A FIERCE AND SUBTLE POISON is a coming-of-age story seated within Puerto Rican mysticism. Throughout the novel, the main character, Lucas teeters between childhood and adulthood, as well as between fantasy and reality, while trying to uncover the truths that lie within an old myth of an evil botanist and his locked gardens.
Lucas, like any other teenage boy, spends the summer between his junior and senior years of high school kissing girls and pushing boundaries. Unlike most teenagers, however, Lucas is the son of a real estate developer. He spends his summers in Puerto Rico, where he has established a small group of friends who are willing to look beyond his privilege and just be teenagers together. That is until his friend Rico’s cousin Marisol becomes enamored with Lucas and disappears shortly after, followed by the disappearance of Celia, Marisol’s much younger sister.
Like Lucas, Mabry has a knack for teetering between the worlds of young adult and adult, especially in scenes where Lucas explores his sexuality. She entices the reader, makes the reader believe, like the girls in the book, that Lucas is experienced. But then, she pulls back–she keeps the storyline PG; she teases the reader, like the lovers, and keeps them wanting to know more. Though the reader suspects the blonde American boy has broken the hearts of many island girls, we’re aware that in many ways he is still innocent, mostly because of Mabry’s ability to describe and then stop describing. Even more, she endears him to us by letting us in on a secret–by telling us about his ‘kissing lessons,’ the reason why he seems so experienced.
Perhaps Mabry’s most obvious talent is her ability to successfully integrate mythology, and quite nearly magic, into a narrative with characters who feel very real. Lucas is the boy-next-door who guides us through this new culture with an outsider-insider perspective that we ourselves have as we feel the hot raindrops rushing down our backs, the swarming mosquitos pinching our skin, and the heat rising inside Rico’s boarded up house in mourning. We believe that Mabry is this sixteen-year-old boy. I opened the first pages of the novel and fully expected a female narrator. Three pages in, and I was pleasantly surprised by Mabry’s ability to be a loving, curious, lustful, funny, lost teenage boy with a vibrant history scared of a dull future. She perfectly captures Lucas’ millennial mentality and his disillusionment about what the future will hold. He begins as a child wanting to make a difference, to change the perception of the house at the end of Calle Sol, grows into a teenager seeing himself through the eyes of the locals, a mini Michael Knight, a Señor Patrón, with a future in a company that rips down historic convents in the name of a progress with which he doesn’t believe, but he ends in hope with a reawakened sense of mysticism having learned the truth about Calle Sol, for his final thoughts are: “But that won’t be the end.” He knows there’s hope for his future and that the mystery, the magic, the myth of Calle Sol will continue.
I also appreciated Mabry’s inclusion of Spanish words and phrases throughout the text, though in some instances it did feel like watching Dora the Explorer: “Mira! Look!” My only real criticism for this imaginative and intoxicating debut is that I wish there had been more story to Isabel, the center of the myths of Calle Sol, the girl with green skin and grass for hair. While her continued mystery does in some sense add to her character and allow the reader’s imagination to wonder, like that of the locals, she is so central to the story that I would have liked more insight from her at some point along her and Lucas’ journey. I also enjoyed the parallels artfully woven throughout the text, however, I think that Isabel’s and Lucas’ mothers both leaving their fathers actually took away some of their individuality rather than adding dimension. It may have been more fitting to have kept Isabel’s mother’s fate a mystery, or shown her as a tragedy; some of the young boys’ made-up stories may have actually fit quite well, here.
All in all, A FIERCE AND SUBTLE POISON is the most impressive debut I’ve read in a long time. I could go on about how impressed I was with Mabry’s research on poisonous plant life and Puerto Rican culture. But as a final note, I’ll conclude with what I find least often with debut mysteries, and that is, Mabry in no way rushed her ending. She let it unravel at its own well-paced cadence, not giving away too much too soon and without withholding too much at the start.
Some comparative titles for this work are: The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor, and Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.