I actually finished Wendy Mass’s A Mango-Shaped Space a week or two ago, but I’ve been struggling with how best to review it. It’s normal for a book to have several themes; what this felt like, on the other hand, was three different novels in one. Perhaps I’ll start with the plot…
Mia is thirteen; she has an older sister, a younger brother, and a best friend whose mother died several years ago; she believes that a bit of her (deceased) grandfather’s soul lives on in her cat, Mango; and she has synesthesia. Ever since third grade, when she discovered (publicly and painfully) that numbers, letters, and sounds don’t have colors for everyone, she’s hidden that part of herself away; now, however, her schoolwork is affected badly enough that she decides to tell her parents about it. Several (scary) doctors’ visits later, she learns about what she has and how to connect with others who share it; she becomes completely engrossed by her new knowledge and sense of community, and until she receives an emotional shock, she is unable to balance her new perception of life with the old.
There–the bare bones of the plot. As for the three novels in one, perhaps I’ll make a list. Lists can be fun!
1) This is a novel about what it’s like to have synesthesia, and I found it fascinating. Mia excels in many school subjects, especially art, but she struggles in math and Spanish; math is difficult because the colors of the numbers don’t add up the way the values of the numbers do while Spanish is difficult because (for example) friend and amigo are two completely different colors, and connecting them (and thousands of pairs like them) feels somewhat impossible. Reading magazines gives her a headache because colored text is never the right color, and too much noise is overwhelming. I’ve certainly never considered what life with such a different sensory experience would be like; from Mia’s perspective, however, the world is drab for the rest of us.
2) This is a novel about the kinds of growing pains all teenagers experience to some degree, and while it rings true, I tend to find it emotionally draining to revisit that roller coaster. Mia has felt different ever since third grade; the humiliation she suffered then leaves her with a fear of discovery that seems justified at her classmates’ initial reactions to her synesthesia. When she discovers others who share that difference, she of course focuses on that sense of community to the exclusion of all others. The synesthetes in the online community understand her in a way that no one ever has, and her reaction is typical teenager: she overvalues that understanding and suddenly undervalues her family and friends. They become ‘less’ for a time, because of course, they don’t understand. All of her emotion and attention swing towards a group of people she barely knows and who only really have one thing in common with her. I possibly found this more painful to witness because I remember feeling echoes of that myself; when I first got married, my family was in the midst of considerable emotional upheaval. That coupled with the stresses of being newlywed made them uncomfortable to be around, while my in-laws felt laid back and low key in a way I desperately appreciated. It took time to balance my feelings about my new family and my old one, and I cringe when I remember how I undervalued–for a time–the family I was born into. Mia eventually learns the same lesson in balance that I did, but (again) it’s never comfortable to relive that kind of lesson.
3) This is a novel about a teenager experimenting with new experiences in a way that becomes unhealthy. Mia’s willingness to lie to her parents and brush some people off while using others made me a little sick, and reminded me rather chillingly of someone experimenting with drugs. While (thankfully) it wasn’t actually that serious, the parallels disturbed me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you understand–I could see this novel as a learning experience for teenagers, especially those unwilling to listen to lectures or more obvious parables–but, well, it’s still disturbing.
And that, folks, is my list. You could also argue that it’s a book about coming to terms with death, but that draws a darker picture of the plot than is actually realistic. What matters really is that this book is fascinating. The writing is good but not necessarily exceptional, but the story is so compelling that–in my opinion, at least–it’s got an impressively wide range of appeal. A Mango-Shaped Space, then is well worth the read; it certainly widened my view of the world.