I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on June 9 2015
Genres: Young adult, Psychological thriller
Format: Finished hardcover
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The nitty-gritty: An unflinching look at some very disturbed teens, and a story that is impossible to put down, even when you want to look away.
Once on the track, Miles started to jog. He’d had the weird feeling for days now, ever since the vision, the one he knew was coming but couldn’t see clearly. His visions always came true, and they always ended with death. He remembered his first vividly: in the aching months after his father’s suicide, a flock of headless crows had haunted his childhood dreams, well before he’d seen the birds in real life.
Stephanie Kuehn’s books are slim and usually under 300 pages, but what’s between the covers feels much bigger. Not only is her writing spare and beautiful, but it’s some of the most powerful prose I’ve ever read in YA fiction. She doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, and in the case of Delicate Monsters, she tackles mental illness head on. What she doesn’t do is give the reader much to go on. And what I mean by that is that each sentence is nearly a mystery in itself. Does Milo actually see the future? Did Sadie really try to kill a classmate? What is the real reason behind Emerson’s father’s suicide? And the list goes on and on. Delicate Monsters is full of mysteries, and I’ll warn you right now that Kuehn does not solve them all by the end of the book—at least I think that’s how it goes. This book made my head spin, and I’m quite sure I missed out on some crucial story information because it was so subtly done. But that’s OK, because that seems to be Kuehn’s intention: to confuse the reader by giving us all the different ways a scenario can unfold, and leaving it up to our imaginations to figure it out.
This story isn’t about plot, so if you’re looking for something plot-heavy then this book probably isn’t for you. Kuehn’s real strength lies in her character development and the relationships between the characters, which, when done right, can create just as much of a page-turning experience as the fastest paced plot out there. But just to set the stage, here’s what the story is about. Sadie Su has just been kicked out of yet another boarding school, this time for nearly killing a classmate (and the jury’s still out on that). She returns to her hometown of Sonoma, CA to finish off the school year at the local high school. When she arrives, she reconnects with her childhood friend Emerson and his younger brother Miles, a disturbed boy who seems to be sick all the time.
But being back among the kids she used to hang out with, not to mention her angry mother, only makes Sadie want to lash out more. And when she witnesses an illicit act between Emerson and his crush May, Sadie revels in the power that comes from knowing a potentially damaging secret. And then Miles disappears, and all those pent-up secrets threaten to crash down.
I know that doesn’t really explain what this book is about at all. This is one of those times where a story synopsis just doesn’t cut it, trust me. At first glance, Delicate Monsters seems to be a very depressing story. Just about every single character is miserable and broken in one way or another. Emerson seems like a normal high school senior, until you peek under the hood, and what you find is frightening. Sadie is flat-out crazy and does everything she can to get into trouble. She’s a rebel without a cause. She gets satisfaction from disrupting lives and doesn’t seem to have a conscience at all. And Miles gets bullied at school on a regular basis and has come to accept his fate. One of the (many) mysteries of the story revolves around why Miles is always sick.
Even the adults in the story are sad cases. Emerson’s dad committed suicide, Sadie’s father is always traveling for work and is never at home, and her mother is angry and resentful and is not someone who Sadie can rely on. And even the school counselor, who Sadie and Miles both have to spend time with, doesn’t offer any sense of comfort or relief for these disturbed kids. When Sadie began a texting relationship with the boy she was accused of trying to kill, I started to wonder if anything good was going to happen. But then Sadie and Miles strike up an almost normal friendship—or as normal as anyone in this story can be—which I enjoyed very much. It was during the moments they were together that I could see the person Sadie could be if she tried hard enough, a girl who might be able to think of someone other than herself.
But despite the negative relationships, the story has its moments of beauty. Kuehn’s lovely writing balances out the harsh realities of the lives of Emerson, Sadie and Miles, and the Sonoma wine country backdrop and its quiet, rolling hills contrast sharply with what’s going on with the characters.
The thing I struggled with the most was the fact that Kuehn really doesn’t explain what’s happening. Miles supposedly has dreams and visions of horrifying things that eventually come true, which leant the story a bit of a supernatural element. But knowing that Miles is mentally disturbed made me wonder if it might be all in his head, and therefore all in the reader’s head as well. I don’t use the term “mind fuck” very often, but if any story deserves that moniker, this one does. And the ending? Well, let’s just say I’m still not sure what happened, and I’ve reread the last chapter a couple of times. Kuehn gives the reader some clues and then lets us draw our own conclusions.
At times Delicate Monsters was hard to read. I hate to read about bullying, and there were a couple of other scenes that were hard for me to stomach. But the book’s many mysteries make this story hard to put down, and quite frankly, damaged relationships always make for an interesting story. Kuehn’s tale rages with angry teens who just can’t seem to find their place in the world, and though I sighed with relief when I turned the last page, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.