January 16, 2012

Unraveling Isobel

by Eileen Cook
Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
978-1-4424-1327-6
290 pp.
Ages 14-18
2012

No seventeen-year-old likes being yanked away from her friends at the beginning of her graduating year. That's pretty tough on Isobel, but she also has to deal with her mother's new husband, Richard (who Isobel insists on calling Dick) and her new gorgeous stepbrother, Nathaniel, who is still getting over the deaths of his mother and younger sister less than a year ago and seems less than welcoming. Plus, she has to move to an "estate" on a small island where the community's predominant gossip is related to her new family and home.  Isobel definitely finds it hard to keep herself together and even hold her tongue sometimes.  But, with her birth father having given up his career to become an artist (her own passion, though stifled by her mom) and suffering from schizophrenia (which is known to have a genetic component), Isobel starts worrying that the unraveling means she's going crazy.

She'd like to turn to someone, so she tries calling her best friend, Anita, but she seems pretty busy with new friends. Her mother is too gaga over her wealthy, new husband to do anything except chastise Isobel for not appreciating their new life.  Although her step-brother, Nathaniel, tries to be available to her, he is just a little too attractive for comfort.  At school, though, Isobel is taken under the wing of popular alpha-girl, Nicole, and her entourage of cheerleaders, and starts to feel like she's settling in a bit (even if Nicole insists she join the cheer leading squad).  Of course, there are the drawings that Isobel doesn't recall sketching,  and the recurring visions of a young girl, and things in her room being rearranged.

Given time, Isobel probably would have worked things out for herself, but with Dick and her mom insisting that she see a therapist, and Nicole's gossip and machinations making life just a bit more difficult, and Nathaniel starting to share his feelings with her while continuing to be so good-looking, everything just works against her.  Luckily her humour and nerve help Isobel unravel appropriately while keeping her whole.  Her snarky comebacks to the comments of others continued to keep me laughing and cheering for her, pleased with her strength of character. When Nathaniel questions how she could possibly see with her heavy, dark make-up (crap, he calls it), she fires back with, "How do you see with your head shoved so far up your ass?" (pg. 14).  She doesn't hold back, not even with the profanities.

Isobel's fear, that she is losing her mind and is not "normal", is indicative of the stigma that her mother, and too often society, attach to issues of mental health.  She even acknowledges that it would have been easier to tell others that her dad had leprosy or was a terrorist than that he was mentally ill.  But, even though frightened, Isobel continues to evaluate her mental health quite rationally, for example, recognizing that she didn't really have crazy thoughts because, "I didn't think I was Napoleon, or that my bagel was an alien," (pg. 48), relieving her tension, as well as that of the reader who could feel witness to a breakdown.  She regularly assesses the unnerving criticisms from her mother and Dick ("I love how when you have a opinion different from your parent's it's an 'attitude'"; pg.95) or to creepy sounds ("...was a wind chime, some type of sea glass and shell thing.  Fantastic.  I had been attempting to communicate with a home accessory"; pg. 47).

Although I thought Nathaniel came around a little too quickly, especially while still dealing with his grief and his father's prompt remarriage, I relaxed when Isobel found an ally in him and one who appreciated things about her that she did not recognize herself.  Any way, when you have to solve a mystery, it's always nice to have a sidekick, especially one with whom you could fall in love.  (Remember: they're only step-siblings, as Isobel constantly reminds everyone. No reason to chastise them.  It's legal.)

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