Smells Like Nirvana: Teen Spirit by Francesa Lia Block

In the wake of her beloved grandmother’s death, Julie’s life seems to crumble. Her mother, a staff writer for a television show, is laid off; without the income, they lose their house and move into an apartment, leaving behind the comfortable home Julie had always known. The one bright spot, as she starts at a new high school, is her new friend Clark, whose cheery nature and odd hats stand out against the conformity of the other students.

As Julie attempts to put her life into a semblance of order, her friendship with Clark grows, as does her mother’s attraction to entirely unsuitable guys. With her home life a disappointment, Julie reaches out in another direction: to the spirit world. But when her attempt to contact her grandmother doesn’t get the desired results, Julie figures that’s that. Right? Then she meets Clark’s unpredictable, charming twin brother, Grant.

One problem: Grant’s been dead for a year. And he occasionally possesses Clark.

Now Julie is being romanced by two brothers who share the same body, and she’s not sure who she sympathizes with more. But the time is coming when only one will be able to stay on forever, and Julie can determine who gets the body. But she has no idea what to do…or what she wants to do about it. The closer it gets to the deadline, the harder Grant fights to stay with her.

Teen Spirit is your typical girl meets boy who’s possessed by the spirit of his dead brother love story. A little bit romance, a whole lot weird, in that magical way only Francesa Lia Block seems to have mastered. And yet, there’s something shallow and incomplete about the story. It lacks that surreal edge of the Weetzie Bat books, that enigmatic remove, that polished spin of the master storyteller that sets apart so many of her other books. It’s a solid story, thoroughly entertaining, whimsically satisfying, quirky and offbeat and fast-paced. But it lacks the complex sophistication and multilayered love of the word that would let it truly shine. From your average YA author, it would be a perfectly satisfying offering; from someone with Block’s repertoire, it just doesn’t hold true.

There are amazing parts, to be sure. Beautiful moments of heartfelt anguish, as Julie and Clark struggle with their respective attachments to the dead. Moments where Grant stubbornly, desperately, clings to the only semblance of life he has left, stealing moments of physical satisfaction and coaxing kisses from the increasingly-attracted Julie. Interactions that steam the page and stir the soul.

“I wanted for him to push his way inside me and for him to come alive like that, or for me to be dead. I didn’t care which, just some transformation, terrible and profound, a ghost brought back, a ghost taken away.”

It’s bits like that which exemplify Block’s gift for description and narrative flow, imbuing perfectly ordinary sentences with a kind of word magic. Sadly, they’re not enough to uplift the complete text.

Teen Spirit is a lovely YA ghost romance, and the more I read into it, the more I love what I find. It’s just that I’m still left vaguely unsatisfied. By the plot? The climax? The conclusion? The spiritual metaphysics? I can’t say. Perhaps all or none. It’s a good book, even a very good one, but it’s not great. It feels like a quick read, and a light read, deceptively so.

And there’s one element which totally threw me for a loop. Grant’s last name is Morrison. Tell me that someone like Francesca Lia Block hasn’t heard of Grant Morrison, the comic book writer with a penchant for magic and oddities. Whether accidental or homage, it’s a small detail which nevertheless broke my concentration when it came up.

In the end, Teen Spirit will undoubtedly make fans happy, but it’s not Block’s finest.


Teen Spirit is available now from Harper Collins.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.


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