Monday, February 14, 2011
Author: Gena Showalter
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Sometimes, I run into books that put me in a quandary. Sometimes I'll read a book and like it, but have much more to say about what it does wrong than what it does right. I've got a lot of complaints about Intertwined. But for all that I'm about to heap on it, the one thing I can't say is that I disliked it. In fact, it was a lot of fun. Admittedly it was sometimes a RiffTrax kind of fun, but I kept reading, and even finished ahead of schedule, so Showalter must be doing something right.
Aden Stone has five times as many problems as your average teenager, because he has five souls living in his body -- his own, and four others with weird superpowers. As you might guess, this makes his life awkward. Branded a schizophrenic, he's spent most of his life thus far jumping between foster homes and mental institutions. He eventually winds up in a foster home in Oklahoma, guided by a prophetic vision of his own death and another vision of kissing a beautiful brunette woman. One day he's at the local graveyard, fighting zombies that he accidentally raised (don't ask), where he spies Mary Anne Gray walking by. As soon as their eyes meet, both feel like they've been punched in the gut, and the voices in Aden's head go silent. They're back once she's out of range, but Aden is convinced that Mary Anne is the girl from his vision, and enrolls in her school for the purpose of being able to see her more often. They soon form a friendhsip, but whoopsie-daisy, Mary Anne isn't the brunette from Aden's vision after all -- that turns out to be the vampire Victoria, who falls in love with Aden after showing up in town to monitor him. That punch in the gut Aden and Mary Anne felt when they first met? Paranormal beings all around the world felt it, too. Soon Aden, Mary Anne, and Victoria, along with the souls in Aden's head and a werewolf who's fallen for Mary Anne, have banded together to protect each other and get to the bottom of this mystery.
That's the best plot summary I could come up with, and yet it feels simultaneously like too much, too little, and completely misleading. For one, it's pretty much impossible to summarize Intertwined in a way that doesn't imply it's about Aden and Mary Anne in a love quadrangle with a werewolf and a vampire. It's not. After some initial uncertainty, Aden and Victoria only have eyes for each other, Mary Anne is smitten with her friendly neighborhood werewolf, and the relationship between Aden and Mary Anne is strictly platonic. But Intertwined is also hard to condense to a paragraph because the storyline bounces all over the place. If it didn't feel like a cop-out, I would simplify it to "Aden Stone has four human souls trapped in his head. Mary Anne nullifies some supernatural powers by being near the users. They meet, they become friends, and stuff happens." Because that's pretty much the book. On TVTropes, they call this a Random Events Plot: stuff happens, the end. Addenda: quite possibly, none of it winds up making a lick of sense.
Well, that's a little unfair. The problem isn't that Intertwined doesn't make sense, the problem is that it's a patchwork story. There are three major plotlines: Aden falling in love with Victoria, Mary Anne falling in love with a werewolf, and the four of them trying to figure out what makes Aden tick and/or how to release the souls trapped in him. And there are numerous subplots only vaguely related to these central threads. It feels like a whole bunch of stories woven together in an attempt to make a single novel. I'm certainly not disparaging the idea -- after all, one of my favorite series does the exact same thing. But the thing is, those books weave together complete short stories around a common theme. Intertwined doesn't. The closest thing to a common theme is a repeated motif of absent parents, which usually feels irrelevant to the story. And instead of using short stories as Lego Bricks, Showalter seems to be using half-finished novels instead. There are a lot of random scenes that feel like awesome, well-crafted, pivotal scenes from an entirely different book. The bits with John O'Connor and with Mary Anne's friend Penny seem particularly out of place, almost gratuitous. Mind you, they're still good scenes. But it's like getting a bowl of cherries when you ordered a sundae: They're great cherries, and certainly a good sundae needs a great cherry, but without the ice cream and the hot fudge sauce, what's the point?
The writing is also a bit spotty -- there are places where the characters spout exposition awkwardly for the reader's benefit, and a lot of unnecessary red herrings early on. It's suggested, for example, that Aden's friend Shannon is the werewolf (he isn't), that Dan's affair with Aden's case worker is important (it is, but only in a very minimal way), and that a lot of Aden's past mental-patient acquaintances are really unaware psychics and/or paranormals (it barely matters, and by the way, the idea is vaguely offensive). Part of this problem is the fact that Intertwined is the first book of a series, with most of the big questions being put off until later. The book at least avoids the common pitfall of a no-resolution ending. Most of the pressing concerns are settled by the back cover, so that you have a reasonably complete story. But then in the last forty pages two new plot threads get started. Then we conclude with a fight that feels more like a first-act battle then a big finale -- it starts more plot than it finishes. It feels like Showalter had a complete book, but the publisher wanted a few thousand words more, so they concatenated the first few chapters of the sequel onto the end.
By far the worst problem with Intertwined, however, is the characters. They're not bad, in fact I found most of them unique, well-developed, and sympathetic. But their behavior often felt unrealistic and random. Tucker, Mary Anne's jackass jock boyfriend, is probably the worst victim, swinging from standard high-school bully to jealous boyfriend to psycho stalker as the plot demands. There's some attempt made at justifying this, but it feels like a patch. Victoria mostly plays the unflappable vampire bit straight, but Aden more than once sends her into full-on make-out mode -- just a hair's breadth away from tearing her clothes off and jumping on him -- with something as tiny as a gift of nail polish or a simple compliment. Desperate much, girl? Mary Anne is terrified of the werewolf in their first two encounters, but by the third she's gotten to know him as a friend (offscreen), and that scene ends with them cuddling together in her bedroom. All of this may be another result of the Frankenstein plot -- important intermediate scenes were removed or never written. It's very jarring.
For all this, though, Intertwined is a lot of fun. The underlying idea is unique enough, the mystery compelling enough, and the characters likable enough that I kept reading just to see what happened next. And the love stories are pretty well-done, once you get past the fact that everyone more or less falls in love at first sight. (Aden, hilariously, does it twice: once for Mary Anne, and then again when it turns out Victoria is his vision-girl.) It's interesting to me that the vampire relationship is depicted as hot and passionate, whereas the werewolf story is about sensitivity and trust. Usually it's the other way around, and I applaud snarky reinterpretation of old chestnuts. And really, so much YA Paranormal is the same-old, same-old right now that a story about a guy with four souls trapped in his head gets points purely for being original.
Intertwined is by no means a bad book, but I'm not sure it knows what it wants to be. It's mostly a weird paranormal mystery, but you add in the PNR subplots, some high-school angst bits, and a dash of grief narrative, and it's starts to feel... well, a bit like Aden -- too much stuffed into too small a package. The best comparison I can come up with is Claremont-era X-Men: small collection of good guys with varied powers, origins, and personalities fighting several evil villains with several different evil schemes. All the while they face personal and interpersonal conflicts on the side. And like those comics, this book always delivers entertainment, if not always coherent or complete stories. So despite everything, I can still give Intertwined a thumbs up. It's far from perfect, but I had a consistently good time and have no regrets at all about picking it up.