Friday, March 3, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee

The latest book from young adult fiction author Stacey Lee will actually be the first book of 2017 that I cover that will also be eligible for the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards in November. Yes, I get started early. The Secret of a Heart Note is Lee's third YA novel, and has come quickly off of the heels of her second novel, Outrun the Moon, which was published this past spring.

The Situation: Mimosa, or Mim, is an aromateur. In fact, she is one of only two aromateurs left in the world, the other being her mother. This means that they can smell better than the average human being. Mim can smell emotions, fear, whether a plant is healthy or about to die, and even the heart notes of a person, which can come in handy when helping them fall in love. After being home schooled her entire life, Mim decides she wants to go to high school like a normal teenager. Problem is, she is not normal, and the other teenagers know it. Commonly referred to as the "love witch," most of the other students keep their distance, with only a few being brave enough to speak and interact with her. One of which is her best friend Kali, but most students approach out of a curiosity about what she really is, and what her and her mother can do. As high school proves to be distracting in more ways than one, Mim struggles to keep up with her work at home, as well as her algebra homework. And being distracted while helping someone fall in love will lead to one of the biggest mistakes of Mim's career.

The Problem: There are several rules than an aromateur must abide by. No charging for your services. No "fixing" minors. And of course, no falling in love. Apparently, for an aromateur, falling in love will render their nose useless. Mim keeps all of the rules at the front of her mind, but when she accidentally fixes the wrong person while providing her services for her algebra teacher, lots of rules are broken very quickly, with Mim scrambling to fix everything without her mother noticing. When she is not trying to keep two adults apart, she is trying to keep the secrets of her best friend from being posted all over the Internet by the resident mean girl. And then there is this annoying side effect of being an aromateur where any guy (or girl) who touches your skin may be "infected" and become enamored with you. Keeping the guys at school from falling for her is only part of the problem; Mim has to deal with the jealous feelings of the female students as well. And she still has to keep up the work at home with clients and the garden. If everything is still a mess by the time Mim's mother returns from a trip, she will pull Mim out of high school for sure. But Mim is starting to rethink one particular rule and whether or not it is worth keeping, even if it means losing her nose.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in Santa Guadalupe, a small fictional town just north of San Francisco. Our protagonist and narrator is Mim, a 15 year-old aromateur who has traveled the world with her mother, collecting flowers and herbs and spices for the work that they do. For the kids at school to call her a love witch is not exactly fair. Of course, when do teenagers ever make a point of being fair to someone they do not understand? What Mim and her mother do is open people's eyes to the possibility of love with a specific person. When Mim's algebra teacher, Mr. Frederics,  approaches her house, asking that they fix Ms. DiCarlo, the school librarian, for him, it might look like Mim is being asked to cast a love spell on the poor woman. But instead, what Mim and her mother will do is mix an elixir that pulls from both the algebra teacher and the librarian's heart notes, and will only allow Ms. DiCarlo to essentially notice Mr. Frederics as a possibility. If the chemistry is right, then a match is made. If not, the two move on with their lives, though one may be slightly heartbroken, while the other is none the wiser. Love witch? Not quite. Moral gray area where Mim and her mother are meddling in people's love lives while only half of the party is aware? Definitely. But naturally, as quick as people are to judge, they are also quick to ask for Mim's services when it means they can get the attention of someone they like. However, despite being in the business of love, the life of an aromateur can be a lonely one, something Mim's mother has embraced, while Mim herself is not so sure. She is only 15, but she is already thinking that the lonely aromateur life may not be for her, despite her incredible talent and being only one of two of a dying species. 

My Verdict: For the first few pages of this book, all I could think was "too much too soon." So much information regarding smells, flowers, herbs, spices, and emotions are thrown at the reader that it quickly became overwhelming. Then as the book progressed, it became mildly annoying, and then eventually I just got used to it and expected it. In fact, by the time I turned the last page, I kind of wished I had taken some notes along the way. I know it is fiction, but it was still interesting from a research perspective. The story is unique, the teenagers not too annoying, and the setting of the small northern California town worked incredibly well. But if I had one other issue, despite the speed at which information seemed to come at me at the beginning of the book, it would be the speed of the conclusions at the end, especially when there are so many loose ends left. I truly have nothing against everything being wrapped up with a neat bow by the end of a book, but there is something to be said for the journey needed to get there. 

Favorite Moment: When it became evident that Mim's mother would be spending most of the novel in another country. Maybe it was planned this way, but that woman stressed me out. I cannot imagine how Mim dealt with living with a woman who could literally sniff out lies.

Favorite Character: Mim herself is a bit over dramatic, and bumbling, and clueless. But she is 15, and deals quite well with being labeled as a "love witch" by her classmates. I give her credit for trying to fix her mistakes while also helping her friend. Sure, nearly everything she does turns out to be misguided and terribly planned, but again, she is 15. And she means well.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Lee's first novel Under a Painted Sky, which is very different from Heart Note, but also incredibly good. Northern California is traded for the Oregon Trail. And love witch Mim is traded for orphaned violinist Sam.  

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