Title: The Mystery of Hollow Places
Author: Rebecca Podos
Length: 291 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼
On Valentine’s Day, Imogene Scott’s father disappears and leaves her half of a geode that he claims is her grandmother’s heart. Immy, whose mother walked away from the family when she was just a baby, decides to investigate and find her father on her own. She realizes that tracking down one of her parents will mean finding both of them, but her investigation quickly turns into more. It becomes a journey of self-discovery and a hunt for the answers her father has never given her. Yet as her quest uncovers painful secrets, it also pushes Immy’s relationships with her lifelong best friend and caring stepmother to the breaking point.
Note: this review is mostly spoiler-free. I’ve included some spoilers in my Goodreads review.
I decided to read Hollow Places based on the blurb and then again on the first chapter, both of which are written to suggest a certain degree of magical realism and/or the paranormal. According to her father, Immy’s maternal line is cursed and her grandmother’s heart supposedly turned into a crystal during her autopsy. Sure, these claims were made in a bedtime story made up by Immy’s heartbroken father to comfort his confused, motherless daughter. Their inclusions nevertheless led me to believe this book was going to be something other than contemporary YA. I just felt a little duped, I guess.
So let’s get that out of the way first thing: The Mystery if Hollow Places is part mystery, part coming-of-age, part contemporary fiction. It is not paranormal, fantasy, or magical realism (though I might be the only dummy who thought otherwise).
As you may have already guessed, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, the mystery really hooked me for the first hundred pages or so. Like Immy, I felt sure that thrilling secrets would be revealed along the way, all leading to a gripping conclusion. No spoilers, but…that’s not exactly how it unfolds. Though Immy’s personal journey remains compelling throughout, the mystery sort of fizzles out when it becomes clear that it’s both a) solvable by an inexperienced teenager and b) far more mundane than either the MC or the reader expected.
Immy herself has a lot going for her as a character. She’s spunky and intelligent (though also rash and even foolish sometimes), and she’s straightforward and honest with herself–and therefore with the reader, since she’s the narrator. At first I thought she might be an unreliable narrator based on what’s revealed early-on about her father, but it’s not so. Like some other YA heroines, Immy has been forced to be the adult in her house more than a few times during her childhood, and it’s made her both more mature and perhaps more insecure than many of her peers. She has other flaws, too: she’s overconfident in her own detective skills, and she’s selfish–she’s a bad friend and a bad stepdaughter, never thinking of her best friend or stepmother’s feelings before she acts and lying to them outright to get what she wants, which also sometimes requires using them in some way. Ostensibly, her goal–finding her parents–isn’t selfish, and she does grow a little and learn from her mistakes, thus the “coming of age” part. She therefore comes off as both sympathetic and likable despite her flaws.
The other characters vary from solid to weak and underdeveloped. Immy’s best friend Jessa is nothing like her and has a happy, secure home life, yet she’s always supportive and understanding. Though Immy claims they’re still friends only out of lifelong habit, over the course of the novel Jessa proves that she genuinely cares for Immy.
Likewise, her stepmother Lindy has some potential, and she seems to care for and respect Immy as well. She feels a little flat, though, and some of the things she says and does struck me as odd (and oddly harsh) given that she’s a psychiatrist dealing with a teenage stepdaughter whose father has just gone missing.
Everyone else sort of serves as window dressing. I won’t go into much detail for fear of spoilers, but Immy’s selfishness has a pretty clear source. I looked just slightly more kindly on Immy’s parents (biological and otherwise) than on Auden’s in the last book I read (Along for the Ride), which isn’t saying a whole lot.
Ms. Podos’ treatment of mental illness is a respectful and somewhat nuanced one, though I had a hard time figuring out what, if anything, I was supposed to take away from the story and characters. She devotes a lot of time to solving the mystery, leaving herself with very little to deal with the aftermath of the solution(s), which disappointed me. And keeping in mind that this is a debut, the writing is…okay. Pretty good. Unlike a lot of reviewers, I don’t think it’s anything spectacular, but Immy at least had a readable and authentic-sounding voice. As usual, though, Podos tells her readers much more than she shows them. And sadly, just like in Sanctuary Bay–which was ironically also set in New England–this book is chock-full of contemporary pop culture references, right down to specific smartphone games. Like I said in that review, “nothing dates your book like pop-culture references.”
The strongest thing Hollow Places has going for it is its sense of place. It made me very homesick for New England. (Can you be homesick for a place where you only lived for five months?) I’d be reading along and then there was Cumberland Farms, and hey, I’ve shopped at Cumbies before! Or hey, walking through Boston Common, I’ve done that! No doubt readers who have never been to New England didn’t appreciate this aspect of the book nearly as much as I did; I loved it, though.
I apologize that this review is a little vague and, well, lackluster. I’ve been trying to write it for almost a week now without much luck. So, to sum up, The Mystery of Hollow Places is a quick, not altogether satisfying novel, disappointing as a mystery but less so as a character study. For a debut, it’s solid, and I hope to see better things come from Rebecca Podos in the future.