Whether you favor Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, Mary Lennox or The Three Investigators, “young adult” fiction tends to follow a familiar pattern: Precocious teenagers struggle to assert themselves in a cruel and confusing world. Their lives are shaped by secrets and grown-up mistakes, problems that started long before the protagonists were born. The main character is often an adolescent with a special gift that turns the established order upside-down.
For a 14-year-old, it is empowering to believe that an awkward child with a strong personality can defeat an alien invader or overcome racism after being blinded and shipwrecked on a remote island. Sometimes the youngster is just trying to figure out his place in the world, correcting the errors of bad parental figures. Other times, the kid is a messiah figure who must singlehandedly save the world.
In Marissa Kennerson’s new novel “The Family,” 17-year-0ld Twig is somewhere in between. She lives a simple life with a loving mother. She is part of a close-knit community. She is about to marry an extremely strong and charismatic man. Everyone cares about her well being, and she seems sublimely content with her life. The only problem is that Twig has grown up in a massive cult in the jungle, and everyone she knows has been brainwashed by her tyrannical fiancé.
Twig might never question her life among The Family, a reclusive clan of 183 so-called relatives, but then there’s an accident: As Twig rides a horse along the river, the animal bucks and tosses her to the ground. Panicking, The Family takes her to a modern hospital, where she is treated by Dr. Young, the first stranger she has ever met. Twig is immediately torn: She loves the comfort and familiarity of her compound, but she is also intensely drawn to the outside world.
As it happens, the “outside world” is Costa Rica. The novel takes place in the rain forests of Turrialba, and much of the story unfolds in this very country.
There is nothing particularly Costa Rican about “The Family.” Nearly every character has an Anglo-sounding name, and the story is more focused on Twig’s strange relationships than daily life in the province of Cartago. As she notes, The Family absorbs lost souls from all over the world, so the cast is diverse but mostly English-speaking. Kennerson might well have set her story in Brazil or Tanzania. But the author needed a place to settle her Jonestown-like community, so she picked Costa Rica. After all, The Family wouldn’t be the first loopy sect to establish a pseudo-utopian tribe here.
Where Kennerson excels is describing Twig’s limited point of view. Twig is perceptive and increasingly skeptical, and it’s nice to see a docile girl blossom into a self-reliant young woman. But she also has no idea what’s happening from scene to scene, and the more secrets she learns, the more hypocritical The Family seems. It isn’t until Twig awakens in the hospital that Dr. Young describes her outfit as “Amish.” Deep into novel, it’s suddenly apparent to the reader how strange The Family is. This isn’t a cult that wears blue jeans or jumpsuits. These guys are seriously old-fashioned. No wonder their leader, Adam, makes everyone call him “Father” – even Twig, the underage girl he plans to marry.
Most readers will recognize Adam as a manipulative psychopath the moment he appears at the wedding ceremony in Chapter 2. Every new page confirms this fact, and Twig becomes increasingly wary of him. In one passage, she starts to seriously reconsider their forced relationship.
Twig wondered if she herself would have fallen in love with Adam if they had been the same age when they met. If Twig had been a graduate student in Manhattan, had her own apartment and her own life. If Adam had draped her with compliments about her intelligence rather than grabbing her neck. You are mine now.
Given the propensity of male cult leaders to collect harems of young women, “The Family” tells a vital cautionary tale. The novel narrates a fairly G-rated version of sexual manipulation, but Adam’s intention is clear. While Kennerson doesn’t spend much time describing Costa Rica, she exposes an embarrassing truth: Foreigners are constantly showing up in Latin America with beatific visions, and they often treat these countries as uninhabited playgrounds for spiritual development. At one point, Twig asks a handsome outsider a provocative question: “Does it matter? I mean, if I’m part of an ideal society or a cult? I mean, of course it does, but for you and me, right now, does it matter?”
Twig wonders whether the boy can treat her as a person. But when it comes to self-deifying visitors claiming chunks of Costa Rica as their personal Canaans, is there a difference between pilgrims and autocrats?
“The Family” is available on Kindle.