Friendship, family and heritage are put to the test in this young adult fantasy that had me bumbling through portions, bored and listless, but frantically turning the pages other times as we surged toward the Big Mystery.
Phoebe Rothschild and Mallory Tolliver have had a strong, unbreakable friendship since Phoebe inexplicably abandoned her elitist buddies to befriend Mallory, a new girl and social outcast, in seventh grade. In the years since they first met, Phoebe and Mallory have become inseparable and like-minded, though Mallory is tall, lean and gorgeous where Phoebe is, well . . . ordinary.
Their bonding sessions are broken up, however, with the arrival of Mallory’s older brother. Ryland is mysterious, brooding, handsome — and has his sights set on Phoebe. After expressing interest in her, Phoebe throws herself whole-heartedly into an exciting but confusing relationship with Ryland, and the situation takes a turn when Phoebe begins to see that life with the Tollivers — and her own world — isn’t quite what it seems.
Nancy Werlin’s Extraordinary is, at varying points, a fantasy, coming-of-age tale, mystery, thriller and family saga, and I spent some parts of the novel thinking, “Wow, this is so riveting!” — and others with my eyelids threatening to shut, the pace slowed down so much.
Werlin certainly knows how to build a story and create tangible bonds between characters; there wasn’t a single moment of Extraordinary where I questioned the bond between Mallory and Phoebe, and that is really at the heart of this book. Phoebe’s bonds with her family, too, were incredibly strong, and I enjoyed learning more about the Rothschilds and their long — and fantastical — family story.
It’s hard to talk about this book while avoiding spoilers, but I’m going to try really, really hard. I’m guessing it’s pretty obvious from my description that something isn’t quite right with the Tolliver siblings, especially seeing as they’re both . . . well, a little weird. Ryland is a 24-year-old guy who returns from Australia or some such far-flung place to see his mother, a drugged-out and sickly woman, and his younger sister, who has been left caring for Mrs. Tolliver on her own. And Ryland’s immediate interest? Well, Phoebe. Pursuing Phoebe, an 18-year-old high school student . . . and his sister’s best friend.
There’s a good reason for this, of course. A very good, obvious reason: he needs something from her. And not something as in a little somethin’ somethin’, if you know what I’m saying, but something serious. He needs Phoebe to help he and Mallory settle an old family debt — a debt established by Mayer Rothschild, an ancestor, that remains outstanding.
And since you can’t really settle a centuries-old debt without having been alive through those centuries, you probably know where I’m going with this.
Or maybe you don’t, and that’s OK, too.
I really disliked Ryland and failed to see anything appealing about him, but that’s because I wasn’t supposed to. Phoebe is seduced in a magical way, so of course she thinks this dude is fabulous, handsome and sexy when he’s . . . well, not. Werlin, I’d imagine, doesn’t want us to be taken in by Ryland, because he’s not what he seems.
A major part of my dislike for him was, of course, because of Phoebe. Despite what she believes, she’s a growing, confused teenage girl — and she felt like a real character to me, complete with a slew of insecurities. It was difficult to watch her being manipulated when it was so obvious, as an outsider, what was happening, but these were all lessons she had to learn. Though I can’t say Phoebe was an incredibly positive role model for young women — ditch your family and friends as soon as a hot guy comes along — again, I know that’s because she was glamoured. It wasn’t her fault.
Despite many lulls in the narrative, I wouldn’t say this is a dull novel; there’s plenty of intrigue, deceit and confusion to keep readers guessing. And though the story was stronger for having spent time developing Phoebe and Mallory’s friendship and establishing how successful the Rothschild family has always been, I couldn’t help but feel like we could have lost some of the descriptions and included a little more action. Honestly, I can’t really tell you anything that happened in the first 100 pages that wasn’t merely a set-up for what was to come later. That probably sounds silly — I mean, that’s what books do: page by page, establish a narrative — but I was just . . . disinterested. It was missing something.
Werlin excels, though, in creating realistic conversations between her characters and proving Phoebe to be a young woman I’m sure many will relate to. For parents on the look-out regarding young adult fiction, conversations about sex and love abound — but none are graphic, and all of the action takes place off-stage. These scenes could actually create a great dialogue about when to wait, how well we can know someone before becoming intimate, and how we deal with the aftermath of jumping head-first into physical relationships. And even love.
And it seems I’ve written a pretty long review of a book I was convinced left me cold, so I guess that should tell you something about Extraordinary. It’s not one for the ages, but it was a unique story that carefully explored what it means sacrifice for those you love, and how to really believe in yourself when the odds are insurmountable. Worth a read, especially for fans of young adult fantasy and contemporary fiction with that touch of magic to make it all more interesting.
3 out of 5!