In my quest to finish the Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed to fulfill the category "A book set in high school." Or something along those lines. I'd planned to read Perks of Being a Wallflower to finish the category, but for some reason none of the libraries in my university's circle would give it to me. One of them had it on hold because, apparently, it's used in a class. At another, the book had been lost and they never replaced it. As for the rest...well, who knows? At any rate, I couldn't get it from the university library, didn't feel like going to get a public library card, and didn't want to buy it, so I started looking for alternatives. In the meantime, I found The Unraveling of Mercy Louis on the popular reading shelf at the library and picked it up because I'd read a good review of it...somewhere. I thought it was over at The Armchair Librarian, but if that was it, now I can't find it. So maybe it was somewhere else. Anyway, as I flipped through my Kindle a day later, I found that I already had the book, because apparently I'd purchased it at some point. I must have really wanted to read it! I returned the library copy so someone else could get it and started reading the Kindle one.
The story is told in a first-person narrative by the titular character, Mercy, and in third-person from the perspective of one of Mercy's classmates, Illa. The setting is Port Sabine, Texas--a small town that is still recovering from an explosion at the local oil refinery three years earlier. The year is 1999, and between the explosion a few years before, a dead baby found in a dumpster, and her prophetic visions, Mercy's grandmother thinks that the Rapture is coming. Mercy, raised by her grandmother, follows closely in her beliefs, and wants to live out the remainder of the days before the end of the world enjoying her final summer vacation, playing at least part of the basketball season of her senior year--the world's supposed to end partway through it--and staying out of trouble so she can go to Heaven. Over the summer, though, things start to fall apart. Mercy and her best friend Annie have a disagreement, and Annie refuses to speak to Mercy. Mercy speaks in tongues and delivers orders to find the baby's killer at church. And then, as she tries to find her basketball groove again in the wake of a terrible game during States in the schoolyear, she runs into Travis and gets herself a boyfriend, something her grandmother has strictly forbidden.
Illa, meanwhile, is an anorexic who wants to shrink herself down to nothing, and to be friends with Mercy above anything else. Illa spends most of her time in the summer taking care of her mother, who was seriously injured in the refinery fire and is now confined to a wheelchair. Illa resents her mother for not trying hard enough and tries to escape through photography and managing the Lady Rays, the varsity basketball team that Mercy and Annie play on. Through her outsider's eyes, Illa sees things and asks questions that Mercy isn't able to, being so wrapped up in her own life. And so Illa is the one who manages to piece some things together and help when Mercy begins to unravel in earnest.
The book goes through the summer and into the school year, when Mercy, Annie, and other girls in the school are suddenly struck by a mysterious illness that leaves them trembling and making strange sounds. No one knows how or why it's happening. Meanwhile, the quest to find who killed the baby continues. It's a mess, a big mysterious mess, and no one is entirely sure of anything.
I loved the language of this book. It was beautifully written, and I think it managed to really encapsulate the feeling of being young and having everything suddenly fall apart, and not understanding why. Illa is a young woman struggling with her bisexuality, which I thought was also a lovely touch; she's bisexual and figuring it out, not knowing if she wants to kiss Lennox or Mercy, but Parssinen doesn't make that the entire focus of her character like so many authors might be tempted to do. Instead, it's just something that adds dimension and focus to her character, something that makes her more real, just like her anorexia. Mercy and Illa are both extraordinarily flawed, but you still can't help but like them and want things to work out for them in some way.
On that note... Do things work out? It's hard to say for Mercy, easier to do so for Illa. This book has an extraordinarily ambiguous ending. There's hope in it, on some fronts, but a complete lack of resolution on others. I appreciate that Parssinen apparently trusts us to figure out what's important, but at the same time, I still want to know more about the not-so important stuff. I guess it's supposed to be a lesson, that in life we don't always get all the answers--but I already knew that. I didn't need to read a book to learn it, and I think that if the author trusts us to know what's important, she should also trust us to know that life is unfair without her having to tell us. It was a beautiful book, but it lacked a bit of cohesion at the end, leaving too many loose threads to even having a pleasantly ambiguous ending.
3 stars out of 5.