is definitely a 2013 stand-out in terms of writing. 
For instance we start with a pretty, but somewhat odd thought like this on p. 215: I thought of Abby on this bicycle, on the way to meet Luke. Then there was Abby leaving Luke's house on foot in the warm summer's night, there was the road, there were the pine trees, and beyond that I guess there was something I wouldn't get to know. There was a dark night sky starred with questions, and she was one of them. I kept thinking if I looked hard enough maybe I'd be able to pick out her point in the constellation.
And then we get something downright alarming, but told with the same matter-of-factness on p. 218: I took in all [Abby's] details in the mirror: the mud spatter and the pieces of road and nature melded to her skin. The center hole in her throat had a faint glow, like she'd taken my pendant and swallowed it. 
The ghost image of Abby has never had a hole in her throat before! Why would a pendant glow?! How would a dead girl have swallowed Lauren's pendant?! It's really deft to make these abnormal thoughts seem normal, to show how the obsession feels organic and right to Lauren. Pretty soon she's noticing changes in her mother--the location of a mole, or the addition of a tattoo--that convince her that her mother is an impostor, and Lauren never questions herself for thinking it.
Watching Suma unfold Lauren's complicated mind is half the pleasure of this book. I must have read spoilers about the plot before I started this, because I was vaguely aware going in that it explores mental illness from the point of view of the main character, so that it initially feels like a ghost story or fantasy treatment until all sense is lost. I think in this case the spoilers enhance the reading experience rather than detract, though, because I've noticed on goodreads that people who dnf'd it (Did Not Finish) generally cited how slow-paced it was, and how it was too psychological, and didn't move at the usual quick clip of a thriller or ghost story. It was too "atmospheric" and they couldn't relate to Lauren--she was hard to fathom. This last thing is precisely the point, I think. We're not meant to relate to her entirely because she's ill. But we're supposed to see how everything makes sense to her. We're supposed to see how wrong it is that she accepts the way her strange thought are distancing her from the people she loves.
What would I do differently? I had only a couple of problems with the book. The biggest is that I wasn't sure I liked that Lauren's mental illness and the real world intersected with Abby's REAL kidnapper being caught by Lauren. Suma goes to great lengths to make this real--to have Lauren explain the ways in which it can't be her illness, it can't be her imagining it, and I think that's (mistakenly) for our benefit, so that we the readers have a feel-good moment that something positive happened out of this miserable experience. But it feels sort of implausible and "After School Special-y" in the same way, actually, that Jamie's sticking with her after her breakdown (when she's genuinely awful to him, and physically a wreck) feels slightly forced, only because we don't know enough of their relationship to judge whether he'd really stay. On the other hand, the mood of the book is so dark and dreary, perhaps we deserve some sort of reward. (In the acknowledgments Suma says that she has been with her boyfriend/husband since they were eighteen, so she clearly relates to that sort of longevity in a teen relationship.) Solving the kidnapping of Abby doesn't cripple the book, nor was it impossible for Suma to have Lauren's illness intersect with the real world of missing girls, but I don't think she handled it quite as well as she could have. In particular it might have made more sense for Lauren to solve Fiona Burke's disappearance instead.
Which brings me to Fiona. Fiona would have been the more sensible girl for Lauren to "save" in the real world. But even then, it might be better not to save her, but simply for Lauren to finally say what she knew about Fiona's disappearance (the description of the guys, the truck, and Fiona's last-minute hesitance), and come to terms with the fact that withholding that information was not her fault because she was only a child. I felt a little lack of closure that we never see Lauren's mom understand that Fiona was actually preventing Lauren from being abducted by shoving her into the closet. Since Suma was trying to show that the way Lauren's illness manifested itself was through an obsession begun by Fiona's disappearance, it would have made more sense for Fiona to be the one we (the reader) focus on in the end. (In her review of the book, Kelly Jensen of "Stacked" completely missed the fact that Fiona actually saved Lauren [after endangering her, of course], which only proves to me that Suma didn't linger enough on this point at the end.) I like realism rather than happy endings, so I might have preferred that Fiona's story simply wrap up with her parents putting renewed effort into finding where Fiona, the adult, might be living--if she is still living--and attempting to reconnect with her, using the new information Lauren provided. We don't have to see them succeed, because the point of the missing-girls part of the novel is basically "never give up looking."


In sum: This is a worthy addition to YA lit. It's not a thriller; it's atmospheric and introspective, and intended for more cerebral readers. Had I been Suma's editor, I would only have changed which real-world disappeared girl the main character helps in the end.