It’s a pretty chilly day in the Maldives before I say something like “I wonder if it would have helped if he had made the book longer?” But what other criticism can you give a 190-page book that manages to include (but is not limited to): a dead mother, a distant father, a computer-hacker love interest, a mad scientist, aborted fetuses, traumatizing rape nightmares, a man missing a finger, conspiracy theories, midnight sleuthing, a farm of “manipulated transgenetic reproduction” humans, mythology, and a flash-forward epilogue.
The Immaculata, in the plainest of terms, is not a great book. Criticism of prose/syntax/character development/whathaveyou aside, there is just too much going on too quickly in too short a space to be able to stitch together one cohesive story.
The central plot- a young woman searching for the truth about her mother’s death – spins out into countless tangents and digressions and pseudo-background filler that hamper what underneath could be a perfectly decent little thriller. Maybe even forget the “thriller” portion of it all – it could have been a perfectly decent little fiction. But what we have instead is a ruckus that pitches and heaves, giving us the crest of a story wave that never breaks. Let me explain:
The Main Story
Mary Ashton is trying to finish up her Master’s thesis living alone in her family’s Minneapolis mansion. She struggles though: her emotionally unavailable father isn’t around, she is plagued by traumatizing nightmares of rape which her manipulative boyfriend Noel explains is a symptom of psychological unbalance, and her new friend Merton (annoying name, I know) convinces her that there is something fishy about her mother’s death some twenty years ago. Distracting indeed.
As Mary and Merton (it doesn’t get any less annoying does it?) begin to delve into the mystery shrouding Mary’s mother’s death, everything unravels. It turns out there is a medical conspiracy going on and all sorts of people are involved: her father, her father’s colleagues, her boyfriend, the psychologist down the street. Mary does her best to learn it all by sneaking into a nearby hospital facility at night and poking around. Terrible (and deadly) shenanigans ensue – which isn’t surprising since the premise of the medical conspiracy involves harvesting genetically altered organs from lobotomized patients. If that isn’t a sticky wicket, I don’t know what is.
Deep down this is a book about complicated family relationships mixed with the dangers of overstepping science’s boundaries – and hey, why not throw in a love story and some seriously creepy dudes? However, Mr. Fern pitter-patters around, focusing on silly side stories and not really delving in. Example: We get a whole chapter on Dr. Ashton’s golf trip to Arizona with the evil Dr. King. There is dinner, there is an FDA chump who they try to weasel into getting more money. There are painfully cheesy “mine is bigger than yours” conversations:
Don’t forget your vulnerabilities, Joe. I’m telling you, if you screw this up… Well just remember your little princess. She’s a gifted young woman with a wonderful future ahead of her. A future I can take away.” Fern, p 14
The point of it all: confirming that the doctors are involved in dubious medical practices and Dr. King isn’t a nice guy. Couldn’t we have done all that in Minnesota… and in one paragraph?
It happens time and again: with Mary’s thesis on mythology stories, Mary’s nightmares, rushed scenes from within the mysterious medical facility, Merton’s computer hacking skills, Mary’s boyfriend’s fake job, flashbacks to Mary’s father when she was young. If Mr. Fern took that space to invest in his characters and their relationships, or hey, the actual plot, The Immaculata could have been a snappy read. 190 pages is plenty to spin out a good yarn – just as long as you don’t clutter it with obsolete details. At least a couple hundred more pages would have been necessary to make room for all the pieces in this book – but what a labor that would have been to read (remember, I’m leaving out criticism of characterization, syntax, dialogue, etc).
Overall The Immaculata was a first draft, something pounded out during National Novel Writing Month last year and never revised, never sifted through to uncover the true story gems before being self-published online. It feels unedited and, by the end, almost fantastical. A word to the wise (and Mr. Fern, in his future writing endeavors): introducing telepathy in the last third of any book is probably a bad choice.
Read The Immaculata, a Mystery by Brad Fern on the Kindle for $2.99.
It is also available on Smashwords.