Sacred and Splendor, by Elana K. Arnold

Sacred and Splendor, the first two novels from YA author Elana K. Arnold, are ambitious, creative... and totally devoid of editorial judgment or restraint. The books contain a number of intriguing ideas, but the sum total is a hot mess.

Arnold's first book, Sacred, introduces 16-year-old Scarlett Wenderoth, who divides her life into two parts: "Before Ronny Died" and "After Ronny Died." Everything about Scarlett's life growing up on Catalina Island has changed since the death of her older brother. Her mother is nearly catatonic with grief, her father is struggling to take care of them both, and Scarlett herself is relying on a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms, from cutting to obsessive calorie-counting. When mysterious, beautiful Will Cohen arrives on the island, Scarlett can see that he is determined to save her from herself—but she has no idea of the strange compulsion that is driving his intervention.

In Splendor, Scarlett and Will's newfound happiness is already on the rocks. They have come to terms with Will's secret (SPOILER: His obsessive need to save people is rooted in Jewish mysticism), but he has left Catalina to attend college across the country. Meanwhile, Scarlett's parents have split up, her best friend is spinning out of control, and there's a new boy on the island who has caught her eye. Scarlett does her best to cope, burying herself in religious studies and spending time with her pregnant horse, but—for a small-town girl living on a tiny, usually safe island—she is still facing some spectacularly bad luck.

There are good things to be found in these books. In fact, I could see the bones of at least three really intriguing storylines Arnold might have explored:
A) Scarlett's recovery from grief. Forget all the Kabbalah stuff, just tell a story about a girl overcoming pain.
B) Will's special powers. Tell the story from his point of view, rather than making his gifts a poorly explored side plot. (Seriously, I had no idea someone could sideline something like magic derived from the Kabbalah, but Arnold does it.)
C) Contrast Scarlett's life with that of her best friend, Lily. One has overprotective parents; the other has parents too wrapped up in their own pain to pay her any attention. This might not be the most dramatic option, but a story about familial envy would probably resonate with a lot of teen readers.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on any one of the above options—or any of the half-dozen additional plot threads buried in these two books—Arnold simply throws everything at her readers and waits to see what sticks. The end result is a dizzying mish-mash more likely to cause emotional carsickness than evoke any genuine sense of melancholy or romance.

Review based on publisher-provided copies.
Posted by: Julianka


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