I finally did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
I bought the first book in Tahereh Mafi’s new series, SHATTER ME, which was released in November of 2011 by Harper/Harper Collins. Her second book, UNRAVEL ME, was just released on Feb. 5, which made me think, “Oh, how easy it will be to transition to the sequel once I’ve finished with the first one!” The two are a part of a YA paranormal romance trilogy that follows the life of Juliette and her love interest Adam, in a dystopian society sometime undefined number of years after our own time.
I’ve been following Mafi’s blog since around 2010 and laughing uproariously at all of her mishaps and misadventures with agents, publishers, writing, blogging, and general socializing. If you’ve ever read her blog (which I’ve had a hyperlink to on the side of my own for the last few years) then you know how hilarious she is, and how great and funny and inspiring her work can be. (See this link and this one, and maybe this one too for further evidence.)
This is all a build up to the fact that I was disappointed by Mafi’s first release. So disappointed, in fact, that I did not manage to make it to the end of the book.
When we are first introduced to Juliette, SHATTER ME’s protagonist, the first thing we learn about her is that she has been in prison for 264 days, and has not spoken a word during that entire time. The book is written in first-person present (as so many YA books are today) so we get a very vivid picture of Juliette’s psychological state. We learn, over the course of the first several chapters, that her touch is deadly – she can inflict horrible pain and eventually kill someone simply by making skin-to-skin contact. It makes her both a dangerous weapon and a terrifying liability. This has, apparently, been true her entire life. Her parents kept a meter-stick with them at all times to make sure she knew what distance to keep away; children in school shunned and mocked her for her strange ability; she has never had a real friend because of her inability to have play dates without inadvertently torturing the kids around her. Ultimately, this power resulted in her imprisonment in a mental asylum slash prison. So her deep emotional trauma and inability to react properly to the outside world is understandable.
Unfortunately, it also makes the book really, really dismal. I don’t mean “dismal” in the sense of “abysmal”, as in “dismally bad,” but rather in the sense of “horridly depressing.” Her mental state is dominated by a sense of self-loathing and an inability to relate to the outside world. It is also remarkably devoid of humor, happiness, or joy. I can’t think of a single time when I laughed (there was one moment about 2/3 through, shortly before I quit, when I smiled at something vaguely humorous), or when Juliette or any of the surrounding characters felt any sort of mirth. Even when Juliette and Adam share some sort of loving moment, it’s a love weighted down by the fact that they are hunted, or that Juliette is a dangerous commodity, or just by by her overwhelming seriousness. There’s no real joy in it. Juliette is a tortured soul, and her trauma is understandable, but hard to relate to in a YA book. It’s just really sad.
So, there’s that. Then there are Mafi’s unique writing choices. She uses strike-through text fairly extensively to represent Juliette’s repressed thoughts, which are usually depressing. There are occasional happy thoughts, but those are few and far between. While an interesting tool, I’m coming up neutral on this one. I can’t say that it either added or subtracted to the overall writing. Then there is the repetition, which Mafi uses to interesting effect. She repeats words or phrases, almost always three times. At the beginning of the book, it seemed like she was using them for emphasis, and perhaps that was the intention. At first, it made me feel closer to Juliette. I could see her struggling to express herself, and re-learning how to use language. But by the end, it felt like that repetition just highlighted Juliette’s insanity, and it made it harder for me to relate to her as a protagonist. Symbolically, Mafi uses now-extinct (or at least few and far between) “flying birds” to represent Juliette’s thirst for freedom. That seemed to me a fairly trite symbol, and the heavy-handedness with which she used that reference made it hard to take seriously.
There are some lines and passages I found beautiful. Simple: “I’m suspended in the moment. I blink and bottle my breaths.” (Loc. 147)
“I catch the rose petals as they fall from my cheeks, as they float around the frame of my body, as they cover me in something that feels like the absence of courage.” (Kindle loc. 144)
“It smells like rain in the morning.
The room is heavy with the scent of wet stone, upturned soil; the air is dank and earthy.” (Kindle loc. 126)
“I wonder about how [raindrops] are always falling down, tripping over their own feet, breaking their legs and forgetting their parachutes as they tumble right out of the sky towards an uncertain end.” (Kindle loc. 129)
But but the end, the prose got tiresome. I got bored of hearing the overwrought hyperbolic emotional statements: “a small smile the size of Jupiter” (1329), “A steam engine hits me in the face” (1508), “Hundreds of thousands of seconds pass and I can’t stop dying” (1623), “It takes 5 years to walk to the elevator. 15 more to ride it up. I’m a million years old by the time I walk into my room.” (1547). I got tired of hearing how Juliette was breaking: “My eyes break open” (187), “It takes every broken filament in my being,” (497), “time is a broken hourglass,” (1110) “hysteria tickling every broken moment in my mind” (1112). Or how she was shattering. Or exploding. Or melting. And I certainly didn’t want to hear about Adam running a hand through his hair, or how Juliette was a block of ice, or thunder and lightning, and God forbid, I certainly didn’t want to hear anything more about the damn bird.
And I was definitely tired of reading about the romance between Adam and Juliette. Now, I have a disclaimer to make: I am not a romantic, really. (Yes, okay, I love Pride and Prejudice. I have two X chromosomes – what do you want from me?) I did not thrill and shock at reading the heart-wrenching stories of teenage angst when I was in high school, and I’m not about to start now. So I’m probably not the best person to ask what makes a “good” romance. But I know when I want to read more, when the romance has enticed and drawn me in, when I want to believe in the love between the protagonists, and I want desperately for their love to change the world (see Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy for an example of this kind of majesty). Unfortunately, Adam and Juliette’s romance just wasn’t all that interesting.
Okay, Adam’s actually a pretty cool character. Maybe it’s my own fault, my lack of belief in the power of love, that I can’t believe the lengths he goes through to find and save her. Maybe it’s my fault that I found the anti-feminist overtones (despite Juliette’s lethal touch, Adam basically does everything that matters plot-wise) just a little too blatant, and Juliette just a little too clingy, emotional. Maybe it’s my fault that I just couldn’t believe they were really that obsessed with each other. But either way, Adam and Juliette were more tiring than inspiring.
I apologize, Tahereh. I really wanted to like your book. I wanted to give it a rave review and run out and buy the second in the series, and wait anxiously along with everyone else for the third release. I really did. But I just couldn’t do it.
Now, let’s be clear: that is not to say that I would not necessarily recommend this book. Just because excessive metaphors, a dearth of humor, and hyperbolic emotions aren’t my style, doesn’t mean that someone else might not enjoy it. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy that style of writing and who might very well fall in love with this book. In fact, I’ve seen the Amazon reviews to prove it – there are plenty of raves. If any of the things in this book sound like they might appeal to you, then please, by all means, give it a whirl. Mafi’s poetic prose comes at the penny-pinching price of $2.99 for a Kindle version on Amazon, which I would say makes it definitely worth a gamble.
And keep your eyes on this writer. She’s young – only 25. Though this series may not be for me, I’ll definitely be watching her progress. I’m interested to see what else she can come up with – and I’m hoping very much that her next series will have an injection of that trademark humor that rocketed her blog to success back when she first started writing. I’m looking forward to it.
To readers: If you’ve read T.H. Mafi’s SHATTER ME, what did you think? Would you recommend it?
To writers: What are some literary tools you’ve seen used to great success? Or to spectacular failure?