I had no idea what The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin was about when I picked up an advanced reader copy at the Book Blogger Convention this year; the cover doesn’t really give much away. When I read the blurb on the back, I decided I was interested, but when I read the first chapter, I decided I was hooked. By page four the tension is so thick it feels like my heart is about to jump out my chest.
As the novel begins, sixteen year old Mara Dyer wakes up in a hospital room with no idea how she got there. Her mother relays the short, gruesome story – while Mara and her three friends are exploring an abandoned insane asylum on a Wednesday night, the building collapses, and only Mara survives. The mystery of why she alone is unhurt follows her through her friends’ funerals and from Rhode Island to Miami when her family moves to escape the horrid memories. At the same time, Mara is consumed by disturbing hallucinations, guilt, and weird coincidences that help her determine that the incident at the asylum is much more complicated than she originally thought.
Hodkin handles mental illness extremely well in her debut. Mara’s struggle with hallucinations and PTSD is realistic and sympathetic. While Mara does resist seeing a psychologist and taking medication at first, her eventual use of both is painted in a subtly positive way. This is important for me to note because the mentally ill are still vilified in today’s culture, and many people who need help won’t get it because of the stigma attached. Seeing a Young Adult novel that handles the subject so skillfully is refreshing.
But the biggest surprise for me in Mara Dyer is Noah Shaw. When he’s first introduced in the novel, he appears to be the stereotypically rich, arrogant, perfect teenage boy who has no personality to speak of besides “total jerk” and “red-hot love machine”. I hate guys – fictional or not – like that, and having one as a main character in a novel is a surefire way to ruin the experience for me. Luckily, Noah reveals himself to be more complex and sensitive than I ever could have imagined, and by the end of the novel, he’s my favorite character.
The pacing of the novel is the only problem, but it’s a major one. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer starts off fast and hard, but by page 30 the suspense has come to a screeching stop. Hodkin spends the first hundred or so pages describing Mara’s adjustment to her new school with a few startling hallucinatory episodes thrown in, but the plot doesn’t advance at all. Mara flirts with Noah, talks to Jaime about Noah, endures attacks from bullies, and imagines she sees horrific things that aren’t there… That’s a one sentence summary of the first half of the book. Mara’s hallucinations do have a greater purpose in the plot, but there’s so much filler between these scenes that it’s hard to be excited about them. While the interesting characters keep me reading, the lack of suspense in a book that’s clearly supposed to be suspenseful is a foreboding sign.
Hodkin leaves the ending open, which makes me think there’s going to be a sequel, but I’m not anxious for it. The final scene is too abrupt and leaves the novel feeling incomplete. Long story short, Michelle Hodkin is an author with plenty of potential and great characters, but her plotting needs work. The premise is original and fresh but is somehow lost along the way.