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Transparent

Natalie Whipple's debut young adult novel about an invisible teen fleeing her gangster dad is buoyed by well-executed plot twists.

By Katie Beim-Esche / June 26, 2013

Transparent, by Natalie Whipple, HarperCollins, 368 pp.

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In her debut novel, Transparent, Natalie Whipple presents an imaginative tale of an invisible teenager on the run from her mobster father. Though not as effortless as some other sci-fi/young adult titles, the skillful world creation and tricky final plot twists on display in this novel make it well worth reading.

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Sixteen-year-old Fiona O’Connell is the most powerful secret weapon of her father’s Vegas crime syndicate. Though “gifted” people are nothing new in her world, she’s the first-ever invisible person – famous but unidentifiable, and potentially deadly.

As such, Jonas O’Connell keeps a tight leash on Fiona and her telekinetic mother, Lauren. It helps that he’s a Charmer, or someone with a pheromone mutation that makes him chemically irresistible to women. Once hooked, women obsessively seek his approval; “detoxing” requires painful withdrawal.

Since Fiona’s childhood, Jonas has trained her as an expert thief. Her resumé includes multimillion-dollar bank heists, spying, and grand theft auto. But when Jonas signs Fiona up to murder members of a rival syndicate, she and her mother flee to the fictional one-horse town of Madison, Ariz.

In Madison, we learn about past escape attempts and meet Fiona’s brothers. Her oldest brother, Graham, leads the O’Connell syndicate’s brute squad (read: not her favorite person). As a Flyer, he’s literally lifted them out of hiding before. Older brother Miles was dismissed by their dad long ago as useless – his gift is scent mimicry, which, while funny, is hardly valuable to a crime lord. Fiona and Miles are especially close, and they stay in daily contact while Miles tries to secure their freedom back home.

Fiona also attends school for the first time. “Dad never let me go to school,” she explains. “I didn’t need friends or a real education or a boyfriend. All I needed was a lockpick to open doors and a Swiss Army Knife to disable security cameras.” There she is adopted by a group of gifted students, each with their own creative superpowers and dark secrets. Voice-throwing Bea and super-strong Brady become her support system, as does cranky but perceptive math tutor Seth. Individually and collectively, her friends show her what positive, trustful relationships can do, especially when Jonas finally tracks her down.

As the cast of characters expands, it becomes clear that Whipple spent time thinking about how gifts work: Backstory gems are sprinkled throughout. Some raise more questions than they answer (how can an invisible girl get sunburned?), while others show significant depth of planning and detail (Flyers have a maximum altitude of 100 feet, and lift off by releasing helium). I laughed aloud reading a “scientific” conversation with Bea about Fiona’s invisible spit. Not every author thinks the world through that deeply, let alone describes it in the actual book.

Whipple also explains early on why people have gifts at all. Anti-radiation drug Radiasure was invented in the Cold War to be taken in a nuclear holocaust. Fearful people consumed tremendous quantities of the glowing blue pill, and a few years later, babies began to be born with increasingly bizarre mutations. Though banned, Radiasure rules the black market: One ability-enhancing pill costs over a thousand dollars.

The gifted world has a refreshingly balanced array of abilities in which not all gifts are useful or even pleasant. For every instance of super speed, mind control, or extra-sensitive hearing, you’ll also find glow-in-the-dark hair, chocolate-scented breath, and thick coats of body hair.

If there’s an Achilles heel in "Transparent," it’s weak relationship development in the first several chapters. Fiona’s early exchanges with her mom are emphatically angsty, even for a YA novel. She whines, “I hate when she tries to take care of me, like it makes up for everything she’s done wrong.” When Lauren says she worries about her daughter, Fiona snaps before storming out, “Where was your worry for the last nine years?” However, with long-term exposure to normalcy and nice people, this relationship really matures.

Similarly, Fiona and Bea’s relationship rockets from bristly to “besties” far too quickly, and a crush on strong-chinned Brady appears just as suddenly. While these accelerated friendships do keep the story moving, the transitions were a little abrupt. Perhaps chapters with more exposition were slashed for concision. These issues fade away, though, in light of several crucial, well-executed plot twists in the final chapters.

For a novice author in a popular genre, "Transparent" is a solid debut. Natalie Whipple won me over with thoughtful backstories and an original premise, and I’m looking forward to her sophomore novel, "House of Ivy & Sorrow."

Katie Beim-Esche is a Monitor contributor.

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