Reviewed by Stephanie Dror
Teresa Toten was never going to be an author, and then she was. Originally from Croatia, Teresa grew up in Toronto, attended the University of Toronto taking Political Economics, then married, and moved about the country. Toten’s own tale is fascinating, and she manages to wrap her characters in layers of context that make them equally captivating and realistic.
The Unlikely Hero of 13B follows 14 (soon to be 15) year old Adam Spencer Ross whose life, is becoming increasingly difficult to manage as he ages. There are several looming difficulties in his life but none as big as his nearly unmanageable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and his need to quite literally become a Knight and save everyone around him. His parents’ divorce has split Adam in two, though he lives primarily with his mother, Carmella and shuttles to the home of his father, stepmother and young stepbrother Wendell (aka Sweetie). It becomes clear through Adam's narrative that every person he knows suffers from some sort of mental and emotional irregularity. It seems that no one is ‘normal’ and that everybody hides it.
Every week Adam attends his young adult OCD support group, which is where he meets his one and only true love Robyn Plummer. Their therapist, Chuck, has asked them to take on an identity of someone they admire and so the group becomes a mishmash group of superheroes (and Snooki). Adam, as Batman, embarks on his mission to save Rob(i/y)n.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is an unconventional, charming and believable love story that strikes a deliciously delicate balance between Adam's relationship with Robyn, the OCD group and his family. The book is peppered with several small mysteries and the slowly escalating tone of Adam's manic third person monologue. As Adam's stress level increases so do his compulsions, but with the help of his support group, Chuck, Robyn and a little sprinkling of spirituality, Adam comes to realize that the greatest threat to his health and his ability to improve is living with him in his childhood home.
Toten shies away from nothing. OCD and its powerful affects on Adam are met head on, revealing to unsuspecting readers how crippling it can be and how brave those who deal with it are. Adam's will to overcome and normalize his condition combine with his immense compassion to make him a character to support. Above all else, Adam is just a normal nerd who loves to play Warhammer with his best friend, who enjoys the company of his delightful stepbrother, and who yearns for a good bowl of lamb stew.
The Unlikely Hero of 13B is a gem deserving of the Governor General’s award. Toten's writing is light, lending itself well to the mania of Adam's mind. Artfully, and through scenes where Adam uses his affliction to help others, Toten has made the mind of a teen afflicted with OCD sympathetic and relatable. The addition of graphic flourishes plays nicely with the superhero theme of the OCD group and while there is an unmistakable religious component to the story, it is identified as a bandage and not a cure.
The conclusion of the book is painful, but within that pain lies a great deal of hope for Adam's future. It promises improvement but with a great deal of work. Nothing is tied up neatly or even completely resolved, yet this is so heartbreakingly real that it is all the more impactful. The care with which Toten deals with mental illness and the way her story flows through sharp turns and cliff-hangers through to its inconclusive end, lends the novel a certain amount of authenticity. It is a compulsive read with a main character you will obsess over.