A chance at the ultimate makeover means deadly consequences in this Sarah Dessen-meets-Robin Cook thriller
Aislyn suffers from crippling shyness—that is, until she’s offered a dose of Charisma, an underground gene therapy drug guaranteed to make her shine. The effects are instant. She’s charming, vivacious, and popular. But strangely, so are some other kids she knows. The media goes into a frenzy when the disease turns contagious, and then deadly, and the doctor who gave it to them disappears. Aislyn must find a way to stop it, before it’s too late.
Part medical thriller, part social justice commentary, Charisma will have readers on the edge of their seats.
What would you risk to overcome socially crippling anxiety? What boundaries should there be for gene therapy and the things science may be able to change through genetic manipulation?
Charisma touches a topic rarely addressed in YA literature – gene therapy and manipulation – and rather than turning the storyline into a dystopian treatise like so many other books, Ryan opted to give us a realistic turn of events in our modern time. I think that makes the whole subject slightly more eerie as the whole thing becomes that much more plausible.
Aislyn is painfully socially anxious – this goes way beyond shy. A good portion of the start of the book goes into great detail about just how deep seated her anxiety is and while that may make for a slower start it puts her daily battle into perspective. Those of us with anxiety disorders will nod along with her thought process and those who don’t have one will likely be sort of taken aback at just how debilitating it can be. The beginning is not the most exciting part of the story – but hang in there readers the pace definitely picks up and there are several plot twists that should take YA a readers in directions they may not have anticipated.
Much of the depth and thought provoking nature of the story comes in with the dueling story lines of Aislyn’s gene therapy and that of another character’s (I won’t give you any spoilers). As the reader you’re continually asked to think about where you would draw the line. When is it ok to play with our genes and when is it crossing a line? Given the changes on the horizon in targeted gene treatments that will likely affect the lives of today’s YA readers I think this is a meaningful topic for them to consider.
The cast of characters is large enough to keep enough different personalities going to engage readers without being overwhelming. Ryan does delve more deeply into some characters, but that works here because not all the characters need to be front and center. There are a couple love triangle-ish moments, but fret not, Ryan does not use that plot trick to drive the story and it is literally a few moments not a whole storyline. There is nothing overly salacious either in terms of language or imagery meaning it would work for a wide range of YA readers.
The book resolves well with almost all loose ends tied-up. There are enough plots twists to keep readers engaged and hopefully folks will get through the slower start to appreciate the fact that Ryan has tackled a topic rarely discussed in a non-dystopian setting. Overall, Charisma is an interesting and engaging read. It is not perfect, but perfectly enjoyable and offers significant food for thought on a relevant topic.
Grade: very solid B.