Thursday, December 02, 2010

Real Fantasy

The Nancy Werlin books I've read in the past have been gritty realism.  The Rules of Survival was a shocking, intense story of three siblings struggling to live with a frightening, cruel, unstable mother.  Black Mirror was a confused, boring story of a dot-com millionaire philanthropist running a major drug ring under the guise of a community service organization based at an exclusive private school. 

So I was really curious to see what she would do with fantasy.  Impossible was inspired by the song "Scarborough Fair," made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, but a traditional ballad long before that.  It's the story of Lucy Scarborough, who lives a perfectly normal life with her foster parents, running on the track team, planning for college.  Then she turns 18 and a chain of events begins to unfold--her sweet, shy prom date rapes her, calling her an unknown name and speaking a mysterious language.  She finds herself pregnant and, after finding her biological mother's old journal, she learns that there is a curse on her family line--at the age of 18, the Scarborough girls find themselves pregnant.  Unless she can complete three impossible tasks before her daughter is born, Lucy will go insane, just as her mother did.

Now, here's the part where the book is really cool.  It's almost impossible to believe, right?  I mean, on the one hand you have Lucy's gut feeling, the bizarre nature of her rape, plus the journal of a woman who (might I remind you) went crazy a few months after writing the entries.  On the other hand, you have--well, all the logic of the normal, solid-ground world.  And if you think about how you, in real life, would really react if something so impossible was put in front of you--well, the reader generally has way more ability to suspend disbelief than someone who's just bopping along and living their life.

It's pretty amazing, though.  Lucy's adoptive family rally around her.  They start with research--into her family history (five generations of girl babies orphaned when their otherwise rational mothers are raped and then go mad), into the origins of the song "Scarborough Fair" (the family version, which is slightly different from the Simon and Garfunkel), and into how to do things like make a shirt without using a needle, or how to sow an entire field with one grain of corn.  You'd be amazed at what you can do find on eBay (or, well, maybe you wouldn't).

Of course, they do take it seriously, though there is a poignant mixture of desperation and skepticism.  But I perceived every step--Lucy's pregnancy, her research, her budding romance with her childhood best friend--through the parallel lenses of the tough decisions made by a girl who has to grow up fast as a teen mom, and the urgent, life-or-death decisions made in the face of an elfin curse.  It's like looking at an optical illusion--faces or a vase?  But both perceptions are so convincing, so compelling, that I was as excited by Lucy's understanding best girlfriend as I was by her ingenious solution to the one grain of corn problem.

It's not that the story was unpredictable, or even incredibly innovative.  What I loved about this book was how seamlessly it combined a great teen novel with a great magical puzzle.  I'm even more excited now to read Werlin's next crossover of fantasy and reality, ExtraordinaryI'll probably go back to some of her previous novels, too, but I hold out the most hope for another perfectly balanced blend of faeries and high school.

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