May 17, 2012

Review: Dark Water

By: Laura McNeal
Published: September 2010 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Format: Hardback, 285 pages
First Reviewed: June 2011
Buy: Barnes & Noble//Books-A-Million//Amazon//Book Depository
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TĂș eres de dos mundos.

Fifteen-year-old Pearl DeWitt and her mother live in Fallbrook, California, where it’s sunny 340 days of the year, and where her uncle owns a grove of 900 avocado trees. Uncle Hoyt hires migrant workers regularly, but Pearl doesn’t pay much attention to them . . . until Amiel. From the moment she sees him, Pearl is drawn to this boy who keeps to himself, fears being caught by la migra, and is mysteriously unable to talk. And after coming across Amiel’s makeshift hut near Agua Prieta Creek, Pearl falls into a precarious friendship — and a forbidden romance.
Then the wildfires strike. Fallbrook — the town of marigolds and palms, blood oranges and sweet limes — is threatened by the Agua Prieta fire, and a mandatory evacuation order is issued. But Pearl knows that Amiel is in the direct path of the fire, with no one to warn him, no way to get out. Slipping away from safety and her family, Pearl moves toward the dark creek, where the smoke has become air, the air smoke.
Laura McNeal has crafted a beautiful and haunting novel full of peril, desperation, and love.

Rating: 3/5

My very first thought, no joke, was, My, these are short chapters. My second thought was, Eh...nice writing, but I'm kind of bored. Throughout the rest of this, I stopped being "kind of bored," but started being "just a little interested." Interesting premise, good writing, but I just felt disconnected from beginning to end.

My favorite part about the book was the writing. McNeal has a great way with words. At times, her narrative was one of the strongest I've read in a while and it had a beautiful literary feel to it, but not to the point where I was annoyed with it. What did bother me a bit, though, was that I couldn't get the tone from her writing. In the beginning, and throughout a lot of this, she had this tone about her prose that made the narrative feel as though it were written back in the day, or for a historical fiction. And I loved that. I thought it was beautiful. But then it would switch to modern, which is what it should have been, in my opinion, since this is set in modern times with a first person narrative. That confliction I had going on really messed with me. I couldn't tell if I was supposed to be feeling as though the book was taking place in early twentieth century or now. However, it did make me hope for a historical fiction from McNeal sometime in the future. She could grasp that early 1900s feel like that. --insert snap of my fingers--

As with the writing, I had conflicted feelings with these characters. I liked Pearl, but she just wasn't too strong for me and I never really got what she loved to do--scratch that--I never really felt who she was. I got what she liked to do in her spare time and I got how she felt about her life, but other than that, all I got from her was an odd obsession with Amiel. (I say "odd" because it was initially that way. I think it would have felt less stalkerish if it would have happened more gradually.) And I never truly felt for Pearl or saw her personality really shine through.

As for Amiel, I really liked him. And when I say that, I should say that I really liked both Amiels. Now, there aren't really two Amiels, but I just felt as though the Amiel we met in the beginning seemed to disappear within 40/50 pages. He was this outgoing-type, it seemed, but with a darker past and even a bit of shyness. He was interesting. But then he changed so quickly without any real reason. I liked how he was throughout the rest of the book, though, and he was still mysterious and interesting, but just in a completely different way. It was like two different characters instead of one character with major developments.

The major-minor and minor characters were good, methinks. Some just all right, though I think McNeal spent too much time having Pearl think about them (like Hickey) and not enough time crafting the rest of the characters. However, I really, really loved Agnes and Pearl's mother. I thought they were done extremely well.

Looking back, the overall plot line was a great one. The premise is one I haven't read before and it was refreshing. McNeal handled it nicely, and I'm so happy she didn't fall into the commercial trap--probably the reason this was a National Book Award Finalist. The romance plot was not the typical romance plot, though I still have my problems with it. The sub-plots in this I felt were good, realistic, and interesting, though some of them just felt a bit forced and sometimes too much. Which provided my main problem with this.

There were so many elements going on, yet once I finished, I didn't feel as though I had gotten enough. The romance, while generally sweet and innocent, felt rushed in places, and of course I still think Pearl border-lined on obsessive in the beginning. Where I don't feel I got the most out of this was with the fire, something the narrative refers to throughout the story (as it's told from a future perspective). It seemed to happen so fast. When it hit, I expected to really be impacted emotionally along with some edge-of-my-seat type of reaction. I mean, it's a fire, and they're in the middle of it. I won't say what happens to avoid spoilers, but overall it was just lacking for me.

Also, I loved the setting of this, in rural California, and also how McNeal handled the two different cultures--American and Mexican. She even threw in a French lady, whom I loved. And one last thing that bothered me about this is the ending. I'm okay with non-happy-endings pretty much--not in the weird way, I promise--because I understand that not all stories have happy endings. But once I finished this, I was just depressed. McNeal attempted to lift spirits in the final, two-page chapter, but it just didn't work. I was left wondering if Pearl had any hope at all and about whether or not her family did. It was just too depressing for me.

Overall, I liked this. It was a solid read that once I got into, I was pretty interested. It lacked in some areas for me, and I wish I could have been more emotionally connected to Pearl and the story as a whole, but I loved the overall premise of this and there were many scenes worth loving. If you like literary fiction, are looking for something different, then I think Dark Water's worth a try.

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