Jul 29, 2010

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

A Mango-Shaped Space is the story of Mia, a thirteen-year-old girl from a small town in rural Illinois who has synesthesia. This means that for Mia, sounds, numbers and letters all have colours. But she knows better than to tell anyone about this: the first and only time she tried to, when she was in second-grade, she was called a freak by her classmates, and neither her teacher and the school principal nor her parents believed her. However, Mia’s synesthesia distracts her from her school work, and things are getting so difficult she knows she can’t keep her secret for much longer – even if she also knows that to reveal it will permanently change her world.

Ah, expectations. They are tricky, tricky things. I was really hoping I’d love A Mango-Shaped Space: first because the premise sounded so original and interesting, and secondly because both Shanra and Nancy did. But though the book has a lot of potential, ultimately it felt short for me. It saddens me to say this, but I didn’t find it more than average, less complex than I was hoping, slightly disjointed, and ultimately forgettable.

The first thing that disappointed me was the fact that I was expecting it to be a lot more science-y than it really was. I thought there was going to be more information on Mia’s synesthesia, and because the only thing I’d read by Wendy Mass before was her amazing (and very science-y) astronomy short story in Geektastic, I expected to learn some interesting neurological facts. Instead, the focus is more on how Mia experiences her synesthesia than on the facts themselves – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. But then there are scenes involving acupuncture and the ability to see people’s pheromones in action; scenes which are, well, speculative at best. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but I expected something different and much more solid when it came to the book’s use of science.

Secondly, I had some trouble believing the story sometimes. When Mia finally reveals her synesthesia (of course, she doesn’t know to call it that, but she describes the signs clearly enough), everyone remains sceptical, and nobody seems to have even heard of it before. I can believe this of Mia herself and of her peers – they are, after all, thirteen-year-olds. But when it comes to the adults in the story, it strains credibility that nobody would have the slightest clue what synesthesia is. I know synesthesia is quite rare, but I have the impression that despite its rarity it gets a lot of press, so it’s actually quite a well-known condition. Is this my BA in psychology speaking, though? Do people in general not have this knowledge?

Mia’s mother, who was a high-school science teacher before she got married, has no idea what her daughter is talking about. And neither does the GP Mia is initially taken to, nor the psychotherapist to whom he refers Mia. The psychotherapist says, confusingly, that she’s not a doctor because she’s not a psychologist. I could understand this if the distinction was between “psychiatrist” and “psychologist”, but in this case, I must confess I was a bit puzzled. Either way, she couldn’t possibly completely lack an education, could she? She suggests that Mia is only trying to draw attention to herself because she’s a middle child, and she seems to have no notion whatsoever that synesthesia even exists. It’s not that she’s heard of it but doesn’t believe Mia really has it. No, she seems to have no clue at all, which somehow I couldn’t bring myself to believe.

The condition Mia has is finally only given a name when her parents consult a neurologist from the University of Chicago, and knowing that what she has is not only identifiable but is also shared by others is a huge relief to Mia. I can understand this, but it seems to me that the story went a little too far to try to illustrate this point. On a relate note, A Mango-Shaped Space is set in a small rural community, and there are hints of class tension which are illustrated by the fact that Mia’s maternal grandparents never visit because they feel that their daughter “married down”. However, I felt that Wendy Mass took the supposed lack of knowledge of this small community a little too far. The fact that the characters aren’t city folks doesn’t have to mean they’ll all be ignorant, does it? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the fact that it felt this way to me was enough to pull me out of the story.

Finally, I felt that A Mango-Shaped Space was trying to be two books at once. This is both a story about Mia’s synesthesia and about… well, something else that I can’t give away. It’s not that the two stories are unrelated, but they didn’t feel fully integrated either, and as a result the book meandered a little bit, as if it were being pulled in two different directions at once.

Having said this, I still found A Mango-Shaped Space quite moving at times. But possibly this is because there’s something that happens in the story that always gets to me. I can’t read about this kind of thing without crying my eyes out, and this book was no exception. Sadly, this makes it hard for me to tell how much emotional power the story actually has, because it could simply be that my vulnerabilities and personal associations got the better of me.

A Mango-Shaped Space is a well-written novel, and I won’t say it doesn’t have its charm. I seem to be very much in the minority when it comes to finding it lacking, so make sure you read some other opinions before making up your mind. Considering the quality of the writing and how much I loved Wendy Mass’ story in Geektastic, I’d still like to try her again someday. Hopefully I’ll be able to get on with her other novels a little better than I did with this one.

Other Opinions:
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  1. Never heard of this one. It sounds unique and interesting. Lovely review!

  2. I think it can be surprising that many people go undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed on many conditions in many places. I actually haven't heard of synesthesia or it might be more correct to say that if I've heard of it I haven't paid attention to it because I had no context for it.

    But for example, my cousin, at 19 years of age, has just realized she has Asperger's Syndrome. When I think back to all of the things that have happened in her life and the way my aunt sometimes talked about her and all of the things they tried to do...well it just makes me sad.

    So maybe she didn't have to put it in a small town, but if you're skeptical of even small town folk not knowing about it perhaps she felt it would be more believable in this kind of setting for more readers.

    Not trying to give you a hard time! Just sharing some thoughts. Never read the book so I don't have any personal investment, just found your review very interesting. :)

  3. I'm sorry this didn't quite do it from you. I hadn't heard of this disease and would have to say that, especially in a small town, I can see a psychiatrist or doctor or anyone saying she is making it up. Especially if they are older and thus not educated very recently, they may not have heard of it. I do find it surprising that they wouldn't at least do a search on something that fits her description to find it, but knowing small town doctors (such as my own, growing up), I can't say I'm too surprised!!

  4. Mrs M, most people do seem to enjoy it a lot more than I do, so
    hopefully you would too.

    Amy, I don't think you're giving me a hard time! I was hoping you guys would tell me if you disagreed, because it can be really easy to misjudge how widely known something *you* happen to know actually is.

    Other Amy, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I did wonder if I was being unfair, but my trouble believing this was sadly enough to pull me out of the story, you know?

  5. That is really too bad. I've not read anything by Wendy Mass, but my daughter is quite the fan. I think she has read at least a half dozen of her books. Two of them have even been required summer reading. I'd be curious whether this book would better appeal to her - she definitely would vote for less science.

  6. I didn't read beyond a few chapters of this because it was just too young for my mood at the time I was reading. However, I don't find it unbelievable that none of these people had never heard of synesthesia. I grew up with syn and didn't know what it was until I was 27 and an exboyfriend of mine, who was finishing his doctorate in neurological sciences, found me and told me he'd seen a flyer for an experiment regarding syn and had looked it up. He was about to get his doctorate in neurological science and had never come across syn in any of his studies. It was just a random flyer of students conducting an experiment that caused me to know about it. Other than people I've talked to before about my own syn, I very rarely meet anyone who knows what it is or has heard of people mixing senses, which is essentially what syn is. So no, I wouldn't find it unbelievable at all that none of the adults had heard of it.

    I'm sorry this one disappointed you, though. I really do hope that when I'm in a different reading mood, I can go back to it and enjoy reading it.

  7. Thanks for this review! I think I might steer clear of this one, which is sad because it sounded so good!

  8. I'm disappointed that this was just average for you. I've just discovered Wendy Mass and have read 2 of her books, both of which I loved. I haven't tried this one yet, though.

  9. It is tough when our expectations simply don't match up, isn't it? Like you said, that's not necessarily the book or author's fault, but it can really take away from our experience.

    I'm going to have to agree with some of the other commenters...I don't really find it all that surprising that (except in the case of the pyschotherapist) people had never heard of synesthesia. I've been around a long time ;) and I only first heard of it a couple years ago...and that's only because Rich reads so many "brain books" and tells me about interesting tidbits. But we've witnessed this firsthand this year with Gray's selective mutism. Yes, it's rare, but still. We'd never heard of it. And Gray's school has never had to a child attending diagnosed with it before him, so it was a big learning curve for all of us. So anyway, I guess I find that whole part a little more believable than you.

    I had thought I wanted to read this book (Annie really enjoyed it), but now I'm not so sure. I think I would have enjoyed it being more "science-y" as well, but at least I wouldn't be going into it with false expectations. Anyway, I'm sorry it wasn't a better experience for you. May your next read be much more fulfilling! :D

  10. I could possibly buy her parents and the school faculty not knowing what it is, but when it comes to professionals like that, it would definitely snap my suspension of disbelief.

  11. Well, this is a bit disappointing. I've been looking forward to reading this book. It's fiction, isn't it? so personally I wouldn't expect it to be too detailed in the science side of things. Especially for a book written for a younger age group. And I have only heard of synesthesia very recently, from another book blogged about. I really don't know much about it at all. And no one I've talked to in real-life has heard of it before either. So I wouldn't be too surprised at characters in a small town being ignorant of it. I still want to read this one for myself!

  12. I think I'm pretty good at suspending my disbelief when reading, but because I study the brain, I have a pretty low tolerance for people who dabble with information but also throw in a lot of nonsense as well. I think I would have given up when people started seeing pheromones!

  13. It sounds like this is the book you were talking about when we were discussing the misrepresentation of small town life that sometimes happens in books. I agree with you, just because the main character lives in a small town, doesn't mean that nobody there will have ever heard of synesthesia. I can see that that wasn't the only problem that you had with the book though, and I am sorry to hear that this one didn't really work for you. I think your review was very insightful though!

  14. I agree that the lack of knowledge about the disease is rather unbelievable. Even reading that made me a bit annoyed.

  15. I read this book a long, long time ago so I don't fully remember how I liked it. After reading your review, I'd love to try it again just to see. But I can understand how frustrating some parts of the book must be, though!

  16. I was with you on the "surely people know about this?" end of the spectrum, but reading the comments, it looks like I'm wrong. It does feel like something that has come up in the popular imagination more often in the last 5 years. Most professionals were trained longer ago than that. Maybe it is one of those intriguing-information ghettos? The people who have heard about it feel like it must be everywhere because it comes into the kinds of stuff they happen to read; but the people who haven't heard about really haven't heard a peep about it--instead of everybody just "sort of" knowing about it.

    As an undergrad, some of my sister's friends called their band Synesthesia.

    I can guess from the cover what got you. One is draped over my arm as I type.

  17. That's very funny about the University of Chicago. My husband (who is a very rah-rah graduate) would respond to your review, well of COURSE no one would know except a U of C person! :--) But even aside from that, I guess I would agree with both Amys that there are plenty of professionals out there who aren't as qualified as others. I don't know that I would necessarily draw a dichotomy between urban and rural, although there is probably at least a correspondence, because the better you are, the more likely it is you would want to work in a place where the resources are to do the best job you could.

    Also, re terminology, psychotherapists are usually not medical doctors, at least in the U.S. Psychologists do not necessarily have competence in therapy, but may be doctors in the Ph.D. sense. Of the three, psychotherapists are the least likely to be a "doctor" in either sense, and can get licenses to practice in very specialized techniques without a broader education in psychology or science. So it's quite possible (but unfortunate) that the therapist never heard of synesthesia and/or would favor a diagnosis that reflects her own training.

    And I definitely agree with you - hate when books mix hard science with speculative!

  18. I've heard of this disorder before. It sounds fascinating. Too bad the book wasn't.

  19. Ugh. I hate small-town = ignorant hicks thing in books. But, I had never heard of synthesia until college, because a friend as an extreme case of it (all of her senses are crossed, so words have colors and sounds and tastes...)

    If you want a more science-y Wendy Mass, try Every Soul a Star which is fiction, but works a lot of astronomy into it.

  20. I read this a few years ago (before I started blogging) and really enjoyed it.
    I have an older cousin who has a Ph.D. in education who didn't discover that what she had was called synaesthesia until she was in her 60s. (She's in her 80s now)So I had no trouble believing people didn't know about it.
    I am kind of jealous because it sounds so interesting to have (a co-worker has it too) but I read another book (Still Waters by Nigel McCrery) where the condition was debilitating.

  21. Wendy Mass is one of my favorite authors, so I'm sorry to hear that it disappointed you. That said, however, she does tend to skew a little younger (more upper-middle grade than YA), and maybe that had something to do with your reaction. (I have it sitting on my nightstand; I was curious about it after I interviewed her...)

    And, like Jennie mentioned: try Every Soul a Star. It's quite wonderful.

  22. This does have a fascinating premise. Too bad the story itself fell short.

  23. Love that title, especially because the second I read it I started hearing Angus and Julia's song, Mango Tree, in my head. Might have to pull that CD out tonight!

  24. It does stretch things a bit to imagine that none of those adults knew what she was talking about or had heard of a condition like this, even if they didn't know the name of it. Sorry to hear it was a disappointment for you. It seems like the premise had a lot of promise but didn't deliver on it.

  25. The subject of synesthesia has always fascinated me; I started this book once but didn't finish. I don't know whether I'll pick it up again.

  26. Psychiatrist, it should have been. Surely. Is the psychotherapist a social worker? I'm confused by this distinction!

    I feel like I have always heard of synesthesia, but I come from a family of social worker type people. My sister told me not too long ago that the thing she and I both do of personifying days and months is a form of synesthesia--I was so surprised! I had thought it was just an unbearably twee little mental tic left over from childhood that I'd never managed to shake. :p And I read a blog post (I think) recently that talked about another symptom or form of synesthesia, which I also have. I wish I had one of the cool ones, though, hearing colors or seeing sounds.

  27. Ah, it's too bad that it didn't meet expectations. I did research on a girl who has synesthesia but of the lexical-gustatory variety (words have tastes, so when she said television, she would simultaneously taste strawberries). It's such a cool condition! There's also research to show that everyone is a little bit synesthetic like how one can taste a smell. like... "this tastes like that smells". It's so cool how the brain is crisscrossed and how our minds compensate for it.

  28. The premise does sound very interesting and so does the title. Sorry it felt short for you.

    I understand how it could be irritating when no body seems to have heard about the condition.

  29. I remember reading this book quite a while ago, and I quite liked it. I guess it always has something to do with expectations. I went into the book not expecting anything, and was quite charmed by it.

  30. I liked "A Mango-Shaped Space", but I think that's because I realized very early on that it's a very young book. It seems geared not for "young adults", but for old children - preteens or so. The writing style is so simple that reading this from an adult perspective can be frustrating, but I can see younger readers appreciating it all the more so. Not all young adult books are suited for adults... I suspect "A Mango-Shaped Space" falls into this category. Good, but not for everyone.

  31. I had high expectations for this book as well. I haven't read it yet, but the title and the premise sound so interesting.. I'm going to tone my expectations down a little if I ever end up reading it.

  32. Sandy: Hopefully I'll get on with her other books better. That one short story of hers I'd read before really was brilliant!

    Amanda: It's so weird how my instincts were completely off on this. But I appreciate you all setting me straight :)

    S. Krishna: I wouldn't un-recommend it - it seems that the things that bothered me wouldn't necessarily bother other readers.

    Kathy: I promise I'll try her again, as she really does sound like an author I should love.

    Debi, please don't let me discourage you from reading this! You might like it a lot better than I did. And thank you for your thoughts on synaesthesia being well-known or not.

    Clare: Even if my perception of this was wrong, that was exactly the problem - my suspension of disbelief snapped and I really couldn't get it back :\

    Jeane: It is fiction - the only reason why I expected it to be more science-y was because her short story was and I'd heard the novels were too. But apparently not this one! It was really just a matter of mismatched expectations.

    Steph: Yeah, the scene with the pheromones didn't really work for me. I know it's fiction, but I have a low tolerance when it comes to those things as well.

    Zibilee: Yes, this is the one. Judging by everyone's comments I think I might have been unfair, but the fact that I perceived it as painting small town characters as overly ignorant really lessened my enjoyment of it :\

    Trisha: It's so weird how we're in the minority here! I was talking to my boyfriend about this last night and he suggested that my familiarity with synaesthesia might also have to do with the fact that the term is widely used in literary circles. Since you're a professor, it would make sense that it'd be very familiar to you too. What do you think?

    Emidy: I think I was just expecting something different. I'll try Wendy Mass again, though. Have you read any of her other books?

    Trapunto: It does seem to be an information ghetto! I really did think it was more well-known than it actually is, even in a pop culture sort of way. Also *spoilers alert* you are far too perceptive, you know :P There's one on my lap right now as well <3.

  33. Jill: Yeah, I don't think she meant to imply that this was a consequence of it being a rural area, but I couldn't help but read it that way to some extent :\ About the terms, I was confused because over here we'd use psychotherapist and psychologist more or less interchangeably (for a therapist with a degree in psychology), whereas a psychiatrist WOULD necessarily be a medical doctor. I didn't know about the distinction between psychotherapist and psychologist, so I appreciate you clearing that up!

    Jessica: I'm thinking I'd love to read a non-fiction book on the subject.

    Jennie: Yes, exactly! And I'll acknowledge that Wendy Mass was probably not trying to imply that, but I'm sensitive to how small towns are portrayed and so it rubbed me the wrong way. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely try Every Soul a Star!

    Shonna: I can imagine that there are both pleasant and unpleasant things about having it. On the one hand, it sounds awesome, but on the other hand the world is structured in function of people whose senses aren't mixed up, so I can imagine how it'd be hard to adjust.

    Melissa: I'll make sure I read that one, then! I don't mind middle grave at all, but I was really expecting something different here.

    Brenna: It was quite a let down, yes :\

    Carl: lol!

    Kathleen: Yeah, to me it didn't, but I seem to be in the minority. So don't let me put you off!

    Stephanie: It might be worth it, as the people who love it seem to really love it. At least it's a short read!

    Jenny: That's what I thought too! Well, until Jill commented anyway :P I don't have any psychologists or social workers in my family, but my mother is a literature teacher and I'm wondering if that might have to do with it too. The word is also used a lot in relation to writing and figures of speech, so that might be what I feel I've always been familiar with it. And I think that what you and your sister do is kind of awesome :P

    She: It does sound cool! I wish I could randomly taste strawberries :P

    Violet: I was really puzzled, but it seems that I just wrongly assumed everyone would know it!

    Michelle: I do think expectations had a lot to do with it. Maybe I'll try it again sometime?

    Biblibio: You're right; I did expect it to be more to the YA side. Not that there's anything wrong with younger fiction, of course. I'll keep this in mind when I try Wendy Mass again and hopefully I'll be able to appreciate them for what they are.

    Iris: Probably a good idea, yes!

  34. Sorry this didn't live up to your expectations. I did psychology A Level and a degree in Biochemistry and Neurobiology and sill hadn't heard of this condition! Maybe her next book will resonate more with you...

    PS sorry for being absent from your blog for so long

  35. sorry it dissapointed, the premise does sound good though.

  36. This condition has always fascinated me. I am sorry the book did not live up to your expectations.

  37. Rhinoa: Nothing to be sorry about! It's great to see you back though :D And yeah, I think my instincts were completely off when it comes to how widely known synaesthesia is :P

    Naida: It was probably more me than the book. Oh well... better luck with my next one, hopefully.

    Christina: It IS a fascinating condition! I'd love to read some non-fiction about it.

  38. I have synesthesia but didn't realise it was anything different until my teens when I'd talk about colours when trying to remember a number, word or phrase. I actually thought that was just how you visualised your thoughts. I think I only know one other person who has something similar but a little different from mine (numbers and letters have distinct but hazy colours). It's never affected me negatively, just made it easier to visualise and remember things. So I'll give this book a go just to find out a little more about synesthesia. So thank you for bringing this to my attention!

  39. Ok, that is not a good review. I am a ten year old girl using my moms account. I read that book 12 times, and loved it each time. Acknowledge that this book was written for kids. I did a survey. I asked my three four science teachers if they knew what a synesthete was, not to mention two colledge science proffesors and my doctor. None but one teacher who had read the book knew. So anyone reading this comment, don't listen to the review. It is my favorite book along with several grown up friends who agree. It has lovely content. I have read 2006 books (yes i counted and yes they were all chapter books) which means it is REALLY good. I love science. But this book isn't a scientist. It is perfect for the perspective of a young girl. I am a synesthete. I found that out recently. I still love to read, even though it itches my eyes. It is THE BEST perspective you could have. Mia has the EXACT same kind as me, and it is PERFECT. So I'm sorry, but that was a stinky review. Everyone else, read on!

  40. Sara, I'm glad to hear you're such a big fan of the book yourself :) You don't need to tell people not to listen to me - as you'll surely notice if you read carefully, I did not once try to discourage people from reading it for themselves.

  41. The first time that Mia tried telling people about the colours was in 3rd grade not 2nd.


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