A Fierce and Subtle Poison is based on, or at least owes some inspiration to, “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, a work of science fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a scientist’s daughter who becomes immune to poisonous plants but poisonous herself to others. Samantha Mabry transposes the setting to present-day Puerto Rico and ages down the cast a little; Lucas becomes a high school senior on the verge of college studies, spending one more summer in Puerto Rico at one of his father’s hotels. There he becomes ensnared in a mystery and conspiracy.
I really wish I could heap more praise upon this book. It has some neat ideas, but Mabry’s writing style does very little for me, and I didn’t much enjoy Lucas as a protagonist. The slow burn towards a recognizable antagonist means the first two-thirds of the novel is ponderous while the last third is a sometimes confusing rush downhill towards a somewhat unsatisfying denouement. In short, A Fierce and Subtle Poison has little that excited me a lot that left me wanting more.
Several reviews I’ve read praise Mabry’s “lush descriptions” of Puerto Rico, and I’m just … did I miss something? Or were they referring mostly to her descriptions of the plants, the weather, the general atmosphere of the island? Because one thing that I noticed right away about the narration is how spare it is. Reading this reminded me of watching a stage play with no extras: only the characters actually in a scene appeared to be present; Mabry’s Puerto Rico feels somewhat depopulated and lacking in a livelihood or intensity. I’m sure this isn’t the case by any means, but the way in which she has Lucas tells the story creates this effect for me.
There are times when it feels like the book is almost trying to do too much. This probably isn’t the case; there is probably the right amount of story here. Yet its organization just feels haphazard. Parts of it are like a modern-day fairytale, with Mabry emulating the Rappaccini storyline of discovery and infatuation between Lucas and Isabelle. Then parts of it are like a thriller, with Lucas a fugitive from an overzealous cop with an axe to grind (not to be confused with Axe Cop). And parts of it still are like a YA coming-of-age story with Lucas discovering he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life (surprise, surprise).
In the end, I just didn’t get much payoff from this. I finished the last page neither enthusiastic nor particularly upset by anything that had passed. I was sad for Marisol, sad that she had to be sacrificed so quickly to the altar of plot so another boy could learn how to become a man—not that I see Lucas actually learning or changing all that much.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison has an excellent title. But it’s messy and never quite hits its stride. There’s probably room in here for love, if that’s the kind of thing you like in your YA thrillers. I’m looking for something either more or less straightforward (if that makes sense)—something that at least makes up its mind about what it wants to be.