As you all know, I've been on a bit of a "post-apocalyptic/ zombie" kick of late when it comes to my book reading. This is, in no small part, the influence of the Tofu Muchacha who has possibly the darkest taste in stories of anyone other than my dad. I asked her for a recommendation when I finished Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse. She immediately rattled off about 15 books within the post-apocalypic/zombie genres. One of the books that stood out most to me was The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. I remember her reading it when we were in Michigan, and commenting repeatedly how much she liked it.
The book is considered "Young Adult" fiction, which sort of made me hesitant to read it... I mean, I'm generally at such a sophisticated reading level that I feared "young adult" would be too boring... Kidding.... I really just typically like more detailed descriptions of boobs and drug use. What made me even more hesitant was that the book is about a 17 year old girl. Oh... and there's supernatural elements AND a forbidden romance AND a love triangle. Now... call me crazy, but when I hear "Young Adult fiction about a teen aged girl, where there are both elements of the supernatural and forbidden romance with love triangles".... I think of mother fucking Twilight.
Well... I read Twilight. I read it based on less trustworthy recommendation than that of The Tofu Muchacha. You can read my full thoughts on Twilight HERE. (Interestingly, I think my overall opinion of Twilight has degraded significantly since I wrote that.) So, based on the recommendation alone, I decided to read it The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
I'm glad I did. I really enjoyed it... In fact, I enjoyed it for succeeding in many of the areas where Twilight failed. Allow me to discuss...
Carrie Ryan does an excellent job of writing the whole book from the first person perpective of her heroine, Mary, without making her seem like a completely self-involved idiot. On the other hand, Stephenie Meyer also writes her books from the first person perspective of her heroine, Bella Swan, and utterly fails to make her even remotely likeable. The structure of her prose is graceful... intricately weaving the internal monologue of Mary with the first person observations about the factual events going on. I think my favorite thing about the writing is that while the events in the story are fairly repetitive, the descriptions never get stale. It's really an interesting read. Meyer fails to create any sort of variance in her descriptors. In fact, she does the opposite of Ms. Ryan. She has these incredibly varied scenarios, and yet describes them all using the exact same 20 words. (if I have to read about Edward's diamondy skin again...) . The biggest strength of Carrie Ryan's writing is her understanding of stakes. It's so important, in a good thriller, for the stakes to be high throughout, and in The Forest of Hands and Teeth, the threat of death is literally present from the start. I could read The Forest of Hands and Teeth again... I don't know if I could get through Twilight a second time.
The Main Character...
I sort of alluded to this already, but god......damnit do I hate Bella Swan. She's annoying, self-involved, and perpetually in peril. Stephenie Meyer managed to create a book series that is hugely popular with teen girls, with a teen girl as the main character, while making her the most forgettable and unlikable character in the whole series. I'm not one for causes, really, but when I hear about feminists bemoaning how awful a role model Bella Swan is, I find it 100% impossible to disagree. She's helpess, irritating, irredeemably boy-crazy, and makes one insanely bad choice after another.
Carrie Ryan's Mary isn't all that much different, on the surface, than Bella. She has family problems. She analyzes and analyzes and analyzes literally everything that passes through her head. She has a crush on a dude. She's got a legion of the undead wanting to eat her at all fucking times... Still, despite all of those similarities, she's more interesting in the first 6 pages than Bella is in her entire damned saga. She becomes an athiest. She has to deal with her possible fault in her mother's death. She finds herself torn between her loyalty to her best friend and her love for Travis. She's got complexity. She's not always likable, but she's always relate able. Also, it likely doesn't hurt that when Mary is in trouble that she actually does something about it (like decapitate some effing zombies) as opposed to Bella, who lets Edward and Jacob do all of her fighting for her.
I acknowledge that vampires are effing awesome. I further acknowledge that the Volturi are especially effing awesome. Awesome Ancient Vampires notwithstanding, they are no match for The Unconsecrated. The Unconsecrated is what the characters in The Forest of Hands and Teeth have given the zombies. They're not as cool as vampires who drive fast cars and engage in witty repartee, but they will actually kill someone, which Stephenie Meyer seems to avoid a lot for a book about fucking VAMPIRES. That's always been my biggest problem with Twilight... the bad guys never do anything bad. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, the Unconsecrated kill hundreds of people. They cause the deaths of the main character's mother, father, sister-in-law, and beloved. They're bad. They have no feelings. They only thirst. It's fucking terrifying. They fight and claw and push until they get what they want or literally fall apart and degrade to the point where they physically can't continue. As long as their brain is connected they never stop. That's a scary villain.
I said it during my review of Twilight that I thought the love of Bella and Edward was fucking creepy. They went from meeting to madly "irrevocably" in love in the span of 4 pages. It's not romantic that way. It's weird and obsessive and gross. The love of Mary and Travis in The Forest of Hands and Teeth isn't completely different... Mary is willing to give up everything she knows to be with Travis. Even with that similarity, the realism is much, much greater. I love the complications that Carrie Ryan imposes... There are familial loyalties. There are sacrifices of safety and comfort and the feelings of best friends. Every decision Mary makes is weighted with the knowledge that it effects someone she cares about. There's a lot of uncertainty with their love. It may not be as blazingly, crushingly romantic as Twilight, but it has texture to it. It's compelling because you don't know from the first page how it'll end. (Which I may suggest is what is compelling about love in general.) I also really like that Mary doesn't completely lose herself in her romance with Travis. In the end, she's still acting heroically on her own.
All of this is not to say that the book is perfect. There are places where the meandering mind of Mary gets a little maudlin. The story is unfocused in places. The payoff of reaching The Ocean comes too quickly and couldn't possibly live up to the thousand or so references that serve as build-up. The secondary characters are barely developed and in some ways completely inconsequential. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Shamalyan movie The Village.
Still... I'd read it again, and I'm excited to read the sequel, which came out last month. The book perfectly segued into the likely sequel, and the scope of the first book was small enough, and the frame of reference of Mary was so limited that there are still many books of discoveries she can make.
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