Monday, July 9, 2012

Simply Devine

Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine Books (June 2012)
Ages 12 and Beyond

As soon as I finished Martha Brockenbrough's debut novel, Devine Intervention, I rushed to type out my thoughts before they evaporated like the last hope of a delinquent dead kid and his luckless charge. Words like smart, insightful, fast, funny, fresh, poignant, surprising, layered, and utterly satisfying came to mind, but even those sentiments don't quite capture the essence of what makes this book sing. It's a cliche to say it, but I laughed, I cried, and if I hadn't acquired a new fear about being watched by disembodied souls with no boundaries and poor social skills, I would have even danced.

Want more? Devine Intervention is a brilliantly-constructed, sharply-written, well-paced, beautifully-conceived and deftly-executed piece of work. But a debut novel? Motherflasking* impossible. If John Green and Libba Bray had a love child, she would wish she could write like Martha Brockenbrough. It's true, I've been a fan of her writing for some time (her articles read like a modern day Erma Bombeck and her SPOGG posts are cringeworthy-hilarious), but Devine Intervention sealed the deal. It's a rare breed of book that has both heart and humor, skillfully delivered in a tightly woven narrative that really shoops along (to borrow a phrase from the book's many freshly imagined phrases).

Before I get into why I feel so strongly about this gem of a story, allow me to reveal a bit of the plot, which in itself should give any reader a taste of the glorious ride ahead: A wayward teen soul (Jerome) is serving time in heavenly rehab and has to earn his way to Heaven's main gate (instead of one of the seven levels of hell that await him should he fail rehab). His one task is to assume the role of guardian angel to a child (Heidi). It is, in his mind, a simple matter. Certainly not worth cracking open his Guardian Angel Handbook, Soul Rehab Edition. Apparently, he's not much of a linguist because he misunderstands the tiny bit he did manage to flip through. That commandment about not discoursing with the living? Well, let's just say dictionaries should be read and not used to balance uneven table legs.

Poor Heidi grows up with Jerome's voice in her head and an extra helping of social awkwardness that makes regular high school hell look like a vacation hot spot. In short, while avoiding the seven levels of Hades for himself, Jerome inadvertently sentences Heidi to a living one on Earth. But that's just the beginning. Things go from bad to worse to oh-no-he di'int. And, when Heidi gets a taste of just how inept Jerome really is, and her soul has to pay the price, that's when the story really soars.

Any decently drawn main character has a core flaw that drives decision-making and, as a result, worsening conditions/interesting plot, but Jerome's core is chock-a-bloc full of 'em. Despite it all, and despite everything he does to Heidi, he's hard not to love. A big reason for this is that Brockenbrough finds a way to show, over time, the reasons why he is the way he is, and she does it without contrived sentimentality. Heidi, in contrast, doesn't have a core flaw so much as a uphill battle trying to make her way through the levels of teen hell, which makes her immediately sympathetic.

The chapters alternate between their two points of view—Jerome's first person and Heidi's third—each with a distinct and vibrant voice that further develops their characters. Just like their conflict-ridden relationship, the narrative structure keeps the plot engaging and lively.

It would have been easy to chart a predictable trajectory as Jerome tries to redeem himself and save what he can of Heidi's dubious existence, but Brockenbrough throws so many plot twists and turns—which I am dying to reveal but am forcing myself not to...except that some of it involves a dog, a squirrel, an action figure, and an evil, pizza-huffing angel—it's nothing short of amazing that she was able to tie every loose thread together. From the get-go, she leaves such casual clues and foreshadowing details that are so ordinary they don't give even a little hint as to what wicked things Brockenbrough has in mind. So don't bother looking for them. Just trust that there's a greater mind at work here, and I'm clearly not talking about Jerome's (or even His). The ending is so flasking satisfying, I don't want to risk ruining it. Let me just say this: I rarely cry at the end of a book (unless it's just so bad, I cry over the loss of coffee money), but this one hit me in that soft spot, right where rumor has it my heart should be. So, bravo for that, Ms. B.

There's really only one question that's left hanging at the end of this heavenly read: When does the movie come out?

*One of the Ten Commandments for the Dead that Jerome tries to observe is the prohibition against swearing. Instead, he invents replacement words like motherflasker, Chevy (if you've ever owned one, as I have, you know what a piece of Chevette looks like), and applehat. It's not only a smart way to avoid the sticky issue of language, it also gives Jerome's personality a strong voice on the page.