Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
I wanted to love this book because the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation is hilarious. This is one of those dark, twisted, “campy” comedies that has such a gruesome subject matter (death of nearly an entire senior class) but is done in such an impossible way that it’s okay to laugh.
Kids are blowing up.
That’s it. That’s the whole premise. Students at this school are spontaneously combusting at the most inopportune times, yet somehow, main character Mara manages to solidify her years-long best friendship, find love, do a fair amount of drugs, and just exist.
But this book is also a really insightful look at the responses to tragedy. It portrays how other students feel, how the school addresses it, how parents handle it, and even how the community and world as a whole tackle their comprehension of what’s taking place at Covington High.
The absolute best part of the book is the humorous voice the author manages to instill in the main character/narrator. His bio says he lives with his wife and two daughters and I can totally picture it. This is a man who is vastly outnumbered and has nailed the voice of the angsty, smart-ass, female main character. There were a lot of hidden truths in it that bust open the stereotypes (I specifically remember Mara getting her driver’s license because her mom made her do it, then refusing to drive ever again… my own offspring shall remain nameless, but I had to force her to get both a permit and then a driver’s license, and she was already in her second year of college when I did.)
But now for the worst part of the book… the first half is some of the funniest writing I’ve read in a while, but about halfway through, this stops being funny. Now, I’d expect a book in which almost the entire senior class dies to stop being funny at some point. However, this book took a turn for the existential and morphed into a “what is the meaning of it all” diatribe, then never resolved.
I mean, ever.
We don’t know why the students were combusting, who was behind it, what will happen to them down the road, nothing. There was an FBI agent involved, and we never figure out what her actual role was. There was talk of secret experimenting at the Pentagon, and then it fizzled. There’s possibly a missing persons case, but that went nowhere as well.
All in all, it was so, so promising, then left us feeling like the author got bored and quit. Worse, having been around the publishing industry for over a decade, it felt like the author HAD written a great ending and by the time the editors got through with it (probably for political reasons, since there are definite political nuances in it), it became a stinkpile of disappointment at the end. Editors are like that sometimes.
All in all, not a bad read. But I’ll be interested to see if the film sticks to the book or if it gives us the satisfaction of an actual ending.