Book Review: “Mosquitoland” a divisive read

“Mosquitoland”, David Arnold’s debut novel, is making quite the splash in YA fiction this summer. It follows Mim, a sixteen year old who learns while eavesdropping on her father and stepmother that her mother is sick and possibly dying. Furious at being left in the dark and unhappy with her new life in Mississippi, she steals roughly $800, runs away from home and hops on Greyhound bus bound for her mother in Ohio.

The running mantra of “Mosquitoland” is “Mim is not okay”, and she really isn’t. Mim has had a rough life- watching her parents’ marriage fall apart, moving cross country to start over and struggling with a budding mental illness. A lot of her bad choices can be chalked up to the latter, but the rest are mainly her obsession with living in the moment.

Mim as a main character was the weakest aspect of the novel for me. The story was written from three of Mim’s narrations: her letters on the road to a character named Iz, her flashbacks to her childhood and her stream of consciousness in the present. It’s fair to say we got to know Mim pretty well in those five short days traveling, and she rubbed me the wrong way, unfortunately. Arnold wrote her in a way that makes me wonder if he wasn’t trying to write the next “The Fault In Our Stars”. Mim is unbelievably quirky, a borderline manic pixie dream girl if I’ve ever seen one. Some of the lines she spews out had me rolling my eyes they were so ridiculously and unintentionally pretentious in hopes of sounding profound. In her quest to always be “interesting”, Mim also ends up sending pretty mixed messages about cultural appropriation and the validity of prescription medication for her diagnosed illness. Don’t get me wrong, I always cared what happened to her, I wanted her to succeed and find happiness with her mom, but she was also a pro at getting under my skin.

The rest of the novel, though, I highly enjoyed. The cast of secondary characters Mim met were wonderfully whacky. Rarely were any of them strictly good or evil, and many of them felt like people you could actually meet in her circumstances. And if there’s one surefire way to pique my interest in a story, it’s with a classic road trip plot. There are endless possibilities with that set up, and I was pleasantly surprised to see “Mosquitoland” take an original approach and not fall prey to too many tropes along the way. The entire story felt episodic, each stop along the highway bringing another friend or villain to the mix, like a side quest in a videogame you have to resolve in order to keep traveling. That aspect worked really well for me, it kept the story from going stale and made this an interesting, fast-paced read I finished after two sittings.

When a protagonist is as equal parts annoying and sympathetic as Mim, it’s hard to fully love or hate a story, but “Mosquitoland” managed to suck me in anyway. The inventive narrative, quotable insights and the lively secondary characters may have saved this novel, but they didn’t fully absolve it of its divisive leading lady’s problematic qualities either.

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars