Oh my. I was unprepared for all the feelings.
Where do I even begin?
This story of three awkward teens who discover that they can do magic using music was completely absorbing and nothing like I was expecting. It deals with the chaos of being a teenager, with being haunted by the past, and with power and consequences, but ultimately, it’s a love story and, what’s more, one that I really quite enjoyed, (shhhh, don’t go telling anyone!).
Meche, Sebastian and Daniela don’t fit in at school. They’re not cool, they don’t come from wealthy families and they don’t conform. Meche is an angry, hard-edged fifteen-year-old who’s into music in a big way; Sebastian is a serious-to-the-point-of-sullen reader and doodler, and Daniela is still happy to play with her Easy-Bake oven and loves soap operas and romance novels. Perhaps they were friends out of necessity to begin with, but there is evidence of real affection between them all, even if it is under cover of snark most of the time. They were, for me, immediately likeable, because despite all their (mostly Meche and Sebastian’s) sarcasm and cutting remarks, Moreno-Garcia shows us their soft underbellies too, (and, quite frankly, reading teenagers on the page is much easier than having to deal with them IRL where being relatable is absolutely not their aim).
Perhaps this is the most impressive thing about this novel, that the author is able to create such well-drawn characters in what appears to be a fairly stereotypical set-up, (because the ‘discovers they can do magic and uses it to improve their social status’ storyline definitely has a been-done-before vibe on paper). The details save it. There are no place-holder characters, I swear I could smell Mexico City while I was reading, and the direction the story goes in takes us somewhere new. Yes, these teens experience many of the events and emotions that all teens do, but they are idiosyncratic enough that the reader cares very much about how they will deal with it.
Certainly, I wouldn’t have gotten so emotional if I didn’t care about Meche, Sebastian and Daniela. And, dagnabbit, Meche is mean. After the halfway point in the book it was like she was trying to destroy everyone with words, Sebastian very particularly, as she desperately tries to stop her world from falling apart (my reading notes are mostly punctuated with “Ouch Meche!” and “Holy crap that’s mean!”). How I still felt any kind of understanding and affection for her can only be seen as a testament to great writing. As is the almost physical pain I was in as the 1988 strand of the storyline reached its dramatic conclusion.
(Wow, writing this without spoiling anything is proving a bit difficult…)
So, I should mention that. Not the spoilers, the two timelines.
I still can’t make my mind up how well the two parts of the story sat together.
Bear with me here, I’m thinking as I’m typing…
…We begin the book with Meche in 2009 as she returns to Mexico City for her dad’s funeral. This return to her old home is the catalyst that brings back her memories of the events of 1988, which we then read with occasional interruptions to see how 2009 Meche is faring in sorting out her late dad’s record collection. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a tried and tested structure. But something in the feel of the two sections isn’t quite right. The 1988 storyline is vivid for me, I can picture it all, Meche and Sebastian and Daniela feel authentic and present. 2009 though, is less … something. Meche is about thirty-six here, and yet she is still as spikey and mean as she was as a teenager. She has yet to make any kind of peace with the events of twenty years before. And maybe people do get stuck in a particular way of being like that, but I think I expected more of her. I don’t know.
I liked, however, the complete mundanity of 2009. Meche’s grandmother Mama Dolores says that magic is for young people, and the grown-up Meche, Daniela and Sebastian don’t even mention what they did as teenagers…
Oh, I see it! What with Mama Dolores’ hinted-at-but-untold story and the feeling of magic and possibility – the warm records, Sebastian’s strange future flashes, the golden tendrils – the 1988 story has a whole added dimension that is missing from the 2009 strand. That’s what’s off for me – I miss the magic! The two timelines feel, ever so slightly, like two different stories because of it.
If I struggled with anything consciously, on the other hand, while reading Signal to Noise, it was the music referencing. While my best friend at school, my husband and my other brother were/are deeply into music, I just don’t get it. There are two categories of music for me – the stuff I like and the stuff I don’t (assuming, of course, that I’m in a musical mood to begin with) – but for them it is a language all its own and their choosing what music to listen to, which track would perfectly complement the previous, is almost reverential. I find this fascinating and Meche’s absorption in her musical choices was so familiar that while I can’t say I appreciated any deeper meaning in any of the tracks or albums mentioned throughout the book, I still enjoyed that they’d be significant to someone. And her love of music is definitely evocative of that period of your life in which everything you discover for yourself is new and meaningful and so important to the you that you are uncovering.
So, yeah. This was a good book. It made me feel a lot. It’s not a book I have any inclination to reread because I think it’s said to me what it needed to say. I would certainly recommend it and I’m very interested to read more by Moreno-Garcia … particularly because, from what I’ve heard, she writes something different each time. I suspect there will be, for me, a favourite Moreno-Garcia book and then the rest of them.
Let’s see how that prediction pans out …