Review: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson *Spoilers

At the time of my writing this, I have just finished Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath, the second book in her series, The Shades of London. Literally, I closed the book ten minutes ago.

The excitement I feel right now is comparable to a five year old child running downstairs on Christmas morning and finding a brand new bicycle, or a puppy, or a dinosaur, or a spaceship. That’s the kind of excitement that only happens after I finish a good book and am so incredibly excited about what I just read that I have to go back and immediately reread all my favorite parts while simultaneously Google searching on when the next book in the series will be published. And this was a really good book.

Rory, the narrator, is recovering from the trauma of being stabbed and nearly disemboweled by a vengeful ghost, and is trying to re-assimilate back into her life at her high end London prep school. The school in question, however, isn’t the drama filled hierarchy of false friendships that one might expect; it’s a normal school where the students try to scrape by under an enormous workload, sneak out after hours, and Rory’s biggest school-related concern is trying to get out of P.E. Meanwhile, she is reconnecting with her fellow ghost-seeing friends and dealing with ghosts just like normal (normal for her).

Let me say this: no one writes female protagonists like Johnson. Rory, the narrator, is funny, witty, smart, and strong, and more than anything, she’s believable. When she talks and does things, they are actually things that a real person would do or say, while, at the same time, being things that she would really do or say. This kind of character development is true of the rest of the characters, creating a group of people the reader could imagine actually existing. Characters like Boo and Stephen could easily be pushed to their extremes, Boo being a hyperactive, vapid comic relief figure, and Stephen a tight-laced, type A control freak, but both of them show a depth of character in and out of conflict that creates a lovely dynamic with Rory’s not-overbearing spunkiness

What struck me the most about this book was the way Rory’s normal problems mixed with her supernatural problems. Unlike in Johnson’s first installment of the Shades series, ghosts are not the main problem in the book; people are. There are one or two ghosts who make trouble from time to time, but the main points of conflict come from the living characters, which is an unexpected, but refreshing turn of events. How people act around her as a result of her status as a trauma victim and her constant, necessary lies to hide her ghost-inspector life from her classmates and parents are the main points of contention throughout the entire book. The biggest conflict and moment of emotion I had in the book wasn’t when Rory got kidnapped, but when she found out she would fail out of school; the feeling of crushing shame she felt, in the wake of completely understandable circumstances and despite everything she had survived, resonated with the overachieving student in me.

Something that stuck with me long after I finished the book, however, wasn’t about Rory’s life with the living. Nowhere in this book was there any mention of what Rory wears, looks like, does with her hair, or if she worries about how she looks and if she looks “good” or not. Even when she is getting ready for her first real date with her boyfriend, the only description of her outfit/hair/make-up is in parenthesis: “(wearing jeans, hair up)”. Rory at no point compares herself to other girls, or wishes her hair were a different color, or that she was thinner or more athletic, she just argues with Stephen and tries not to kill ghosts accidentally. A crisis in self worth and sense of self only comes when she finds out she will most likely be asked to leave the boarding school because she won’t pass any of her finals, because she got stabbed by a murderer and missed nearly the entire term while healing and going to therapy for trauma. When she breaks up with her boyfriend it is because she feels guilty when having to lie about what she’s been doing (hunting ghosts). Then, when the big romantic scene arrives between her and Stephen, the conversation they have is not one where he tells her how beautiful/amazing/fantastic/different-from-other-girls she is, or even how much he’s liked her for so long. It happens when her friends have rescued her from a cult, she finds out they have kidnapped one of her classmates, and the conversation they are having can be summed up as, “This all sucks, but you’re still alive and not with that crazy lady, so we can all work together and fix this and everything will be okay probably.”  Johnson has created a plane where physical beauty and the importance of looks are robbed of influence by not being discussed at all. I think that’s sort of genius.

I will now wait with zero patience until the third installment is published. The Madness Underneath is a great read for anyone looking for believable human moments, witty teenage dialogue, and characters that a reader can get too attached to. I should also note that I finished this book in a matter of days, while working most of the day, so it’s a fast read, partially because I wasn’t able to put it down. For the few hours in which you will burn through it, this book is a great read.

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