The Premise: When Isobel’s mother meets a man on the internet and marries him three months later, “appalled” doesn’t begin to cover Isobel’s reaction, especially since it means uprooting in her senior year and moving into his creepy estate. Isobel misses her friends, finds her step-father Richard smarmy, and her gorgeous new step-brother Nathaniel hates her. Then weird things start to happen and Isobel begins to think she has bigger problems: either her she’s seeing ghosts, or she’s starting to show signs of the schizophrenia that runs in her family.
My Thoughts: Isobel is a grumpy teen narrator, who has nothing but snark when it comes to describing the adults around her. Next to her mother’s sunny, somewhat oblivious outlook on her new life, Isobel is a dark little cloud, and she recounts her mom’s new marriage and their move to Nairne Island with an amusing lack of enthusiasm. I understand that can be a very fine line between sounding like a typical teen questioning authority and sounding like a snotty brat, but for me, Isobel comes down on the right side of that line because of the adults around her. The biggest red flag is one that we get practically on page one: Richard (Isobel’s stepfather) had a wife and daughter who died seven months ago. Isobel’s mother seems willing to overlook this, focusing more on her new marriage as a chance to remake herself with little thought to Isobel’s feelings on the matter.
Yes, this is a book with Bad Parents. On one hand, this trope works here because without Isobel’s parents’ choices, there would be no story. We wouldn’t read about Isobel’s trials and tribulations on Nairne, including a stint trying to fit in at school with the popular crowd, or her run-ins with Nathaniel, the other teen in the same dysfunctional boat. On the other hand, their characterization was very convenient to the story. Isobel’s mother was incredibly unaware while Richard was just so self-serving. While I wished for some more depth to Isobel’s mother and step-father, at least their interactions with Isobel rang true, especially between Isobel and her mother.
Isobel and her time adjusting to her new life felt realistic, and the mystery/ psychological thriller aspect of the story was seamlessly interwoven into it. At one moment, Isobel may be calling her best friend to rant about her new life, the next she is having a strange experience that she can’t explain. Things begin to appear in her room which her mother and step-father insist are put there by Isobel herself. She doesn’t know if they are right and begins to investigate the house while fearing for her own sanity. This felt like a modern version of a Gothic thriller complete with the haunted mansion and secrets in the attic, but it was a very simple story without any huge, surprising twists in the plot. I think the biggest strength was the interesting mix of the Gothic, psychological element with the modern teenage voice.
The problem I think was that the story didn’t feel like it went far enough. The beginning was very promising, but by the end I wanted more to Isobel’s adjustment to school and her relationship with her step-brother, and at the same time, I wanted more on the mystery of what Isobel was seeing in her new house. These two plots began with great promise but took a very safe and ultimately very bland route. I never really feared that Isobel was sinking into madness, and there was no real mystery of who the bad guy was. Nor is there any emotional depth in the secondary characters. I enjoyed Isobel’s growth in dealing with her genetic predisposition, but I lamented the way in which Nathaniel went from a brooder with issues to becoming a rather generic character. He lost his personality somewhere along the way. If this story was deeper and darker, I think it would have pushed it to a higher level.
Overall: A really quick, entertaining read. I found the narrator amusing and I liked the mix of contemporary YA with Gothic thriller in Unraveling Isobel, but I think it loses something by not pushing the envelope more. It was fine brain candy for an afternoon.
Unraveling Isobel is slated for publication 1/3/2012
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