Right when I think, “Where can YA books go next? What will make a dystopia or a realistic fiction different?” I find my answer in Spontaneous: spontaneous combustion.
Yep, it’s just a normal day at high school when a student explodes in pre-calculus. At first what seems an odd, freak accident causes everyone to pause and grieve for their loss when *kapow* (my words, not Starmer’s) another student explodes, splattering himself and blood all over classmates. The FBI comes to investigate, but for Mara, she’d rather not try and figure out why this is happening, but wants to deny it – first with drugs, later with a boy named Dylan. Through the year, an FBI investigation, a hashtag led night of vandalism, someone exploding in front of the [female] president, a brief reprise from spontaneous combustion, the senior class seems to survive with only the occasional explosion. Mara’s focus on survival is set more on her best friend, Tess, and a new boyfriend, Dylan, who has a dangerous past. I’m not sure how teenagers exploding can still have a humorous tone, but this story does. It also has a much deeper message behind the obvious plot. From a recovering PTSD war verteran teacher to misfit teenagers finding common ground in their situation. In the end differences are not what matter, but their common humanity does.
In a vulgar, ludicrous (often over-the-top with language or descriptions) storytelling, the heart of the story is exposed at the very end, on a prom night when the surviving senior class members all feel, and admit, they are to blame for the Covington Curse. In reality, they are not, but isn’t that how teenagers internalize a problem? By trying to explain both their role in an unfortunate experience and the reason why, they are lost and hurting. So while the premise is a bit over-the-top, the deep message of the story is as simple as it can be: love, loss, friendship, healing. I’m not alone in praise, it’s in the works to be made into a movie.
In the end, I loved this for creativity and honesty with loss and coping mechanisms, even the unhealthy ones. Self importance, grief, and anger are explained in a perfect teenage mind (Mara sometimes tries to trick the reader or asks us, taking a pause from the storyline, what we believe). There are unanswered questions by the end, but Mara’s coping, growth, and hope at the end makes me happier than any answer.
Life is rough and we love, learn, grow. People who like to read about a heartbreak and coping along the lines of Untwine, The Fault in Our Stars, and All the Bright Places, will find a sweet love story among best friends even among the bloody explosions.
“I am the same. Through all this shit, I haven’t changed. Not really. I love my parents. I love my best friend. I am capable of so much love. Even if I am capable of so many other dark and strange feelings. Maybe because of that fact. I have thoughts. I have opinions. I have emotions that run the gamut. They come on all of a sudden, and I will feel guilty about some of them, sure. I will try to be better, of course. But I can’t will it all away. These things are me.” (page 347)
“I will do more with the time I have but not because I’m afraid that the time I have is limited. It may be a lot longer than I could ever expect, and I sure as hell don’t want to waste it brooding and worrying about my every little thought.” (page 351)
Final thoughts which leave me struggling about the book as whole for knowing your audience before recommending:
I’d be hesitant to recommend it to younger YA readers*.
The ending and last paragraph about sitting out the sunset made me cry.
A great book and a lesson how how to shape your overall outlook on life.
*I’m not a prude, but be wary of this one for language and a page and 1/2 sex scene. Though I appreciate Starmer’s writing about safe sex with birth control and condom use, words typically avoided in YA books.