***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Written in an experimental, deliberately self-conscious, sometimes meta style, this is 416 pages about Juliette's feelings and internal thoughts--"me, me, me"--so even though it's a dystopia with characters who have superpowers, don't get your hopes up that anything really happens.
I may need a break from YA. Experimental prose aside (which is the most interesting thing about this book), the writing embodies some of the tropes I'm beginning to loathe in YA:
1. There is no plot arc, because it's the beginning of a trilogy. Come on, authors, write a story in each book, even though you're writing a series.
2. The female lead is mega powerful but spends all her time worrying that she might be blushing.
2a. She doesn't know she's beautiful.
2b. She's beautiful. (See beauty rant here.)
2c. Men feel free to sexually harass her about 2b. She blushes when this happens.
3. The world building is flimsy dysopia about how BAD HUMANS have RUINED OUR PLANET.
3a. How ridiculous is it that the governments of said dystopias enact as their second order of business the destruction of all written materials--to "start fresh" and "take away poisonous thoughts?"
3b. A knee-jerk anti-GMO platform: "We can make sure that crops are not regulated for profit. We can make sure that they are not genetically altered to benefit manufacturers. Our people are dying because we are feeding them poison."
4. Male love interests with crooked smiles and powerful abs.
4a. Oh, but powerful feelings of trust for said male love interest can be dashed with a single private conversation with the bad boy.
5. People not telling other people important stuff. This is fine when Elizabeth Bennet doesn't tell Darcy her feelings because they both screwed up his first proposal and it's not proper. This is fine when Jane Eyre won't tell Rochester that she still loves him, because he's married and it's not proper. This is not fine when the author has established trust between the supporting characters and the MC. For instance, why doesn't Juliette tell Adam or Winston or Castle that Warner was able to touch her? I suspect why, and it makes me feel used as a reader: it's because it's not convenient for Mafi's future reveals. Smart readers need better reasons, or they'll feel manipulated.
The struck-out phrases and sentences. These were used as a device to show Juliette reconsidering an opinion, or lying to herself, or not allowing herself to hope for or dream of something. An interesting device, if only to make you think of why she's striking out her thought.
The purple prose. Juliette's poetic voice was almost absurd at times, distracting, and masked some clunker cliches and nonsensical metaphors. Was Mafi aiming for the absurd? In the beginning Juliette's language was fascinating. Because she had been locked up for so long, it seemed plausible that she had slightly lost touch with reality, and it felt appropriate--I was admiring it. But as the book went on and Mafi's stamina ran out, some of the phrases and metaphors became almost laughable. I started writing them down just because they were so abstract as to be meaningless.
Meta commentary. (Or maybe this is a form of breaking the fourth wall?). There are some meta moments in the text, which were either cool or distracting, or possibly both, depending on your mood. For instance, when Juliette admonishes Winston for truncating Kenji's name to "Moto" against his wishes, her attack was so out of place (especially given how passive Juliette is most of the time) I realized that Mafi was making a commentary on her own difficult-to-pronounce name, Tahereh. I'm sure people mangle the pronunciation all the time (she has recorded how to say it here). Another example: throughout the book, when Juliette and Adam cuddle, Juliette describes electricity and sparks and electrical currents. Then Brandon, who imparts real electricity in his body when he touches people, says, "All girls want electric touches from the boys in novels, but not in real life [paraphrased]." A funny line, I admit, but it breaks the illusion for us. And finally, Juliette makes a wink-wink commentary on current events: "Health insurance was a dream we lost long ago." (Juliette is talking about the difficulty of finding health care in a dystopic society, which is not a health insurance issue.)
Literary references. These also jolted me out of feeling transported. I caught at least two references to classical literature. The first is a nod to Jane Eyre's speech to Rochester, when she doesn't understand he's proposing to her:
Jane Eyre: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!--I have as much soul as you,--and full as much heart!"
Juliette Farrars: You think that because I am unwanted, because I am neglected and--and discarded....you think I don't have a heart? You think I don't feel?"
The second one: "The possibility of losing him is 100 years of solitude I don't want to imagine."
And am I the only reader who thought the various superpowers at the end were all references to The Incredibles, along with Juliette's outfit?
Cliches. The unusual, sometimes nonsensical metaphors and similes and descriptions distract from the downright clunking cliches that are nested among them:
"my heart broke in two"
"I lied through my teeth"
"burning with indignation"
"My eyes are as wide as my face"
"I manage to lift my jaw off the floor"
Me, me, me, Juliette.
A novel in first person present is always going to have a bit of urgent "me-ness" to it, but this whole book was about what Juliette is feeling, at this very moment, and in particular, what her body
feels like. In the beginning, like the nonsensical metaphors, I found it a clever trick to show that Juliette had been isolated for three years, and had gone a little mad. As she begins to feel a part of the world, and presumably gain some agency, the constant references to what her body was feeling began to feel selfish and shortsighted. There are important things happening--things that affect the entire country--and she's busy feeling her whole body blushing. So many passages are useless, repetitive, physical description of her lack of agency:
"Pain is seizing my limbs, cramping my joints, breaking every single bone in my body. I want to shriek to the sky, I want to fall to my knees and sob into the earth. I don't understand why the agony isn't finding escape in my screams..."
That odd sense of "self-only" is reinforced when THREE SEPARATE TIMES she asks Adam why he should care about her. How many times is she going to make him talk about her goodness? He obliges her, of course. After all, she was so good and selfless in grammar school.
Loose threads. Are these things explored in future installments? I'll never know, because I don't think I'll have time to pursue Unravel Me and Ignite Me:
1. The getaway car that was mysteriously loaded with groceries and a key in the ignition. Was this possibly left by Warner to trace them to Omega Point?
2. Warner's mommy issues--and Warner's ring, which I assume is related to his mom.
3. Juliette's parents. She pretty methodically strikes through all negative thoughts about them and their lack of love for her, which made me think on some level she knows she is misunderstanding their apparent abandonment of her.
In sum. I think Mafi was trying something new and interesting with her prose, which is great. Not many debut authors take chances. Ultimately, I don't think the fanciful language worked for me, and I thought the technique was too difficult for her to sustain well. I would have liked to have seen Juliette's obsessive introspection and odd metaphors abate more as Juliette grew in confidence, since their best purpose was to show that three years of isolation had taken a psychological toll on her. But most of all I thought the whole book needed more substance--more plot--to justify its existence, even with the interesting experimental writing. This is a makeout book, pure and simple.
I'm sure a thousand reviewers have done this, but here's a list of phrases that didn't work for me:
She crumples "like a crepe" on the floor
--My lungs were swinging from my rib cage
--I wanted to bury my tears in a bucket of regret
--My bones are like cubes of ice clinking together, chilling me to my core.
--[Later her bones are alternately on fire, melting, and at one point "gone."]
--"Juliette," he says again, this time even softer, and my body is a blender, and I'm made of mush."
--"He is more cruel and calculative than I gave him credit for" (Calculative?)
--Realization hits me like 200 lbs of common sense.
--For a moment I want to believe him. For a moment I want to sit on the floor and cry out the ocean lodged in my throat.
--A steam engine hits me in the face
--[Another time it's a tanker trailer.]
--I never knew I could blink so much.
-- blink so many times the room spins.
--He whispers, "How are you?" And I want to kiss every beautiful beat of his heart.
--I am an encyclopedia with too many blank pages.
--Heat rushes up my neck and I fall off a ladder holding a paintbrush dipped in red. Compliments are not things I know how to process.
--He wastes no time pulling me closer, rests his chin on my head, his hands on my back. And we stand like that until I'm too old to remember a world without his warmth.
--My stomach is a flimsy crepe, my heart is a raging woodpecker, my blood a river of anxiety. [What is with the crepes? And for that matter, the parachutes.]
--She flushes when a ten year old talks about Adam sleeping with a giirrl. Oy. She flushes when Warner sexually harrasses her. She flushes when Kenji runs his eyes over her body.
--(I kind of hate the way Adam's answer to her crying for hours in the shower is to climb in and shove her against the wall to make out with her.)
--For someone who can kill with a touch of her skin, she gets sexually harassed and physically manhandled SO MUCH.
--"You're insane, you're psychotic, you're sick, you're a twisted monster, I hate you" is all she can say to anything Warner says.
--Okay, I found it kind of a cute habit when she contradicted herself in a single breath. This was an endearing character trait: "Not a single street lamp in sight. This is good. Also bad."
--I manage to lift my jaw off the floor.
--My mouth is sitting on my kneecaps.
--My jaw is dangling from my shoelace.
--His skin is a hundred degrees hotter than it was a moment ago, his lips are on my neck and I'm wondering why there are so many freight trains in my heart, why his chest is a broken harmonica.