Even if you know only a little about me, you may expect that my list of completed books is a staggering one, with a host of diverse characters and authors.
For someone who spent the majority of high school and college on track to become a high school lit teacher and then graduated with an English degree, I’m still floored by the authors I haven’t discovered, the genres I haven’t fallen in love with, and the female/minority leads I’ve been missing.
But I am still trying to keep up with that reading challenge that I told you about awhile back. So when an author I follow on Twitter asked for people to review her debut novel, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been getting more adventurous with my reading choices of late, and the last several risks I’ve taken have really paid off. Signal to Noise is no different.
I am beyond glad I read this novel, even if it was one of the most difficult books I’ve read in a long time. More on that later.
In case you’ve forgotten, the summary section of these posts may feature some heavy spoilers. Skip to the recap if you haven’t read this one yet!
Signal to Noise follows a woman named Mercedes “Meche” Vega. She’s from Mexico City, but she hasn’t been there in years. It’s 2009, and her father has just passed away, so she’s heading home to help sort out his affairs and participate in the memorial ceremonies.
The book opens in 2009, when Meche arrives in Mexico where she’s picked up at the airport by her cousin Jimena, who spends the car ride reminiscing about Meche’s childhood friends. The chapters that follow alternate between 2009 and 1988, when a younger Meche was forming what seemed to be life-long friendships. The adult Meche sorts out her father’s belongings and her own feelings for him and her childhood friends, while back in 1988, a young Meche navigates bullies, awkward teenage crushes, and something many of us probably wished for — discovery of magic powers hidden in the music she loves.
She begins by hexing her class bully, who breaks his arm. She convinces her best friends, Daniela and Sebastian, to start practicing the magic with her, and together they discover spells ranging from telekinesis to glamour magic. But when Daniela is molested by their English teacher, Meche takes their skills in a decidedly darker direction, physically assaulting the teacher in retaliation. She begins to feel more powerful than her friends, coercing them into remaining in the group long after either of them are comfortable with it.
They begin to toy with love spells; Sebastian wants the heart of the school sweetheart, Isadora Galvan, and Meche wants Isadora’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Constantino. But when things don’t seem to work the way they want, Sebos and Meche grow closer together, and they seem to develop feelings for each other, though Meche tries harder than Sebos to deny these feelings. And as Meche searches for the perfect track for a love spell, everything seems to fall apart around them.
Sebos gets his date with Isadora, but Constantino and his friends jump him outside the theater. Meche’s father goes on a downward spiral and her parents end up divorcing. Sebos wants to run away with Meche, but she rejects the offer.
Then, Sebos tries to salvage his relationship with Isadora by stealing Meche’s object of power and the record for the love spell. He sneaks Isa to the factory where the friends meet to work their magic and plays the record for her. Meche catches them just as the magic leaves the record, and leaves, devastated. She had intended to use the spell to get her parents back together, but the magic has left the record. She intimidates Daniela into helping her hex Sebos, causing him to wreck his motorcycle. His life is spared because Meche’s grandmother Dolores calls upon her own object of power a final time in order to counteract the dangerous spell, but doing so proves nearly fatal for Dolores. She suffers a stroke.
Sebos and Daniela confront Meche, break the record that is her object of power, and bring their magic circle to an end once and for all. Meche tries to run to her father’s side, but she learns he has stolen the family’s savings and has no room for her in his new life. Feeling betrayed, she never speaks to Sebos or her father again.
In 2009, Meche reflects on all these things as she works to sort her father’s personal belongings. Daniela tries to smooth things over and Jimena even invites Sebastian to the novena, but Meche proves she’s as prickly and cold as ever. She refuses to forgive them, but she seems to be at least trying. She meets Daniela at a restaurant but her demeanor ultimately makes Daniela give up. She leaves Meche with an envelope full of items from their past, including photos of Meche and Sebastian.
Meche struggles through the week of memorials for her father, trying to reconcile her mother’s insistence on religious ceremony with her father’s and her own lack of faith. She meets Daniela again and things seem to be better between them. Then, while working in her father’s house, Sebastian shows up and offers to help. He takes her to lunch, where she treats him even worse than Daniela.
The next time she visits her father’s house, though, he turns up again, waking her from a nap. Meche finally breaks down, letting all her emotions out on his shoulder. She learns, too, that he and his brother have been caring for her mother, Natalia, who has cancer. Sebastian comforts her, and they end up having sex. The next morning, there is more talking, more discoveries about each other, and more sex. Sebastian takes Meche out for breakfast, where she turns bitter and cruel yet again. He confesses he loves her, then leaves.
As Meche prepares to leave again, she invites Daniela to the final day of the novena and asks her to invite Sebos as well. Both friends show up, and Sebos gifts Meche with her repaired object of power as well as his own object: his shoes from high school.
On her last day, Meche talks to her mother about why Natalia never liked Sebastian, and she thinks about their damaged relationship. Sitting at the airport, she suddenly leaves and heads to his house with an empty iPod. It’s their chance to make a new mixtape together, she insists, and the two decide to head out together on the adventures they had always planned.
The book closes with a final look back at 1988, to the day the two met and knew almost instantly that they were meant to be together.
How I found it: Twitter chat with the author!
Genre: Magical realism; young adult; bildungsroman
Does it pass the Bechdel test? No, but it didn’t suffer for it.
Is it a standalone? Yes?
So what worked? The character development, for one. All the characters were so intensely relatable that, as mentioned above, it was occasionally a bit emotionally overwhelming for me. I liked the setting; it felt intense and vibrant and electric, which seemed fitting, considering the genre. And of course, the juxtaposition of the past and present. While I don’t read much magical realism, I am very mildly familiar with some of the conventions of the genre, and the idea of time as seen from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, which I quite like. (Also I’ve just realized that my obsession with Dr. Who should really have tipped me off that I’d like the magical realism genre. Alas.)
What didn’t work? Honestly, there isn’t anything I can pinpoint that I didn’t really like. The glutton in me would love to see more of Meche and Sebastian in 2009, on their love-fueled journey around the world, but in all honesty, I think the book ended right where it should have. I especially liked the hat tip to the past at the end, serving as a quick little nod to where we’ve come from, but not dwelling on it.
Overall: I admitted earlier that this was one of the most difficult books to read, and that’s for a lot of reasons. The first reason really calls for some real talk. I don’t have the best relationship with my dad. As a kid, I did, but the older I get the farther apart we’ve grown. I don’t have answers as to why that is, but I do know that this book really found that nerve and pinched the hell out of it. I found myself feeling so sorry for Meche’s father, Vicente, imagining my father in his place and myself in Meche’s. I know what it’s like not to talk to my dad, not for decades, but for months, for a year. I could say it’s hard, but it isn’t. It just sort of — happens. I identified so easily with Meche, because I recognized that detachment she seems to feel when she sorts her father’s things. There’s no sadness there, no hurt, because it’s like dealing with a stranger, in a way. Is that sad? For an outsider? Maybe. For me, it was calming. It was reassuring. Difficult, yes. But it made me realize I’m not alone in those feelings.
Second, it was difficult because there are plenty of friendships I’ve lost that I never really gave myself time to mourn. Some of those people I’m still “friends” with — you know, social media level friendship. You like their statuses here and there, leave a witty comment or a “Congrats!” when they post something great, but you don’t interact anymore. Probably more of those friendships ended because of me than I’d like to admit. Maybe they could be repaired, but do you want to anymore? Even if you do, is it already too late?
And third, it was sometimes difficult to read Meche because I could both see myself in her and see when she was being unreasonable and I wanted to shake her. I can remember being cruel like her, cold like her, hurt and detached and defensive like her. And I can remember being friend to people like her, guarding my feelings and my emotions and the whole time thinking, “why doesn’t this person get how unreasonable they’re being?”
This book invited a lot of introspection and at a time when I was treading water in a sea of anxiety. It took me a lot longer than usual to wade through this book, and going back to make notes I noticed several details I’d somehow missed the first time. I’ll almost certainly be coming back to it again.