Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: "The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza" by Shaun David Hutchinson

Shaun David Hutchinson's The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza may be one of the craziest, most thought-provoking books I've read in some time, if not ever. It's wild, poignant, forces you to suspend your disbelief, and some may even think it's sacrilegious or blasphemous, but it definitely cements Hutchinson as one of the best YA authors out there right now, one who combines science, emotion, and life's daily struggles to tremendous effect.

"The apocalypse began at Starbucks. Where else did you expect the end of the world to start?"

Elena Mendoza is used to being an outcast. She is the product of a virgin birth (seriously)—but she wasn't born in a barn or at the beach at sunrise. Her mother was a teenager, banished by her parents because they believed she was lying about getting pregnant. But the truth is, Elena was the product of parthenogenesis, a process where an offspring is born from an unfertilized egg. It was more common in the insect world, but she was the first child created this way.

No one has taken the time to find out the truth, though; instead, they ridicule her, calling her "Mary" (which technically isn't even correct), and treating her like a freak. She doesn't have a lot of friends—in fact, she spends most of her time either working at Starbucks or with her best friend, Fadil—but she doesn't really care.

Elena also has a wicked crush on Winifred "Freddie" Petrine, even though she is part of the crowd that makes fun of her. When Freddie comes into Elena's Starbucks one day, she can't stop staring, until even the siren on the Starbucks cups tells her to say something to Freddie. But when Elena goes to approach Freddie, a boy from their high school pulls out a gun and shoots Freddie, and the next thing you know, Elena is healing her gunshot wound, seconds before the shooter disappears into a beam of light in the clouds.

So now Elena can heal people. But with that power comes a downside—well, many of them—in that every time Elena heals someone, more people disappear for no reason. The voices keep telling her she can save the world, but is that true, or is she actually condemning innocent people to disappear, affecting their families and friends, for no reason except to help someone else? And when Freddie tells her she wishes she didn't save her, what does that mean?

"It also hadn't stopped me from wondering if I might actually be special or from dreaming that my miraculous birth meant I had a destiny that would one day be revealed. I longed to fit in, to discover whether I was playing a lead role in the grand cosmic drama or merely a bit part with no lines. My miraculous birth and the voices had, for years, fueled my convictions that I had a purpose—that I would lead a significant life—and all I'd wanted was for someone to notice me."

As the voices continue to pressure her, Elena struggles with her abilities and whether she should do anything. But she also struggles with love, friendship, family, responsibility, and trying to figure out why the boy would shoot Freddie in the first place. This is a book built on a crazy concept, but it's one with tremendous heart, and it makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? But can we be content if we do nothing at all?

Hutchinson is an amazing writer. His characters are tremendously vivid and complex, and not just the main characters, either. Some of the supporting characters are fascinating as well, and although I'm glad they didn't distract from the main story, it would have been great to get to know some of them better. While this book didn't leave me as emotionally wrecked as his amazing We Are the Ants (see my review) or last year's At the Edge of the Universe (see my review), it has a beauty and a power all its own.

Clearly, this isn't a book for everyone. But don't discount it as simply folly, because it's so much more than that. This is a book that tackles depression, bullying, family dysfunction, discrimination, friendship, jealousy, love, sexuality—yet it never hits you over the head. I'd love to sit down at a table with Hutchinson and learn what makes him tick, because his mind is a fascinating thing.

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