A Fierce and Subtle Poison: Review

A Fierce and Subtle Poison: ReviewA Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Published by Algonquin Young Readers on April 12, 2016
Genres: realistic fiction
Pages: 288 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads


Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl–Isabel, the one the senoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers–and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.

I’m not quite sure what to write about Samantha Mabry’s debut, A Fierce and Subtle Poison. It’s an absorbing novel – magical realism isn’t generally my thing, but Mabry’s prose made this novel really work well for me. It is incredibly beautifully written, you all. I really enjoyed it and would recommend it. It’s been one of my favorite reads of the year so far.

Additionally, I started and finished A Fierce and Subtle Poison in less than 24 hours, so there’s that.

So. The book is a retelling (I think) of Hawthorne’s short story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, of which I remember … not a whit. The premise of the novel is something like this: there’s a legend about a cursed house in Old San Juan, where no birds will fly over. In it lives a cursed girl, with green skin and grass for hair. Lucas and his friends have both heard and told stories about this house since they were kids – and dared each other to throw wishes over the walls of the house, which it is said that the cursed girl will grant. But no one has ever seen her, although she sometimes appears in their dreams. One night, while out on a date, Lucas finds himself near the house, and thinks he sees her. Then, the girl Lucas is dating disappears, and he receives a note saying that the cursed girl knows where to find her.

Trying to unravel the mystery of the disappearing girls leads him to Isabel, the cursed girl. Isabel, who does not have green skin and grass for hair, is instead dying from a strange illness, which is only getting worse. She lives with her scientist father, who is obsessed with poisonous plants. View Spoiler » She quickly tells Lucas the truth about her: that her skin and breath are poisonous; being around her for too long makes people sick. At one point in the novel, Lucas briefly kisses her skin, and is super sick for a few days, with a fever and intense hallucinations. « Hide Spoiler Lucas fantasizes about lifting the curse from the girl and the house and rescuing them both, but for the most part, these desires are pretty well shut down by the novel (and I really liked this, for the record – Isabel calls Lucas out on his desire to play the hero fairly early on in their meeting). Anyway, the two of them team up to figure out what has happened to the missing girls on the island.

What I liked best about the novel: the writing. I will read anything Samantha Mabry writes again, just because this is gorgeously written, honestly. Her prose is beautiful, and I felt like both the setting and Lucas’s narrative voice were really well developed. Our narrator, Lucas, is the son of a wealthy hotel developer and a Dominican woman (who left him when he was very young); there’s a lot of tension over Lucas and his father’s role in San Juan, and Lucas’s own sense of being an outsider. Isabel herself is also an outsider; because of her illness, she’s been locked away from the world, and most of her contact with it has come through the notes that people leave her.  Anyway – I liked how Mabry developed both of their characters, and I liked how the novel thoughtfully engages with the complexity of issues of identity and belonging. (As well as the importance of stories and shared history in forming a sense of community; I liked the contrast between Lucas and his father here.) There’s also a fairly hefty critique of American involvement in Puerto Rico through the characters of Lucas’s dad and Dr. Ford, too, I think.

What I liked least about the novel: I felt like there were some problems with pacing, especially towards the end of the novel, as I most wanted things to pick up. There’s an entire sequence where Lucas and Isabel are View Spoiler » on the go, looking for Celia and another girl who’ve been taken by, spoiler alert, Isabel’s father! and that last segment of the book stretches on for seemingly a really long time, and they’re stalled several times along the way « Hide Spoiler.

Also, and this is not a fault of the novel – I wanted a little bit more from the ending. I think I’m okay with not knowing, but there are so many things that are left open. It’s probably a good sign, too, that I’ve been left thinking this much about the novel a week later. View Spoiler » Like, for example, what does it mean for Lucas to become the custodian for Isabel’s wishes? And what is Celia’s life like now? « Hide Spoiler

So. I really liked A Fierce and Subtle Poison and would strongly recommend it. Have you read it yet? Are you looking forward to it?

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