Book Review: Transcendent by Katelyn Detweiler
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Source: Press Shop
FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Press Shop. All opinions are my own.
A beautiful work of magical realism, a story about a girl in the real world who is called upon to be a hero.
When terrorists bomb Disney World, seventeen-year-old Iris Spero is as horrified as anyone else. Then a stranger shows up on her stoop in Brooklyn, revealing a secret about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Iris’s birth, and throwing her entire identity into question. Everything she thought she knew about her parents, and about herself, is a lie.
Suddenly, the press is confronting Iris with the wild notion that she might be “special.” More than just special: she could be the miracle the world now so desperately needs. Families all across the grieving nation are pinning their hopes on Iris like she is some kind of saint or savior. She’s no longer sure whom she can trust—except for Zane, a homeless boy who long ago abandoned any kind of hope. She knows she can’t possibly be the glorified person everyone wants her to be… but she also can’t go back to being safe and anonymous. When nobody knows her but they all want a piece of her, who is Iris Spero now? And how can she—one teenage girl—possibly heal a broken world?
Katelyn Detweiler’s Transcendent is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. I’ll admit that I almost changed my mind about reading the book once I saw that it was about terrorists bombing Disney World and killing tens of thousands of people, many of whom were children. I just didn’t know if my heart could handle going there. I’m glad I gave it a chance thought because Transcendent turned out to be an incredibly thought-provoking read that resonated with me on many levels – both as a parent and as someone who has occasionally questioned my own faith when horrific events happen in the world.
What really intrigued me was that the terrorist attack itself is not really the focus of the novel. Instead, Transcendent focuses on the power of hope – what it takes to move people past grief and despair when tragedy strikes so they can begin the healing process and start to live again. In the case of Transcendent, that sense of hope comes in the form of a young lady named Iris Spero.
Seventeen year old Iris is living in Brooklyn at the time of the attack and, like the rest of the world, is going through the motions of her day-to-day routine, but all the while trying to wrap her head around what has happened – what kind of monsters would choose a target like Disney World, where the bulk of the casualties would clearly be innocent children?
Then as if the world hasn’t been thrown into chaos enough by what has happened, a stranger named Kyle Bennett enters the picture and drops a bombshell on Iris. Kyle and his family were at Disney World when the terrorists struck; one of his children died there and his remaining child was critically wounded. Desperate to save his daughter, Kyle has latched onto an old story from his hometown about the “Virgin Mina”, a young woman who turned up pregnant even though she claimed to still be a virgin. Though he didn’t believe the story at the time and gave Mina and the rest of her family a hard time because of it, Kyle has had a change of heart and has searched far and wide looking for Mina. He shows up on Iris’ doorstep, proclaiming that Iris is the “Virgin Mina’s” miracle baby and that she has the power to heal his daughter. Even though Iris’ family tells him he is mistaken, Kyle becomes more and more insistent that Iris is the miracle he needs, and when he doesn’t get what he wants, he outs Iris to the world and turns her world upside down as the media and every other person seeking a miracle begin coming at her from all sides.
What shocks Iris even more than Kyle Bennett and his seemingly ridiculous claim, however, is that Iris’ parents actually confirm Kyle’s story. Iris’ mom is, in fact, the famed “Virgin Mina” and they’ve been in hiding for Iris’ entire life in an effort to protect her identity and allow her to live a normal life. The bulk of the novel deals with the psychology of what Iris goes through as she tries to cope with, not only the issue of learning that her entire life up until this point has been a lie, but also the pressure of having so many people desperately clinging to the idea that she is some kind of miracle worker.
What I Liked about Transcendent:
Iris: I loved Iris and was immediately drawn to her kindness and her compassion. This is a girl who volunteers at the local soup kitchen to feed the homeless, plays her violin in the park for anyone who wants to listen – strangers, children, and yes, even homeless people. This is a girl who can’t stand to hear people spew hatred toward the Disney attackers, not because she doesn’t believe that they should be punished, but rather because she doesn’t think more hate is the answer. Hate won’t heal what has happened to their world. In some ways Iris almost seemed too good to be true, but regardless, she was very likeable and therefore I felt very sympathetic for her when Kyle spilled the beans about her. I thought the author did an amazing job here of conveying all of the conflicting emotions Iris experienced as she tried to make sense of what has been dropped in her lap – the initial denial, followed by the feeling that her parents have betrayed her, and ultimately her confusion about who she even is anymore.
Even if you’re hesitant to buy into the whole ‘immaculate conception’ scenario itself, Iris’ reaction to it is easy to relate to since she herself starts out skeptical. I was especially sympathetic to her need to disappear for a few days so that she could have some private time to come to terms with what she has learned about herself and decide what she wants to do about it. I mean, seriously, who can think when, through no fault of your own, the media and basically everyone in the world are suddenly standing there with their hands out wanting a piece of you and trying to make you into something you don’t think you are. Talk about pressure!
It Poses Big Questions: The power of Hope is a big theme in this novel, and a powerful one. Is hoping that someone or something is a miracle enough to actually bring about a kind of miracle – or in the case of this story – enough to heal those who are suffering so that they can live again? This is one of the questions that Iris ponders as she tries to decide what the right answer is – flee again as her parents did before she was born, or stand up and try to actually help people. Although I was very skeptical about the virgin birth angle initially, and like Iris, was wondering what a DNA test would show, by the end of the novel, I started thinking about the bigger picture – just because something seems to be impossible based on accepted laws of science, is it really impossible? Or can miracles actually happen? Should we be open-minded to that possibility? I always enjoy a book that gives me something to think about afterwards and, with these kinds of big questions, Transcendent did just that.
Magic or Religion? I really liked that although the idea of the virgin birth has obvious religious connotations, Detweiler seems to leave it open to interpretation as to whether this is a religious event or if something magical or supernatural has taken place. It seems like readers are free to interpret it in whatever way makes it best align with their own beliefs.
Issues I had with Transcendent:
Iris’ Family: Since I mentioned my skepticism earlier, let me go ahead and elaborate on that here. What nagged at me for most of the book was that I found it a little hard to believe how easily Iris’ grandparents and aunts bought into the whole idea that Mina was a pregnant virgin. I know my parents would have been like ‘Yeah, okay, whatever. Who did you sleep with? Tell us the truth.” What I learned after receiving this book from Press Shop, however, is that Transcendent is actually the second book in this series. The first book Immaculate, deals entirely with Mina’s story and how her family and her town reacted to the idea of a modern day virgin pregnancy. Although I think Transcendent works fine as a stand-alone novel because enough detail about Mina’s story is given so that you’re not lost, I still would have liked to have read it first so that Mina’s family’s lack of reaction and suspicion wasn’t an issue for me while I was trying to read and appreciate Iris’ story. I definitely enjoyed Transcendent enough that I do plan to go back and some point and read Immaculate.
Who Would I Recommend Transcendent to?
I would recommend Transcendent to anyone who enjoys reading uplifting books that make you think. I also think you have to have an open mind to the possibility of miracles, in particular, of a modern day virgin birth. If you’re not even remotely open to that idea, I think you would find the story so far-fetched that you wouldn’t enjoy it.
I read somewhere that the target audience for Transcendent is ages 14 and up and I agree with that assessment. I think the themes presented and the questions raised are on a level that high school students can appreciate.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Thanks so much to Viking Books for Young Readers, Katelyn Detweiller, and to Press Shop for allowing me the opportunity to preview Transcendent.