Review | The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, Teresa Toten

16280081The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is an important book, yet I think it’s for the very same factors that make it important that also made it difficult for me to connect with the book. I had the pleasure of meeting Teresa at a Random House blogger event a few months ago, and she basically stole my heart by talking about Puff, the Magic Dragon and reading from Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” So I read Unlikely Hero wanting, really wanting, to love it just as much as I loved meeting its author.

Yet I didn’t, and to be fair, I find it difficult to put my finger on just why I didn’t. Because Toten does a lot of things right. Unlikely Hero is about Adam, a teenage boy with OCD, who falls in love with Robyn, a girl in his support group. The members of the group are all given superhero nicknames, and Adam, naturally, chooses to become Batman to his Robyn.

Toten has clearly done her research on OCD, and it’s heartbreaking to see how difficult Adam sometimes finds such mundane tasks as entering a door. In one particularly moving scene, he invites his support group friends to his church and realizes at the threshold that he needs to perform an elaborate, ten minute or so ritual before he can enter. The other members of the group, and Robyn herself, are sensitive enough not to make a big deal out of it, and simply walk in to wait for him. Even more striking is another scene where he worries about his mother needing urgent help, but upon reaching his own front door, realizes he is unable to pass through, again without performing an elaborate, time-consuming ritual. Toten does a great job making Adam’s struggles real for the reader – his rituals form a barrier than almost feels physical, and thanks to Toten’s gift with language, certainly feels as impenetrable to us as to Adam himself.

There’s a touching sweetness to Adam. He desperately wants to be a hero, desperately wants to help Robyn overcome her own fears, and to rescue his mother from a hateful anonymous letter writer who tells her to kill herself. Yet, try as he might, he is unable to escape his own weakness – how can Batman save the world if he can’t even enter a doorway?

I think it’s this sweetness that, ironically, eventually sours me to Adam. He seems too earnest, his sweetness almost cloying, and he seems too close to perfect to be real. It’s not that he has no weaknesses – the source of his personal struggle is all too real – but the depiction of his heroic nature seems almost heavy handed, and I found myself searching for a character flaw.

Even the constant reference to other group members by their chosen superhero names – regardless of how realistic this may be – felt cutesy after a while, and I found it difficult to see them as real people. They serve mostly as a foil to Adam – we see their own OCD quirks, and see how they respond to Adam as an inspiration – but never really come into their own as characters.

Robyn, in particular, since we’re seeing her mostly through Adam’s eyes, appears a dream girl – yes vulnerable, yes struggling with OCD tendencies – but ultimately unreal.

As I said, this is an important book, mostly because of how much it plunges the reader into the experience of having OCD. I just wish the characters had a bit more of an edge to their personalities.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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