Down in the Belly of the Whale
This is a YA contemporary that tackles a lot of issues, so the first thing I want to do is offer a warning to potential readers. If you’re looking at this review, I’d like you to know that this book deals a lot with mental illness and its triggers; that means subjects like self-harm, suicide, child abuse, and sexual abuse are addressed here so if you’re sensitive to those subjects, I’d steer clear of this.
First, let me detail the plotline of the story; this YA contemporary centers on self-proclaimed changeling and sophomore student, Harper who believes she has some sort of superpower. This power of hers allows her to sense when people are ill—specifically mentally ill. When she is near someone who is stressed emotionally, mentally, or psychologically, her body reacts; there are times where she sneezes, itches, or feels an odd pain in a certain part of her body all of which serve as a sort of alarm system that let’s her know when someone close to her is hurting. This may not be the sort of super power that gives you the strength to stop a speeding train or even make your cold coffee warm again, but it is a power that allows Harper the opportunity to show compassion and kindness when it is needed most.
This story dives into the hard things of life, at the toughest time to deal with—our teenage years—but its not without any smiles or humor. Harper is a quirky character determined to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes. Her POV is silly, a little morbid, and sometimes humorous; she is the breath of fresh air that is much needed in this seemingly deep pit of darkness we call high school. Watch as she tackles depression, self-harm, and other issues we’re often too shy to talk about and learn what it means to be a true friend.
Now, this story sounds like a good idea—and it is! But it isn’t put together very well. The writing is not bad, but it definitely follows every typecast you could imagine when it comes to YA fiction. Every character is a stereotype; Larson is the hot crush who is cool and chill and everything every teen wants their love interest to be. Cora is the beautiful best friend who—despite her great looks (white blonde chick) and despite her ability to be in the popular crowd—willingly chooses to hang out with the rejects of the school. And by reject, I only mean Harper, our protagonist who is the ugly nerd crushing on one of the hottest kids in school—you guessed it! Larson, the star athlete. But she’s actually worse than that; she thinks she’s really unique and really quirky and much smarter than everyone around her because she reads and looks things up in encyclopedias and says words like whom and scintillating—which I guess is indicative of an enhanced vocabulary?—for a sixteen year old?
What I did not like about Harper was that she was just so nerdy in such an unbelievable way. I know its totally cool and relatable to have your main character be the nerdy underdog who comes out on top, but it is 2019 now and just not believable nor entertaining anymore. Harper reads encyclopedias, *believes* she uses advanced vocabulary, and makes random references to Greek mythology because (I guess) she is smarter than your average teenager? Or because the author wants us to believe she is smarter than every other high schooler you will ever meet, but she isn’t, and so comes off as a very fake and forced protagonist who just irritates me.
Every other character is the same way; friends and enemies who fit every stereotype like some discount Lifetime movie cast—gay uncles who are more like cheesy characters from a 2002 sitcom, eccentric teachers whose entire personality is summed up to like … sandals. And a set of parents who were copied and pasted from some unpopular show on 90’s Teen Nick. Everything … everything was stereotypical and unbelievable. But what made it worse was that the issues brought up weren’t unrelatable.
Depression is a real thing, suicide is a real thing, self-harm, sexual abuse—these are all issues that need to be addressed but it felt like they were just a means to an end in this book. We want to teach teenagers not to cut themselves, and remind everyone that gay people are cool, oh and depression is not ok! So, let’s throw ALL of that into one book and make it work. It doesn’t work. I feel like one or two issues should have been addressed in a good way, instead of squeezing in five or six issues and addressing them very poorly.
Maybe pre-teens and tweens will like this book but anyone older than 15, or anyone who has read more than three books in their life, will not like this much at all. Good idea, great concept, but poor characterization, writing, and development ruined it for me.
*I received a free copy of this book on behalf of The Rebel Christian review services in exchange for an honest review*