The Society of S -- Susan Hubbard

Ariella Montero has had an extremely sheltered -- almost cloistered -- childhood.  She rarely sees people other than the housekeeper, her father and his scientist associates.  She is homeschooled, with a curriculum that focuses mainly on the sciences and classic literature.  (She blames her regular use of italics on Poe.)  Her mother abandoned the family the day Arielle was born, and hasn't been seen since.

The Society of S: A NovelJust before her thirteenth birthday, things change:  the housekeeper, Mrs. McGarritt, convinces Mr. Montero that Ariella needs social stimulation as well as intellectual stimulation.  He is persuaded, and Ariella strikes up a friendship with Mrs. McGarritt's daughter, Kathleen.  Ari's time with Kathleen makes it apparent that her upbringing has been unusual, at the very least.  But when she sits down to watch a vampire movie with her new friends -- that's when things really begin to change.  She notices things that had never struck her as odd before -- like the fact that her reflection in the mirror is wavy and faint at best. 

Unsatisfied by the answers her father offers about himself or the family, Ariella heads out to find her mother.

Part mystery, part horror story, part coming of age story, part road trip story, with narration that pulled me it and didn't let me go (to the point of getting carsick because I didn't want to stop reading) -- even though things about it didn't work for me: 

  • How on earth would Ari know the sound of a dying car engine well enough to imitate it?  She'd been in cars so infrequently, and she didn't grow up with a television. 
  • The role-playing game that the young teens played was unlike any game I've ever been a part of -- it was a strange amalgam of tabletopping and live action -- but what I found stranger was that the kids identified themselves as pagans.  What does that have to do with role-playing?  It read like a description of role-playing as imagined by someone who hadn't done any role-playing.  But I've been away from that scene for a long time, so maybe I'm just out of the loop. 
  • Along those same lines, I found the idea of a librarian (in this day and age) calling Mr. Montero and telling him that Ariella'd been researching vampires, well, ridiculous.
  • I found it difficult to imagine Ariella as a thirteen-year-old.  Not intellectually, but emotionally.  She acted much, much older.  While much of her behavior could certainly be chalked up to her upbringing, I still felt that it was a stretch.  I think it would have worked better if she'd been a few years older, say sixteen-ish.
  • The ending felt rushed.  Everything was wrapped up in a the somewhat act-of-god-y last thirty pages.  I didn't feel like there was much resolution -- Major Goings On between the adult characters (Big Secrets and Big Betrayals) didn't cause nearly as much conflict as I'd have expected, and so it felt kind of flat for me.

    Up until the very end, though, I was riveted.  It was an interesting spin on vampires and I enjoyed Ariella and her father (and Mary Ellis Root -- I'd liked to have seen more of her).  The story's atmosphere changed dramatically as Ariella moved from place to place.  I have a tendency to focus much more on characters rather than location, but even I noticed how strong the descriptions of Saratoga Springs and Homosassa Springs were -- they felt like characters themselves.  And the story itself held me, regardless of my complaints.  Literary references abound (Poe, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Nabokov), which always makes for a good time.

    It'll definitely work as a YA crossover, and it's mostly clean -- minimal swearing, no sex, not a whole lot of on-screen violence* -- so I'd definitely try it on older teen fans of vamp fiction.  Good summer pick.

    (*There's a v. brief Bad Moment when she's hitchhiking.)