Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin

Tess starts at a new school, an exclusive boarding school, Thorn Abbey. She's a smart but poor kid who looks like she is never going to fit in with the scions of the elite. Then she connects with her new alpha-girl roommate and a tragic golden boy. These two were closely linked to a recently dead student named Becca. Strange things start happening to Tess and she begins to wonder if she is losing her mind.

I have to stop having high expectations of books based on their summaries. I may have squee'd like a fangirl when I saw that this was based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I had such hopes for this. Those are now crushed like so much dust. I admit Rebecca is a tough act to rework successfully. It's a novel about dark obsession and it is so atmospheric. Nancy Ohlin adapted the bones and guts of the original fairly well, but the spirit is disappointingly not there. The characters are decent, but they're not deep enough to sustain the creepiness and the am-I-going-crazy aspects. Tess is sweet and naive, as she should be, but her infatuation with Max is a little...childish. As in, Tess sees Max for the first time in class, and thinks:

"OMG, He's hot. He's looking out the window and brooding. He must be deep."

And then at the end of class,
"OMG, he looked at me for two seconds, he might like me! I'm in love!"

At which point she runs up to him and starts saying random things. So random that he outright tells her she is strange. This is rude but makes more sense than she does.

To say this is idiotic behavior for a freshman in high school is an understatement. Tess is almost backward in her boy-craziness. I might get this, barely, if she were in, say, middle school. It's lazy characterization and plotting, and it is not in keeping with the rest of her personality. Tess is at Thorn Abbey because she's academically gifted. I like how intelligent and articulate she can be and I love that that is why the nice guys are attracted to her. In fact, her awkward social interactions are more a result of the collective drone thinking than her ineptitude. Fortunately, her backbone solidifies and her brain switches on, at least when it comes to interacting with other people.

I wish I could say the same for Ohlin's take on the main thread of the story: dead Rebecca's grasp on the living. Where Ohlin was taking the action was apparent from a football field away. I get that teen readers aren't into subtlety, but the twists and turns are so obvious that letting the characters catch up is painfully tedious. If even the atmosphere of the original was there, it would have made up for the slooooooow characters here, but there is zero creepiness. Instead, Ohlin takes this all paranormal, which is an easy out in explaining what has been going on. The end really wraps things up too tidily and forces a happily-ever-after that won't really work in the long run. The resolution makes a mockery of trauma and grief just as the plot did with obsession and malevolence. Take those away and the story is a shell with no heart. Even if you don't relate Thorn Abbey to Rebecca, everything is just kind of flat and lifeless, perhaps with the exception of the romance. That part was actually quite lovely. It makes me think that if Ohlin hadn't bound herself to the plot of Rebecca, she could have created an appealing story that could breathe with a life of it own instead of being a shadow of a far better work.

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