Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten

When Robyn Plummer walks into Room 13B, Adam falls in love at first sight. That may sound like a typical boy-meets-girl story, but, thankfully, this book is anything but cliché. The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten is refreshingly honest, anchored by a memorable main character.

Adam, age 15, is vulnerable, loyal, and sometimes confused by his feelings and by the actions of those around him. He is quieter than some, a little more in his thoughts, which are expressed in limited third-person narrative. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his mom most of the time. She pretends everything is okay while enduring her own private struggle, something Adam tries to both respect and understand. Meanwhile, his father has remarried, and while Adam gets along all right with his dad and his stepmom, the member of that household that undoubtedly enjoys his visits the most is his little brother, Sweetie, who is full of life and full of love. (Kudos to Toten for creating a young, vibrant character that sounds and acts his age. Absolutely spot-on depiction of a preschooler.) It is interesting to note what (and who) each member of Adam's family clings to, and what they're willing to fight for when the going gets tough.

When Adam isn't in one of his two homes, he is usually in Room 13B. Room 13B isn't a classroom; it's a meeting place for a young adult OCD support group. This book gave me what I wanted but didn't get from the TV show Red Band Society: a realistic look at a diverse group of kids who meet due to a medical diagnosis but are not defined by their condition; people who are not the "worst" examples of their condition nor the "best"; characters who are relatable but not cookie-cutter. Each teen has a distinct personality, appearance, and medical history. Their bonding sessions both inside and outside of Room 13B are wonderful. They honestly try to help one another rather than sabotage or one-up each other. When Chuck, the friendly, caring doctor who oversees the group, asks the kids to adopt nom de guerres, almost all of them select superhero names. Robyn picks Robin, prompting Adam to immediately declare himself Batman.

Adam is determined to win Robyn's heart. He has never been in love before, never had a girlfriend, but he falls head over heels for Robyn. He is not simply on a quest for love, but actually fascinated by this specific girl. As the story continues, their friendship develops and deepens. Adam's unconscious need to protect others extends easily to Robyn as he learns more about her, and he tries to be a better person (and taller) so he can be worthy of her. His OCD rituals are both aided and exacerbated by his new goals and his growing awareness that things aren't entirely right at either of his homes.

This book is good. It's solid and it's interesting and it's realistic and it's good. It sheds light on a condition that many people suffer from in silence and shame, and instead of reducing OCD to a punchline or over-dramatizing it, Toten offers believable characters with various rituals and paths to healing. The story moves at an easygoing pace with decent plotting. And most of all, it has a realistic protagonist who is a truly good egg. Adam is dealing with that wonderful, frustrating time when you don't want to be treated like a child but you sometimes wish you were still a carefree little kid, when you want to be independent but you can't drive yet, when you realize your parents are people with their own histories and bad habits and secrets. Just as the author does with his little brother, Toten is also able to capture the appropriate tone for Adam's age and situation. Adam sits at neither hero-with-a-burden character extreme, not wallowing in unbearable darkness and cursing the weight of the world that sits upon his shoulders, nor grinning from ear to ear and boasting that everything's going to be fine. He's simply trying to live his life. As his heart gets broken and mended, so will the hearts of readers.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten is a beautifully simple, steady coming-of-age story that I highly recommend, especially to fans of Jordan Sonnenblick and David Levithan.


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