Hodkin, Michelle. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011. Tr., $16.99. 978-1442421769
Plot: Young “Mara Dyer” (a pseudonym) wakes up in a hospital room after a horrible accident that killed her boyfriend Jude, her best friend from childhood and her “frenemy.” She is not sure exactly what happened, but she has a sinking feeling that she is, if indirectly, somehow responsible. (The occult undercurrent of the book is introduced with a flashback to a scene with a Ouija board that suggests that Mara might kill someone.)
In order to get a new start, she and her family move to Florida, where her father restarts his law practice and Mara is enrolled in a private school. As if she doesn’t have enough stacked against her, she is a public school girl through and through. Early on, she meets a handsome fellow student, the wry, British, and movie-star handsome Noah Shaw, and Mara is instantly seduced and repulsed.
When she enters her first class and has a shocking hallucination, creating a strong first impression that few of the students will soon forget, it becomes clear that Mara is battling a pretty serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is also being haunted by the memory of Jude – she hears him laugh at her in the bathroom and sees his figure as she turns corners.
The murder of a local girl is tied to one of her father’s cases, and this murder pulls Mara in as she constantly must question what is real and what is her mind playing tricks on her. As if she needed more against her, the school’s queen bee, a gorgeous and catty blonde, has begun a campaign against Mara, tied to her on-again, off-again relationship with Noah. When Mara’s hallucinations start becoming true and dangerous, it becomes more and more necessary that she get to the bottom of what is really happening.
Critical Evaluation: The fact that the narrator in this story is unsure what’s real and what’s in her own head creates an inherent tension. It’s a technique, a sort of self-aware version on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, that would never work if Mara weren’t such an attractive everygirl character. Confused, honest, bumbling, smart, funny, and sharp-witted, she is an easy character to get behind. Readers will want to solve her problems as much as she does. Further enriching the story is the character of Noah – intelligent, handsome but imperfect, charming but with cracks in his smooth delivery. Teamed up, sparks fly, as much as Mara protests.
The multiple plot twists in this story will keep readers guessing. One weak point in the book is that the ending will make readers revisit what has happened. There are a lot of questions that remain, but some elements might seem more contrived with a second look back.
Overall, Hodkin does a good job building a spooky tone and suspenseful atmosphere.
Reader’s Annotation: After the death of her friends, Mara picks up and moves to a new state, hoping for a new start, but – as she meets a sexy stranger and falls into disturbing hallucinations that are coming true – her plans go horribly awry.
Author bio: Michelle Hodkin grew up in Florida, near Miami. Writers who inspired her include Steven Kig, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
After majoring in English at NYU, Hodkin moved to Michigan to complete law school. She rescues stray animals and is working on the sequel to Mara Dyer, which will come out in October 2012.
Genre: Paranormal romance, suspense
Curriculum Ties: Curriculum Ties: Curriculum Ties: California Content Standards: English -- narrative analysis, tone, mood
1) In the story, “Mara” is writing a confessional letter; write a letter (including a few baffling questions that come up in the book -- to Mara and read it out loud to the audience. Example: “Dear, Mara: I know that Mara is not your real name, but why did you change it? Do you feel guilty? Do you think you had something to do with your best friend’s and your boyfriend’s murders?...”
2) Describe Noah in the book – their love/hate relationship.
3) Describe a couple of the hallucinations that Mara has. Ask the audience – Do you think she’s crazy? She certainly does.
Reading Level: fourth grade
Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: violence, sexual scenes, supernatural elements
1)Rave in VOYA.
2) Keep positive Los Angeles Times review handy: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/02/entertainment/la-ca-michelle-hodkin-20111002
3) Become familiar with the story and emphasize that this genre goes back to such classic writers as Shelley and Poe.
4) Emphasize the PTSD angle, that one of the main questions of the book is how people deal with trauma.
Why Included: This book is a gripping read for those who love suspense. It’s extremely popular with teens, both girls and boys, who are looking for paranormal romance with a suspenseful edge. Good for struggling readers.