Book Review: Spellbinding by Maya Gold
Sixteen-year-old Abby is used to fading into the woodwork, lurking in shadows, never being noticed. Whether at home or at school, Abby is one of those girls who’s always in the background, not especially scorned, not surrounded by friends — just kind of there. She’s used to her lot in life and more or less knows her place, although she can’t help sighing over golden boy Travis, her life-long crush ever since he showed her kindness on the playground years ago when they were both small. Travis is dating perfect-but-mean Megan, and Abby can only watch from the sidelines and blush whenever anyone takes notice of her. Sensitive and shy, Abby is the quintessential high school wallflower:
Maybe this is the flip side of being invisible: Nobody sees me, but I notice everything.
Abby’s life takes a dramatic turn when a teacher assigns the class a genealogy research project: Trace your family back from the current generation to the family member who first set foot in America. Abby knew her late mother’s side of the family arrived centuries earlier, but is startled to discover a connection to Salem in the 1600s — the Salem of the witch hunts and trials, located just a short distance from Abby’s home town.
As Abby digs further, she seems to awaken her own magical powers and a deep connection to the dimpled, adorable Rem, a mysterious boy who seems to know a lot more than he’s willing to admit. Will Abby embrace the power promised by her newly discovered abilities? Can she change her life by using magic? Should she?
Even without her magical awakening, Abby was already facing a slew of mundane problems. Since her mother’s death years earlier, Abby feels overlooked by her father, who focuses instead on her soccer-star younger brother. As her father begins dating, Abby – the household cook - is full of resentment towards the woman she sees usurping her role in the kitchen and, not incidentally, in her father’s heart. Abby’s best friend moved away the summer before, leaving Abby without the security of a BFF. Abby is smart and has talents, but not the kind to make her admired or sought after at school. This is a girl with enough to deal with — and now she has to figure out if she’s crazy or if she’s a witch, and if she’s a witch, what should she do about it?
Abby’s inner struggles are what make this book particularly interesting. She clearly has a gift, but she’s also keenly aware of a sense of right and wrong. When Abby uses a love spell to get her crush to notice her, she does it as a lark, to see if she can. But once she realizes that her magic works, she’s not so sure that she wants it. Is it satisfying to have your dream boy suddenly devoted to you, when you know that you forced it to happen? How can you be happy in a relationship if you know, deep-down, that it’s not real?
A nice twist in Abby’s growing power is that it clearly doesn’t have all the answers. Abby gains greater confidence and starts letting her hair down — literally — no longer afraid to be noticed. But she quickly finds that the notice she gets isn’t what she wanted, as the school mean girls subject her to a campaign of gossip, bullying, and Internet abuse, all of which escalate as Abby gets her guy and becomes golden boy’s new girlfriend. Greater visibility is no protection against ridicule and scorn.
Author Maya Gold has a way with words, using surprise twists and references in ways that made me sit up and pay attention as I read. A few prime examples:
It’s as if the morning is posing for June on a calendar.
There aren’t evil earth witches who look like Keith Richards with blood in their eyes.
If I’m having some kind of schizophrenic breakdown, the voices inside my head sound like Gandalf the Grey.
What I especially liked about Spellbinding is how real Abby’s inner life seems. Given the mean girls and their nastiness, having Abby consider using magic as revenge doesn’t seem like power gone mad — more like a reasonable response to intolerable circumstances. When you’re backed into a corner, who wouldn’t use their secret strength to get back into control?
Another noteworthy aspect of Spellbinding — and one that really differentiates it from the plethora of supernatural-tinged YA novels saturating the market these days — is that “normal” life is clearly the better choice. Yes, magic exists and is tempting, but it’s made clear that if Abby journeys down the path toward embracing her witchiness, she’ll be forever giving up an everyday life of family, friends, achievements, and true connections. Despite the temptations, Abby has a good head on her shoulders, and quickly comes to realize that power is no substitute for relationships that come from the heart.
Spellbinding does a great job of weaving magical elements into the broader story of a girl trying to find her way, come out of her shell, and find her place in the world. It’s not Abby’s witch heritage that really matters in the end; it’s the connections she’s made that give her strength and enable her to look forward toward a brighter and happier future. I’m very glad to have read Spellbinding. It’s a quick read, but one that should resonate with teen girls (and their moms!). The combination of romance, suspense, magic, and girl power is quite fun and full of (ahem) charm.
Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via Netgalley