Mara Carlyle’s class is thrown into chaos when Katelyn Ogden explodes in the middle of third period calculus. After Katelyn’s untimely demise more seniors start blowing up. After suspecting terrorism, suicide, and other sundry conspiracies, the town of Covington soon realizes that the high school seniors are falling victim to spontaneous combustion.
No one knows why it’s happening. No one knows who might be next.
All Mara and her best friend Tess want to do is make it to graduation in one piece. But that might be harder than they think as students keep popping with no obvious pattern or warning. Mara’s senior year is going to have love, friendship, drugs, and even more explosions than the usual high school drama would suggest in Spontaneous (2016) by Aaron Starmer.
Mara’s first-person narration is dark, no-nonsense, and sometimes blatantly insensitive as she tries to make sense of her friends and classmates blowing up. She deals with the stress and the possibility of her own eventual demise with humor and avoidance.
Starmer’s prose is snappy and substantive. Like many critically acclaimed novels, Spontaneous strikes a good balance between philosophical and absurd. Unfortunately, much of the story also feels like it is being spoon-fed to readers with heavy-handed descriptions and plotting.
Spontaneous isn’t the first quasi-literary YA novel to be written by a male author with a female protagonist. It also won’t be the last. Unfortunately, and this speaks to a number of potential flaws in the text, nothing about this book makes it matter that Mara is a girl. She could be anyone from any background. Nothing about her feels distinct or unique, begging the question why is this her story and not the story of one of the other unlucky seniors at Covington High School?
Throughout the novel, Mara keeps readers at a remove both from herself and from the other characters who populate the novel. While possibly a deliberate decision by Starmer, it does little to endear Mara to readers or generate much interest in her story.
Unfortunately an interesting premise and strong writing are not enough to make Spontaneous a compelling story. Spontaneous is a wacky, macabre novel sure to appeal to fans of Grasshopper Jungle.
Possible Pairings: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn, Hellhole by Gina Damico, We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*