I think I’ve mentioned my penchant for psychological thrillers before. The only problem I really have with them sometimes is the plot itself can be fairly predictable. I expect the unraveling somewhere in the last 50 or so pages, but I know how it’ll end far in advance of that. Sometimes within the first five to ten pages I can guess it, even. It’s still often a worthwhile ride seeing how it plays out. So when I picked up Marianna Baer’s debut Frost and knew it was in this subgenre, I prepared myself to expect what I’d seen done a few times already this year.
But oh, was I wrong.
So, so wrong.
Leena’s a senior at a boarding school, and last year, she begged the Dean (with whom she had a very friendly relationship) to let her and her friends live in the small dorm house that sat slightly off campus named Frost House. It’d been an all-boys dorm for years, but she wanted to live there. It was an old Victorian, the kind so many of her dreams and romantic fantasies were wrapped up in. She, along with her three friends, managed to secure rooming there. But when Leena arrives and finds a new boy unpacking belongings into her room, she’d confused. While two of her roommates — Abby and Vivian — were already there for the semester and living in the single rooms upstairs, she knew her third roommate, Kate, wouldn’t be showing up until second semester, so her double room would be a single, at least for a few months. David, though, informed her there’d been a slight change in plans and his sister Celeste would be rooming with her for a month. Celeste broke her leg and needed to have a first-floor room and didn’t Leena know? Plus, it was just for a semester while his sister healed. Kate would be her roommate soon enough.
Leena’s unhappy with the arrangement, as she and Celeste weren’t always friendly, but even after talking with the Dean about it, Leena realizes she’s going to have to live with her. And Celeste…is more than a little disturbed. She’s dropped bugs all over Leena’s bed. She’s convinced the windows in the room are ruining her ability to sleep, and she’s unable to find any rest because there is endless knocking around them. Leena doesn’t experience any of this. Leena knows Celeste and David’s father has a psychological illness, one that’s heredity, and she can’t help but think Celeste might be tripping down that same road.
Leena herself is no perfect girl, though. She’s been hearing voices coming from an old wooden owl she keeps close as sort of a security doll. Oh, and inside that owl is a collection of drugs — mostly of the anti-anxiety sort — that Leena takes because she’s prone to fits, especially after the divorce of her parents. Leena also finds comfort in the closet in her room — the one which belongs to Celeste. It’s got a comforting feel and smell to it, one which reminds her of the attic in her parents’ pre-divorce home.
As Celeste spirals further and further into her thoughts about Frost House, she decides to leave the shared room and move into the tiny desk closet. It didn’t have the windows that tormented her. Leena takes this opportunity to spend more time in the closet which now belongs to her, and the more she realizes she needs to confront David about his sister’s descent into mental illness, the more prone she is to pop pills. Even ones she may have stolen from David and Celeste’s father on a trip to their house to celebrate his birthday.
When she finally confronts David, though, the results are totally unexpected; and then, there’s an even greater twist. One which literally left me shocked because I had been so, so wrong about where the story was going.
Frost has all the elements of a book I’m usually not keen on. The boarding school setting is a convenience a lot of times to eliminate parents, and often, I find the stories to be a bit immature or premature. There are notable exceptions, of course, and this is one. Leena, despite being a bit of a do-gooder, feels like an authentic senior in high school, as do the other students with whom she interacts. As can kind of be anticipated, there’s romance in the story, and even though Leena wants to stick to her guns about not being sexually active and not taking an interest in boys this year because she needs to focus on college and getting ahead in her life, she finds herself falling for David. Cliche, right? The thing is, as much as she and David begin a relationship, there’s something nagging in the back of her mind and in mine as a reader that the romance isn’t real. That it’s sort of contrived as a means for these two to spend time together and keep a watchful eye on Celeste. Neither would openly admit it, though. Baer is smart in developing this relationship — something I’d rarely say — as I think it was crucial to advancing the story without becoming a romantic cliche. Because really, how many boarding school romance stories do we need?
Celeste drove me mad, but only as equally as Leena did. The two of them had deep psychological issues and as a reader, I kept wondering when the shoe would drop. Was one driving the other mad? Were they exacerbating one another’s issues themselves? Celeste’s madness is much more physical than Leena’s, her body showing signs of damage everywhere, and it left Leena mentally tormented. She wanted to tell David, but she couldn’t shake the idea David might be the one leaving those bruises.
I found Leena to be an extremely likable character, and the biggest reason why was because she was so not perfect. She had flaws, and she did things she knew she shouldn’t. She was a real teen, acting before thinking. But more than that, she accepted the consequences for her actions. In the moments when she did think, that’s when things started getting to her (and to me as a reader). That’s when cracks began appearing in the story she told, too. Yet I wanted to buy what she was telling me because she admitted to her own faults and even felt guilty for her reliance on (stolen) prescription medications. Also, there’s something charming about a 17-year-old who needs a wooden owl named Cubby to fall asleep and to talk to. She was multi-layered and driven, but she wasn’t driven in a typical manner. At least, she wasn’t as the story moved forward. Obviously this was part of her unraveling, but it felt so realistic, too. Leena could only exert so much control over her life and her choices and then exert it over others, too. Eventually she lets things go she can’t hold onto, rather than try to be a hero for herself and everyone else.
Baer’s novel is tightly written, and I found myself poring over the language as much as the story. It’s lengthy, but it needs to be to develop and deliver the thrill to the reader. The book’s a page turner, with a nice speedy pace that kept me engaged from the first word through to the end. The main players in the book are fully fleshed and believable, and the secondary characters, who aren’t as well-fleshed, need to be that way. It’s integral to the story itself. As much as I wished I got to know Abby and Vivian a little better (they were Leena’s best friends, after all), I didn’t need to. The descriptions in the story are lush and vivid, and while reading, I could perfectly picture Frost House and I could hear the scratches and bangs within Frost House. I believed myself this place was creepy, but in each of those moments I thought Celeste might be right, I found myself wondering if maybe Leena was the real head case here. Leena had been hearing voices in her head — well, not her head, but from the owl she’d kept nearby. An owl which told her not only to medicate, but also to do a lot of destructive things.
For the first time in a long time, I was wrong about the twist. But more than that, I was so satisfied in being wrong. Thinking back on all of the things I’d read and all the clues I’d picked up, it made perfect sense. Even hours later, I sat on the story and the way it wove together and marveled at how I could be that wrong. Perhaps it was obvious, but I think that was a huge part of the story’s game, and it’s so successful, I can’t help think it was one of the smartest twists in a long time. And as I sat there, sitting in front of a hallow owl figurine as I read, I felt the chills. The frost, if you will.
Hand Frost over to your fans of psychological thrillers. It has its horror moments, but it’s not on the gruesome side of the horror genre; it’s extremely mental, so fans of that side of horror will find this a worthwhile read. Perhaps this is the kind of book, too, that will appeal to paranormal fans (the questions Baer raises in the story DO amount to whether or not other worldly beings are present) or those who are skeptical of paranormal stories (because of the otherworldly beings being present) but want a little of that flavor in their reading. This book was refreshing, surprising, and one that will easily make the list of my 2011 favorites. It’s so unexpected and startling, as well as haunting — but not necessarily in the ways I expected it to be. This was a book about the reader as much as it was a story about the characters.
Finished copy received from the publisher.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).