If author John Green endorses a book, chances are I am going to pick it up and read it. And with Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer, Green said it is the "smartest and funniest book about spontaneous combustion you will eve read." Yep, you read that right. Spontaneous freakin' combustion.
The Situation: Mara Carlyle is a senior at Covington High School in Covington, New Jersey. She is more or less your average teen trying to make it out of high school with the help of her best friend Tess, and a fair amount of drugs she is able to buy from a pair of twin dealers. Up until her senior year her life has pretty much gone unremarked, but when one of her classmates literally explodes in the middle of third period pre-calculus, Mara knows things are about to get a little crazy, to say the least. And while poor Katelyn was the first victim, she will certainly not end up being the last.
The Problem: It's generally problematic when the kids in your senior class start blowing up without any warning or provocation. Naturally, the normal explanations (as "normal" as an explanation for something like spontaneous combustion can be) are sought, such as terrorism, tainted drugs, something environmental, something genetic, etc. But as more kids continue to blow up, and more explanations are crossed off the list, both the Covington locals and the US Government get desperate as the former wish to escape what appears to be their fate, and the latter wish to at least contain it if they can't stop it. Kids attempting to escape Covington are captured and brought back. While a few manage to cross state lines, it is eventually proven that what has become known as the Covington Curse is not dependent on proximity to the city or high school. As Mara's world falls around her, she makes an attempt to rally her fellow classmates into a life of semi-normalcy. But when one combustion hits close to home, Mara starts to wonder if she is the source of the Covington Curse.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in the fictional town of Covington, New Jersey. Told in the first-person by local senior Mara Carlyle, the book covers her senior year of high school and the strange events that take place, namely the spontaneous combustion of a lot of her classmates and the reactions that follow. There is plenty of fear, some suspicion, almost complete confusion, and a whole lot of questions. Mara admits from the beginning that she is a less than trustworthy narrator, but she is all we have, so we have to trust her enough to continue with the story. She doesn't hold back on the filthy language or inappropriate jokes and puns about her fellow classmates going out with a bang, and does little to attempt to hide the less favorable aspects of her own personality. But if she isn't willing to hide that stuff about herself, then there is little chance she is hiding anything about the situation. And with this particular situation being as crazy as it is, the students experience everything imaginable, from school being canceled; to extreme boredom because school is canceled; to being quarantined in a makeshift seclusion tent; to being allowed to riot and destroy property after a particularly beloved student becomes another one in the string of combustions; to eventually rebuilding their own school just so they can finish their senior year; and then to once again being allowed to to do what they want when it appears there are no answers and the entire senior class is doomed. It's a case study to what happens to a small community when the unthinkable (and unbelievable) happens with no answers or predictability.
My Verdict: This book is a crazy ride. Granted, with a subject like spontaneous combustion, there is really nowhere to go but down when it comes to the craziness and excitement. Unfortunately, that is eventually where this book goes after the first half. In the beginning, while kids aren't exactly exploding left and right, it happens often enough that you wonder when it will happen next (and to who), but not so often that you get used to it and accept it as a reality. The reader has front row seats to watching the small community unravel as it searches for answers. But somewhere along the way, even while students continue exploding, the novel gets off track and manages to become less and less interesting. While spontaneous combustion is certainly a compelling topic to base a novel, turns out it can't be the only interesting thing about the story, and that's what happens with Spontaneous. If the book isn't talking about the exploding bodies, or looking for answers regarding exploding bodies, then there isn't a whole lot to be interested in. Even the characters aren't compelling enough to be sufficient between combustions. While Mara may be in-your-face and always ready with a ridiculous joke or quip, she isn't endearing enough to be loveable, and neither is her boyfriend, Dylan. There wasn't much that made me want to root for these people, other than the general desire to not see anyone else die. Basically, the book is fun at first, and then becomes less and less fun the longer it goes on.
Favorite Moment: This is going to sound terrible (because it is), but anytime a student exploded were my favorite moments. Not because I'm into gore and blood (I'm not), or because sometimes the characters that disintegrated were less than loveable, but more because of the way Mara talked about it. There's little fanfare, before or after, and she takes you right up to the moment it happens, and then it happens, just as suddenly and unexpectedly as if you were there with her when it did.
Favorite Character: Mara's friend Tess is the kind of friend every high schooler needs. The two girls have their differences, but are truly best friends for life and never disappear entirely from each other's lives.
Recommended Reading: Okay, so Bleak House by Charles Dickens is incredibly long, but oh so worth it. Plus, it has a spontaneous combustion in it, and it's handled very differently from how Starmer described the ones in his book. However, because I know the book is long, and draining, I will say that the spontaneous combustion is (mercifully) near the beginning, and it is glorious.