ThIs is my fourth review for the
'Speculative Fiction Challenge, 2011'
hosted by Magemanda at Floor to Ceiling Books.
It started in January, and runs through December.
Author: Meg Cabot
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publication Date: April 26, 2011
Genre: YA Paranormal Romance, Mythology, Urban Fantasy
I've loved Greek mythology ever since I began to read its most famous legends, back in high school. I so enjoyed getting lost in a world that was far removed from my daily, boring reality!
When I first heard about this book, I was thrilled, because it's a modern retelling of one of my favorite myths -- that of Persephone and Hades. This myth was actually how the ancient Greeks explained the changing of the seasons, for Persephone would spend six months out of the year in the Underworld, with her husband, Hades (also known as Pluto), who was the ruler of that mysterious place. While she was there, it was autumn and winter in the world above, because Persephone's mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, would feel desolate without her daughter. When Persephone finally emerged, to spend the following six months with her mother, the earth blossomed, and it was springtime once more, with summer just around the corner.
In Cabot's version of the ancient myth, a young girl named Pierce Oliviera has a near-death experience, and enters the Underworld, unaware that she's dead. While there, she encounters a very handsome, but somewhat unsettling young man named, simply at first, "John". (Later in the book, the author reveals his last name, Hayden, which is close enough to Hades.) Terrified at the prospect of spending all of eternity with him, as well as of how her mother will be affected, Pierce manages to escape, returning to the world of the living.
Things are not quite the same when she comes back...
Having been expelled from her exclusive school because of her now strange behavior, she leaves for Isla Huesos, Florida, with her mother, in order to start a new life. This island is based on the actual island of Key West, which was named "Cayo Hueso" by Ponce de Leon when he first saw it. The reason was a rather macabre one -- the island was littered with human bones, swept out of the earth by hurricanes over the years. "Isla Huesos" means "Island of Bones" in Spanish. (The word "cayo" means "small island", while "isla" means "island".)
Little does Mrs. Oliviera know what's really going on, for John Hayden reappears, intent on protecting Pierce from the Furies, who are the restless spirits of those unhappy with their lot in the next world...
While this novel has been labelled as Young Adult, I had the feeling, while reading it, that there was a deeper, more adult level involved. Yes, there is a high school setting, but underneath the story is the rich substratum of the Greek myths with all their profound symbolism. Here, we have the subject of Death, one that is feared and loathed by all of humanity, and yet, one that pulls at the human psyche. We have always wanted to create Death in our own image, to humanize it, so as to attempt to understand that which is really beyond understanding...
John loves Pierce, while she feels attracted to him at the same time that she feels repelled, for he is a force unto himself. She believes in his goodness, yet knows that he has a dark side. This is symbolic of death's double aspect; it can be a welcome release from suffering, and yet, a fearful abyss, beyond which lies the unknown.
Pierce's relationship with John is thus full of contradictions, all played out in this island setting, where, every year, a high school ritual known as "Coffin Night" takes place.
Cabot has wonderfully developed her characters. Pierce is innocent and passionately idealistic; this becomes very apparent in the several flashbacks interspersed throughout the book. She has inherited this last quality from her mother, who is involved in the fight to save the spoonbills, an endangered bird species on the island. Her father, in contrast, is portrayed as cynically materialistic, only interested in company profits, although he does care for Pierce, in his own way.
Pierce's uncle, Chris, who has served time, is a rather quirky character. He seems to be in his own little world, while his son, Alex, Pierce's cousin, has a heritage of bitter resentment against the mother who abandoned him when his father went to prison.
John is appropriately enigmatic, relentless in his pursuit of Pierce, although at one point, he adamantly demands that she leave him alone. He doesn't really mean it, naturally. Life and Death are engaged in an endless dance, and one is somehow deeply attracted to the other, even while they seem to repel each other. Thus it is with Pierce and John.
The setting of the story is perfect for its development. Pierce moves from Westport, Connecticut, with its predictable seasons, to the constantly hot, humid, and unpredictable Isla Huesos. One never knows when a storm might be brewing, just as she never knows when John will show up, unsettling her with his piercing gaze (which is why, I suppose, she's named "Pierce"). Strange things happen when a storm is brewing, and they're all connected to John... As events come to a climax, a hurricane potentially threatens the island.
The title of the book is a fitting one -- the word "abandon" can be understood in several ways. As a noun, it refers to the attitude of throwing all caution to the winds, and letting the chips fall where they may. As a verb, it can refer to the process of leaving someone or something behind, without a care as to the consequences. Throughout the novel, Pierce feels the constant temptation to abandon her life on earth, and go with John to the Underworld. She also feels distraught at the prospect of abandoning her mother, who is her primary caretaker. At some deep level, she feels abandoned by her father, as well. Furthermore, in her characteristically empathetic way, she can also feel John's own abandonment.
To say that I was enthralled with this novel would be a gross understatement. I was mesmerized. This is what happens when fiction reaches into archetypal realities, which dwell in the unconscious mind. I was even reminded of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal", although the stories are completely different. In that film, Death is personified as well, however.
This was my very first Meg Cabot novel, and it was a very pleasant surprise. it's not just another teen paranormal read, although, on that level, it succeeds exceedingly well. It's also a book that delves into the mysteries of Life and Death, and succeeds marvelously in pulling the reader headlong into a fascinating journey.
Needless to say, I am breathlessly awaiting the sequel, which is titled Underworld, aptly enough!