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Book review: 'The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer' by Michelle Hodkin

In this unsettling paranormal romance, a young girl survives a trauma but discovers she may be going insane.

October 02, 2011|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times
  • Michelle Hodkin writes of a girl who sees dead friends.
Michelle Hodkin writes of a girl who sees dead friends. (Simon & Schuster )

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

A novel

Michelle Hodkin

Simon & Schuster: 456 pp., $16.99, for readers age 14 and older

Post traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition most often associated with military veterans. In "The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer," it's the back story to an unsettling, paranormal romance.

There are echoes of Stephen King's classic "Carrie" in this young-adult series kickoff. Mara Dyer is a telekinetic 17-year-old who unwittingly murders people with her mind. A self-identified "B student with a body count," according to the heavily redacted handwritten note that opens the book, Mara was the only survivor of a building collapse that killed three of her friends.

The problem is, she doesn't remember what happened the night she and her pals broke into an abandoned insane asylum, intending to videotape spirits and spend the night. It's an ironic and clever setup — one that allows Hodkin to play with the notion of sanity as Mara struggles with hallucinations and nightmares of scenarios that may or may not be real.

Written from Mara's perspective, "The Unbecoming" deftly melds alternate realities. Hodkin's transitions from the mundane to hallucinated horror are unexpected, seamless and creepy, packing the same sort of cinematic punch as scenes from "The Blair Witch Project." Readers never know when Mara might walk into the school bathroom and find one of her dead friends staring back at her in the mirror or hear a dead friend call her name in a crowded hall.

Although Mara's family wisely relocated from Rhode Island to Miami shortly after the accident, her newness at an elite private high school only intensifies her alienation. At Croyden Academy of the Arts and Sciences, "the amount your parents donate is directly proportional to how much murder you're allowed to get away with," one student notes, clearly oblivious to Mara's telekinetic predilections. Mara's parents are a lawyer and a doctor, but that isn't enough to stop her from being instantly reviled by the resident mean girl, who's jealous of the attention she receives from the school's flirtatious and wealthy playboy, Noah.

Mara is alone, unsure of herself, unbelieving what she sees with her own eyes. What she says in dialogue is an attempt to appear normal — a disguise for what she truly feels. When a new friend asks about her first week at school, she says, "Not too bad" out loud, but her real answer remains unsaid: "Saw a dead guy. Losing my mind. Same old."

"The Unbecoming" is already a fast-moving page turner, but Hodkin ratchets up the suspense with cliffhanger chapter endings that keep pulling readers through the action. Part of this novel's allure is the curiosity it engenders about Mara's condition: Does she have PTSD, or is she criminally insane? The answer to that question is meted out in occasional flashbacks to the night at the asylum and in Mara's budding relationship with Noah.

The romance that builds between the two begins with awkwardly humorous, yet smoldering, interactions at school and plays into one of women's greatest fantasies about outrageously handsome bad boys who come on to them: that they alone will be able to tame such men. Like the larger story arc, the romantic subplot plays with the notion of what's real and what isn't, what's true and merely imagined.

Discerning the truth is just part of the pleasure of reading the delightfully bent reality in "The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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