Review: Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
By Jenniffer Meng
WARNING: This review is not spoiler free and will reveal specific elements of plot, character, and device. Reader discretion is advised.
Mosquitoland by David Arnold follows the journey of a young girl named Mim Malone, as she travels on a Greyhound across the States in order to visit her sick mom, whom she hasn’t heard from in quite a while. Along the way, she meets a mish mash of characters who ultimately lead her on a less than direct route from Mississippi to Cleveland--some of which include a sweet old lady, a man in a poncho and a cute photographer.
I bought this book quite a while ago due to its intriguing cover and seemingly character-driven plot full of adventure and roadtripping. I knew very little about the book when I first picked it up and when I first began reading it. Reading Mosquitoland reminded me of not only who I was in the past, but who I absolutely wanted to avoid becoming in the coming future.
To begin, Arnold’s writing style is extremely straightforward and simple, which made the book incredibly easy to get through but lacklustre. Mosquitoland isn’t the kind of book I expect to do something completely out of the box, so the writing gets a pass this time around. We see events unfold from Mim’s point of view, which results in a lot of cringeworthy teen speak and unreliability narrative-wise. I enjoyed the weaving of letter writing and narration, though by the end of the book, I truly believed that even without the inclusion of the letters, the emotional impact would have been exactly the same. Overall, there was truly nothing new or shocking to be explored in Mosquitoland structure or writing-wise.
Moving onto plot, the plot appeared simple enough: a teenage girl goes on a trip to visit her sick mother, and on the way she meets a variety of figures to teach her numerous life lessons that would surely be applied later on in the story. From the Greyhound flipping onto its side, killing one of the least annoying figures in the story, to Mim being both sexually and physically assaulted over the course of less than a week, the plot is chock full of moments which ultimately do very, very little to develop the characters.
Let’s take for example Mim’s journey to see Ahab. By the very end of their interaction, it was impossible to see what exactly she gained from seeing Ahab, besides fulfilling Arlene’s wish. In fact, neither party seems to be affected by this meeting. We get the introduction of Walt, and some Karate moves, but the impact--the payoff--of their meeting is never shown as the book continues onwards. You could argue that not every interaction with another person requires a life lesson or new found character trait, but you’ll find that this happens over and over and over again with nearly every single character that Mim meets--including Beck and Walt.
Speaking of characters, let’s talk about them. It becomes more and more apparent as the book progresses that none of the characters seem to have or develop a personality that is complex or intriguing in any way whatsoever. 99% of the characters are dealt with off screen or almost never heard from personally. Even Beck and Walt, who I consider secondary characters, simply...disappear by the end of the book?
With Mim, the book does quite a job at hammering in the fact that Mim is not like other girls, a trope that is becoming more and more common as young adult books are released. Mim is not like other girls, because she wears sneakers and is a lone wolf and doesn’t find popular men attractive. Wow. Very unique. There were many things I found incredibly infuriating about Mim’s character.
First, the woman-on-woman hate was incredibly frustrating. The most apparent example of this is seen at the veterinary clinic, in which Mim dislikes the female veterinarian for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The vet smiles at Beck, explains Walt’s situation, and goes on her merry way, but Mim seems to have to stare needles into this woman because…?
Moreover, her dislike of her stepmother is, quite literally, never explained. To this day, weeks after finishing the book, I still have no clue as to why Mim disliked her stepmother so deeply when it becomes obvious right from the gecko that her stepmother actually cares more for Mim than her own father. Relationships are simply never fully developed and left so open ended that ultimately, the reader doesn’t care for any of them.
Finally, it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room: the book’s depiction of mental heath and sexual assault.
Regarding the latter, I appreciate the depiction of sexual assault, as I felt that the scene itself was realistic, as well as the character’s actions. That being said, I felt that Mim’s reasoning behind refusing to report the assault to the authorities--which was the fact that she would no longer be able to see her mother--was incredibly problematic, especially considering the ramifications of her actions. There were multiple ways the situation could’ve been handled while at the same time advancing the main plot. In serious situations such as these, so many of us have trouble turning to or finding people that will listen and help us. This story could’ve turned into a narrative of how society simply doesn’t believe victims of sexual violence when it occurs, and thus shames them into a culture of silence. While this doesn’t necessarily excuse the ramifications of her refusal to report the incident, it explains her reasoning less problematically than the one written. Additionally, considering the extent to which Mim has isolated herself from family and friends and suffers from mental illness, the book could’ve easily continued to explore this theme of disbelief and silence, bringing into light the fact that those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and less likely to be believed when violence does occur.
This brings me into another issue of representation within the book--specifically scenes in which a man supposedly with schizophrenia attempts to rob and attack Mim and Walt, Walt’s complete absence personality and plot-wise, and the reveal at the end with regards to the letter writing. The latter was especially upsetting, as it could’ve been a great moment to highlight inherited mental illness, and build a family dynamic of both care and resentment. Instead, the reveal was handled clumsily and ultimately did little to develop the characters or themes in any way whatsoever.
Overall, Mosquitoland is a textbook example of tackling too much at once, and thus never fully tackling one thing to its fullest extent. The book doesn’t read as one story, but as a collection of snippets that never feel quite finished nor develop into something greater by the end. The minor characters serve little purpose, Mim is infuriating, and Arnold’s attempts to write something that borders the line between young adult and literary fiction ultimately fall short of creating a truly insightful commentary with regards to adolescence and growth.