Review: The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten

16280081>>Published: August 2013

>>Finally got around to it: September 2013

Step one at this point comprised putting his forefinger and index finger together in a mock blessing. Fingers just so, Adam began outlining the entire door precisely two feet away from it. He had to do this five times to the right and seven times to the left. He heard it on the third time to the left. The crying.

Inside.

His heart sped up. But he couldn’t break through. What was it? Christmas? Another letter? Some fresh new hell? Adam muffed the last trace and had to start again. Now he was sweating despite the cold. First, trace out the door starting on the right side. Focus, Adam! Concentrate! The first round completed, he backed up for fifteen perfect steps and forward in the exact same steps as if they were marked. If he missed one, he had to start again. Not just to the backing up but all the way to the initial tracing. At his second full confrontation of the threshold, he had to extend his right arm as high as it could go and tap out the evil one hundred and eleven times. Again, if the position was incorrect or he got distracted in any way, shape or form, he had to begin all over. The final steps were palming the door handle thirty-three times in one direction and eleven times in the other, then turning it and pushing with both palms flat on the door with precisely equal pressure. The equal-pressure thing was tricky.

***

Adam Spencer Ross’s world is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. Still just a teenager, he suffers the twin problems of nearly unmanageable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—with a heavy focus on counting and thresholds—and needing to be the white knight for everyone around him. His family is splintered; he lives primarily with his mother, Carmella, but spends a significant chunk of time with his father, his stepmother, and his young stepbrother Wendell, also known as Sweetie, each with their own litany of mental and emotional irregularities. When the mysterious and beautiful Robyn Plummer joins Adam’s young adult OCD support group, he immediately falls head over heels in love—and inadvertently adds to his growing list of concerns yet another soul to save.

Teresa Toten’s ninth book, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, is an unconventional love story that manages to strike a fine balance between a believable and thankfully not melodramatic relationship between two somewhat-scarred teenagers, several small but not inconsequential mysteries, and a deliberately manic tone. The novel is written from the third person perspective, but warps itself stylistically according to Adam’s state of mind, which as the book progresses becomes increasingly scattered between emotional peaks and valleys. As Adam’s stress level increases, so too his counting, his issues with entering doorways/crossing thresholds (even entering his own home becomes a source of incredibly strain and unease), and the manner in which he jumps to conclusions, in his head playing out interactions with others to their greatest possible extremes. With the help of Chuck—Dr. Charles Mutinda—and the support of Robyn, he spends the majority of the novel coming to terms with the realization that the single greatest threat to his health and ability to improve is also the largest unchecked source of self-destructive behaviour in his family. Worse still, he lives with her.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B sidesteps nothing, preferring instead to address OCD and related compulsions, such as purging and cutting, head-on, without dressing them up unnecessarily as demons to be overcome or plagues of the self. The novel treats the disorder with respect, touching on some of the more troubling aspects of it without pretending as if there are any easy answers or dehumanizing the individual at the heart of the suffering.

In spite of his afflictions, Adam is still, at his core, a nerdy, role-playing teenager who wants desperately to be cool in front of the older, provocative new girl in class. The broken family aspect of the novel, while adding some drama to the proceedings, never overwhelms the tender story bubbling up between Adam and Robyn and what they over time reveal to one another. They remain relatable throughout the novel—one of the narrative’s biggest strengths.

The B storyline to Adam and Robyn’s burgeoning love revolves around Adam’s mother, Carmella, and the mystery surrounding the abusive and threatening letters she’s been receiving for some time in the mail. These letters tell her what a horrible person she is, that she’s ruining her son’s life, and that she should just do away with herself and be done with it. While the resolution to this storyline was somewhat obvious, it was no less heartbreaking; Carmella is fear personified—fear of losing her child, her partner in crime, when she’s already lost her marriage—and this fear leads, among other things, to dangerous hoarding.

As Robyn begins to show signs of improvement—a great deal of which occurs as a result of her being honest with herself and Adam about her reasons for being in the group in the first place—Adam gets worse, pulled further and further into the abyss of his mother’s out of control tendencies. The conflict at the centre of everything is Adam’s ability to maintain balance between his needs and the contrasting needs of those around him, which plays heavily into the white knight syndrome—while not name-checked in the story, this is more than apparent via his selfless actions. It’s easy to see how, as a result of this conflict, Adam’s ending is more or less inevitable; however, it’s his awareness of what must happen, and the acceptance of what he must do to arrive at the point that healing can commence (no matter how much of a punch to the gut it happens to be), that gives this story its tragic weight.

Toten’s writing is light and simple, which lends itself well to manic manipulation as Adam gradually loses his grip on the various situations surrounding him. To this end, some of the additional graphic flourishes within the text—particularly the comic book-style shout-outs—seem a bit excessive and didn’t really add anything to the story. On the opposite end of things, the greatest accomplishment of Toten’s writing is in how she helps the reader to better sympathize with and relate to Adam as he uses his compulsive counting to help calm his stepbrother Sweetie after a nightmare:

“Got it,” said Adam. None of them could ever figure out what the triggers were. What was it that set Sweetie off? “Right, so let’s think about something awesome, okay?” More nodding, less tentative now. “Let’s bring out the big guns!” He put his arm around his brother. Again, he felt the little heart thumping much too fast. “Only the prime numbers will do in a situation like this. Seventeen is cool, as is thirty-nine, and neither of us much likes going near the two hundreds, right?” Sweetie shook his head. He couldn’t count to the two hundreds, didn’t much know what they were, but if his brother said that they didn’t like them, then they didn’t like them. “Okay, so let’s both of us think about the real beauty in the bunch, one of our favourite truly superior prime numbers. Let’s think about the number eleven! Got it? The one and the one? You love eleven. See it?”

I also appreciated that while there was a definite religious component to the story, it was identifiable as a bandage and not in any way as a cure—something to help Robyn and the others in the OCD support group to experience a new form of support, one that might assist them with overcoming at least some of what troubled them without imparting any specific views or doctrine.

The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is a lovely little gem of a book that embraces imbalance and all the horror and wonder that it can spawn. The ending, while painful, carries with it a great deal of hope for Adam’s future. It promises a long road to improvement instead of wrapping everything up in a nice pretty bow, and that degree of restraint affords Toten’s novel a certain amount of quiet authenticity.

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