Ghosts and institutionalized amnesia haunt a strange town in the YA novel Glimmer
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With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Phoebe Kitanidis’ Glimmer, published April 17, 2012
Plot: Two teenagers wake up naked in a bed together with no memory of who they are or how they got there. After escaping the man they assume is their captor, they discover they’re in the idyllic tourist town of Summer Falls, where things are decidedly… off. The townspeople they encounter are unusually cheery, easily confused, and prone to dropping unconscious into what they call “heatnaps” during moments of distress, then waking with no memory of what caused the fainting spell. Oh, and there are ghosts, which can only be seen by the girl—Elyse, a super-popular resident of Summer Falls—and repelled only by the boy—Marshall, a mysterious outsider with an even more mysterious tattoo of an eye that just might have something to do with his ghost-fighting abilities. Working together, they piece together the events that brought them together and the secrets behind Summer Falls’ mysteriously sanguine atmosphere.
Series status? Kitanidis’ Glimmer appears to be a stand-alone novel—not to be confused with a recently released book of the same name that’s the second in a trilogy by Stacey Wallace Benefiel. There’s no mention of a sequel in the book or on Kitanidis’ website, and while the main characters’ paranormal abilities could potentially be applied to other situations, the threat to Summer Falls has been effectively neutralized by the end of Glimmer.
YA cliché? Elyse is a fairly standard paranormally gifted Chosen One, but the amnesia aspect of the plot allows Kitanidis to have some fun with the archetype. As Elyse pieces together who she is, she’s increasingly unhappy with what she sees: a perky, curvy blonde cheerleader prone to wearing revealing clothing, skipping school, engaging in promiscuous behavior, and mean-girling her friends and classmates. None of this jibes with how Elyse feels on the inside, which is more akin to the sort of thoughtful, modest, relatable heroine more commonly seen in recent YA lit. (At one point, Elyse chops off her impractical, easily grabbed long hair, disgusted with her former self’s lack of defensive instincts.) And while her gift of ghost-sight is certainly convenient in a town crawling with ghosts, it’s more of a defensive talent that really only proves useful when combined with Marshall’s abilities. Those go deeper than just ghost-repelling to include another familiar YA theme: magic, or as it’s called in Glimmer, occultism.
As for Marshall: Of course these two protagonists—who trade off point-of-view chapters—are falling deeply in love within the first 100 pages, but again, Kitanidis uses the amnesia aspect to tweak the formula. Considering Elyse and Marshall are naked and in bed together on the first page, it’s reasonable to assume they have a history, but neither they nor readers know the full nature of their previous relationship until well into the story, at which point they’re forced to forge a new bond based on trust. Glimmer’s inevitable love-triangle aspect is similarly skewed, as Elyse discovers her previous self’s dumb-jock boyfriend, Dan, isn’t compatible with her new perspective. But her need to blend in so she can discover more information, combined with Dan’s inability to process bad news without falling into a memory-erasing heatnap, makes severing ties difficult.
Bad sign: Faced with a strange new reality, Marshall pulls a Bella Swan and goes a-Googling, leading to a Wikipedia-assisted info-dump on Summer Falls’ history (former mill town turned tourist trap known for its strangely calming atmosphere) and unusually temperate climate, the supposed result of a nearby glacier creating a “microclimate.” (To his credit, Marshall recognizes this as bunk.) Similar exposition dumps are used throughout Glimmer, meted out via a children’s book, Elyse’s journal, and, most egregiously, magic-assisted flashbacks. Also, a character utters the phrase “WTF” at least once.
Good sign: When it isn’t filling in the broad narrative strokes, Glimmer is adept at detail work, doling out creepy tidbits in Memento-like fragments. After an episode where Elyse’s stepfather beats her (an apparently common occurrence, hence the bruise-obscuring long hair), Elyse takes a shower and finds a “heatnap” coming upon her, though unlike the other townspeople, she can see its approach: “On the other side of the curtain a handprint and the outline of a face appear; I let out a piercing scream. A long, shimmering arm reaches toward me. I feel a strange liquid pressure to open my mouth, and my knees feel week, and I hear the thud on the padded floor, but I don’t even feel my body drop.” She then awakes with no memory of the ghost or the beating: “I’m dressing when I see the letter on my desk. I stare at the familiar angular writing. Dear Elyse, it says at the top, and underlined, Remember this happened to you.”
Young-adult appropriate? Aside from the odd maiming, Glimmer is mostly violence-free, relying more on creepy atmosphere than gore for its shocks. It does drop multiple f-bombs and repeatedly acknowledge the existence of teenage sex: Elyse assumes Marshall has drugged and raped her when she wakes up naked next to him, and she later discovers her old self liked to go “hiking” with her boyfriend. Elyse is, however, scandalized by her previous self’s promiscuity.
Old-adult appropriate? The prose is frustratingly basic (and written in first-person-present tense, a clunky approach that’s oddly become the standard in YA) and once magic—sorry, occultism—enters the mix, eye-roll-inducing moments are common. But Glimmer’s initial premise is intriguing enough to keep up the forward momentum. At just under 350 pages, it’s an easy read even by YA standards, and Kitanidis doles out answers to the book’s many questions at a satisfying clip, so Glimmer never really gets bogged down in its twists and turns.
Could use less: Deus ex magica. Once Marshall discovers his magical abilities, things get much easier for him and Elyse, and much less interesting for readers. He accepts and remembers his occultism background pretty much without question, which rings false and provides too many easy answers, especially when Elyse is struggling so much with her discoveries. The magic-assisted conclusion works, but just barely, and while the path taken from there technically hits all the mile-markers, the destination is so far from the starting point that the back half of Glimmer at times feels like an entirely different book.
Could use more: Dénouement. Without getting into spoilers, Glimmer ends on a huge, world-changing event, then addresses the fallout in a brief “nine months later” afterword that only barely touches on various puzzling aspects of Summer Falls. Since the strange nature of this town and its inhabitants is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book, such a cursory wrap-up is disappointing.
For fans of: Ghost stories and Memento, for those who secretly wish Leonard Shelby had used a memory-reviving magic potion instead of tattoos and Polaroids.