Mosquitoland by David Arnold. Viking, 2015.
It had been a while since I read a proper YA novel, so I decided to pick this one up from the library. The cover art and the description in the flap appealed to me: it’s a story about a girl who runs away from her dad and step-mom in Mississippi to go visit her mother in Cleveland, meeting lots of interesting characters along the way.
Mary Iris Malone (aka Mim) finds out that her mother is ill and that her dad and step-mom have been hiding this information from her in order to make her transition to her new life in Mississippi easier. This of course was a terrible parenting strategy on their part, as upon overhearing a conversation between her dad and step-mom, Mim decides to run away to Cleveland to see her allegedly dying mother, stealing her step-mom’s money and leaving no note. Ensue the journey of Mary Iris Malone, snarky teenager extraordinaire.
I know many people complain when teenage characters have completely unbelievable voices in YA lit – too intelligent and witty than any real teenager ever. If that is you, stay away from this book. Mim is probably the most witty teen narrator I’ve encountered. Her narration style is characterized by snarky observations and cultural references. That’s all fine by me; I was very much entertained by that part of her personality. But she is also extremely sure of herself. She is more insightful than I am, and I’m a non-fictional human who is at least 8 years older than her. She always seems to know why she is feeling the things she’s feeling, which is very rare in the teen years. She also seems so sure of the hows and whys of all the feelings of all the other characters in the book. She is so quick to jump to conclusions about these things that she is definitely not a reliable narrator; she is extremely cynical and judgmental. However. What was frustrating about this in the beginning actually came to right itself later when you realize that Mim was wrong about almost every judgement call she makes throughout the first 90% of the book. What makes those revelations extra satisfying at the end is the fact that Mim is such a convincing narrator, that you’ve been believing she was right the whole time as well. But she isn’t (no spoilers). This rounded out her character by the end because she realizes she was being too harsh and judgmental and learns to have more faith in people.
The story alternates between Mim narrating in first person and Mim writing letters to a yet-to-be-identified-person named Isabel. As she makes her journey to Cleavand, she writes about it to Isabel in between narrations. I’m not sure that this did anything to enhance the storytelling structure of the book, so I wasn’t super jazzed about it. It turns out the whole reason for the letters is plot-centered and revealed towards the end of the book. So I guess it was an ok element, but I don’t think it added to the quality of the book.
Mim definitely meets quite a colorful cast of characters along the way, including a love interest. YA readers will be happy for this particular non-cliché love interest plot line. Well done, David Arnold. She also meets a boy with Down’s Syndrome, who is delightful (and a Cubs fan!). I appreciated the crafting of this character because of the need for more representation of characters with disabilities in literature – most importantly characters whose disabilities are not the focus of the book itself. Well done, David Arnold. Additional props for including a gay couple who gayness is also not the whole focus of their characters.
Mim herself struggles with depression, and a lot of the book talks about her medication and various therapists who she liked and disliked growing up. Her father is pushing for Mim to medicate, but Mim doesn’t want to. This ends up an important element of the story, but once again, Arnold doesn’t make it a book about teen depression – it’s just a story about a teen trying to work out life and her relationships to other human beings.
Cool aside: the author will be at BookCon 2016, which I am attending! I’m hoping I’ll get to say hello to him sometime while I’m there.
4/5 stars, because the book didn’t solidify for me until the end (that being said, it solidified really well).