Betwixt by Tara Bray Smith
This is when I really wish I was in a book group, because I’m not sure how to discuss Betwixt without spoilers. It’s been almost three months since I read it and I’m not any closer to figuring it out. But the book just came out this past week and I, rather selfishly, want to encourage people to read it so I can talk about it with others, because it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and definitely worth reading.
I took the ARC of Betwixt on the plane with me on my flight home from Washington, DC. I read the first chapter, decided I’d rather sleep instead, and didn’t pick it up for another two weeks or so. Then, when I was showing a teen movie, I brought it with me to read while the movie played. This time, I just kept turning the pages. Before I knew it, I was over a hundred pages in and totally hooked.
Anyway, here’s what the book is about (from the jacket, because it does an excellent job of setting it up without spoilers):
For three teenagers, dark mystery has always lurked at the corner of the eyes and the edge of sleep.
Beautiful Morgan D’Amici wakes in her trailerpark home with dirt and blood under her fingernails. Paintings come alive under Ondine Mason’s violet-eyed gaze. Haunted runaway Nix Saint-Michael sees halos of light around people about to die. At a secret summer rave, the three teenagers learn of their true, changeling nature and their uncertain, intertwined destinies. Riveting, unflinching, beautiful, Betwixt shows a magic as complex and challenging as any ordinary truth.
Without getting into the plot, which is layered, or the three main characters, who are imperfect and complicated and so very human in their actions and fears despite their “changeling nature,” what really kept me reading was Tara Bray Smith’s writing. Unforced is the best way I can describe it, though observant would also be a good word. It is somehow simultaneously straightforward and luminous, distant yet immediate. From pages 170-171 of the ARC:
…Ondine wondered what had happened to the girl who just a few weeks ago had to turn off her phone it rang so often. She had always been the popular girl, the one who walked into a roomful of strangers and walked out with a new posse of friends. Now when the phone rang—if it did at all—she answered it only if it was Ralph or Trish, and the idea of calling someone to grab a cup of coffee or go shopping or catch a movie didn’t even occur to her. The girl who did those kinds of things was someone else named Ondine, not her. This Ondine stayed close to home, cleaning, cooking—though she had never made anything more complicated than ramen noodles before—spending long hours maintaining Trish’s flower beds. Gardening was Trish’s passion, but not something Ondine had ever shown any real interest in. There were magazines and manuals everywhere, but she ignored them, just as she eschewed tools. She wandered into the garden and sank to her knees and worked the earth with her fingers, pinching off a leaf here, a twig there; she whispered to a cupped leaf, “Grow.” Under Ondine’s watch the Mason’s yard exploded. It was almost eerie how every plant seemed to bloom at the same time. How the flowers didn’t fade, or rust, or even close when the sun went down. Ondine knew, because she had looked. She had gone to the window late one night when Nix still wasn’t back from the store, and seen an army of roses and peonies and irises and asters all staring up at her window. When a breeze stirred them, it was as if they were bowing. Ondine felt like Evita of the flora. She would have laughed, if she hadn’t been so creeped out.
In many ways, Betwixt both is and is about liminal stages. It blurs adult and Young Adult fiction, not belonging wholly to one, but somewhere in between. In tone, I was at times reminded of adult literature (The Secret History comes to mind for some reason, despite the difference in narrators), yet the story is ultimately about three teens searching for their identity and their place in the world, without any sense of temporal distance in the narration. It is this, I think, that Cindy Eagan (Editorial Director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) means when she writes, “Enchanting, intoxicating, sensual, and cool, Betwixt will speak to today’s older young adult audience in a way that I believe will be truly groundbreaking.”