Title: A Fierce and Subtle Poison
Author: Samantha Mabry
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: April 12th, 2016
Source: Won in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway
Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl–Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers–and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.
I’m proud to be in the minority that greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read the Goodreads 3-star (and fewer) reviews about this book and they don’t make sense to me. So let me tell you what’s great about this story:
The setting. Puerto Rico absolutely breathes in the narrative. The heat, the mosquitos, the old, ancient magic of that lush tropical island. I have never been there, but the author writes as someone who knows it in her bones. In fact, Puerto Rico herself plays a role in many facets of the plot (and I love me a setting-as-character story).
The narrator. I don’t read a lot of YA stories with a male perspective/narrator. I think it’s a shame. Luke, the protagonist, comes off as genuine. He actually reminds me a lot of my middle brother. He has paternal conflict, he’s a live-in-the-now kind of kid, he loves the island even though he doesn’t connect with the people, and he has a self-destructive streak.
The messy emotions. There’s a guy and two girls but NOT a love triangle. There’s a lot of anger and resentment and guilt and other messy things that resonated with me but I can’t mention because spoilers. And the story ends in a satisfactory manor, without undermining the messy stuff.
Magical realism. Need I say more? It’s beautifully done, in a sometimes-creepy, sometimes-majestic way that made me want to dig further into Puerto Rican mythology and folklore.
An angry girl. Another thing I don’t see often. Not a sulky teen, but a girl with reason to be angry, who isn’t afraid to be angry, who doesn’t feel the need to make nice in order to get shit done.
No slut shaming. Huzzah! This is so crucial with a male narrator- it’s realistic to have him lusting after a girl, making out with a girl, focused more on touching her than talking to her (c’mon, folks, we all remember being teenagers). But so many contemporary YA stories seem to feel a knee-jerk response to trot of teen hormones and then shake a finger at the girls indulging in feeling sexually alluring. Not the case here.
Mystery. Not just the primary whodunit, but also this pervading sense of the unknowable, which of course is part of magical realism. But supported by the fact that Luke has the capacity to believe (and the desire to). He’s not naive or inexperienced in life, but he’s open to and embracing of wonder. And how lovely is that?
Overall, I recommend this to fans of magical realism and folklore/mythology-influenced modern stories, YA in lush settings, realistic teen male narrators, and stories that have romance in them but are not about romance.