Mara Carlyle’s senior year at Covington High in suburban New Jersey is going on as normally as could be expected, until the day—wa-bam!—fellow senior Katelyn Ogden explodes during third period pre-calc. Katelyn is the first, but she won’t be the last senior to spontaneously combust without warning or explanation. The body count grows and the search is on for a reason—Terrorism! Drugs! Homosexuality! Government conspiracy!—while the seniors continue to pop like balloons. (Source: Goodreads)
I only heard about this book because a homework assignment for my reference class had me looking through YALSA’s top teen books of 2017 as I was building a hypothetical reading display for a summer book club for local youths. And, as one can guess, SPONTANEOUS by Aaron Starmer was on a list of said topn teen books. Naturally, once I saw a story about teenagers exploding in class, I knew I 1) had to add it to my hypothetical display and 2) read it myself.
Folks who follow me on Twitter might be surprised that I am reviewing this book, maybe as much as they are surprised by how much my opinion of this book shifted from “it’s okay” to “I am going to possibly cry in a public area because this book has grabbed me by the chest and refuses to let go” — but I can explain.
I have to admit, the first half is . . . well, it’s there. It’s not the best, it’s not the worst, it’s not even the second best secret agent in the whole wide world. But it’s incredibly readable; it’s the kind of book that you have to dedicate time to, because once you start to read it, you will want to devour huge chunks of it in one sitting. And even though I had problems with the narrator and the pacing, I was willing to continue because of this amazing readability aspect.
Once you hit halfway, however, it gets cracking. It slaps you across the face with plot development and demands that you care about this girl, this Mara Carlyle who pretends to not care and be above the chaos but is just as part of the madness as anyone else. It’s a story about a teenager trying to live her life and love her boyfriend and survive, quite literally, the end of her senior year without it blowing up in her face. Unfortunately, everything keeps blowing up in her face. And maybe it’s a big metaphor for growing up, but it’s a ride of a read, and I can’t imagine readers Mara’s age not enjoying this for what it is: a weird book about teens doing drugs and making stupid decisions and going off in class.
In many ways, SPONTANEOUS is the anti-OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN, a very sappy, melodramatic look at people randomly losing their lives, albeit from a series of mystery arsons after a school shooting. HEARTS wants to make you cry because everything hurts so much and the book can’t shut up about it; SPONTANEOUS makes you cry because everything is just too much and you can’t feel it until it is too late.
They also share the theme of survivors searching for reason and clinging to whatever hope comes their way, whether it be implausible scientific theories or crackpot conspiracies. But SPONTANEOUS does it so much better, mainly because it doesn’t pretend to be deeper than it is. Even though Starmer sticks to Mara as the main POV, we still see how the rest of Covington High’s senior class is coping with these horrific traumas and realization that life is much more fleeting than they thought, and the variety of responses and reactions make it much more genuine than other texts.
Granted, the entire explosion thing is weird. It just is. People randomly popping off like fireworks is not a regular phenomenon, and yet books like SPONTANEOUS still show up every once in a while to ask what would happen if it was. But if you can go with the flow and accept that these things apparently do happen, then you’ll enjoy the book a lot more.
It’s also a tough book because Mara, at first, is hard to like. She’s kind of awful, and sitting in her head space for the first dozen or so chapters honestly feels gross. But the longer you sit in there, the more you see her vulnerabilities and realize she’s not so different from anyone else in her senior class, except that she internalizes everything awful and makes herself suffer because of it. And instead of making her seem awful, it just makes her human. And you might even love her for it.
And yes, for the drug averse, there is a lot of casual drug use and sex, but considering the concept of the book, I think you can forgive this group of teens for partying like they’re gonna die young (and if anyone makes a Spotify playlist for this book, I just gave you the perfect Ke$ha song to put at the top; you’re welcome). But seriously, if casual weed smoking and drug dealing among young folks are not your thing, avoid this book. It’s okay not to read it!
SPONTANEOUS rushes in with a fast opening, slows to a crawl for the first half as it sets the stage with characters and relationships, and then blasts through the second half with topsy-turvy plot twists and raw unhinged teenage emotions that carry it right to the end, which I can’t even talk about, it’s so perfect. Give it to your friend who is just about to graduate high school and remind them that every moment is precious and that they should maybe invest in a rain poncho, just in case.